Temporary Exhibition (Opened 8th December, 2021)
Colmcille: Sacred objects of a Saint - 1500 years of devotion
This exhibition celebrates one of Ireland’s three patron saints on the 1500th anniversary of his birth, through a selection of famous artefacts associated with him.
His name was Colum, Columba in Latin, and he became known in the Irish language as Colm Cille. He was reputedly born in Co. Donegal and he lived during the sixth century AD. He is renowned both in Ireland and in Scotland, through his association with Iona, and his legacy has endured to modern times.
Objects associated with saints were revered in the medieval period and it is the objects associated with Columba that are the focus of this exhibition. The exhibition features a bell associated with St Columba, two book shrines and a crosier or staff. These objects are enigmatic treasures, many of which were made over 1000 years ago. This exhibition also celebrates the remarkable story of their survival. Many of these artefacts were not dug from the ground but were held by families of hereditary keepers, passing this important duty from generation to generation.
Elaborate shrines were made to contain artefacts that were associated with saints and these were often embellished and inscribed over the centuries. The best-known of these is the Shrine of the Cathach, a book shrine dating to the eleventh century that was made to contain a seventh century manuscript known as the Cathach, or the ‘Battler’. The Cathach was believed to have been written by St. Columba. It was the battle standard of the O’Donnells, Columba’s kinsmen, and is regarded as the chief relic of the family. Written accounts tell of the Cathach being brought into battle, its power invoked to ensure victory. An inscription on the back names its maker, Sitric, who may have learned his craft in the Viking town of Dublin.
These shrines were symbols of power, authority and sanctity. They were used for collecting tributes, swearing oaths and for sealing agreements. Their power could be invoked for curing or for cursing: drinking water from the Bell of St Columba was believed to cure disease.
Care of these relics was entrusted to the hereditary tenants of church lands, several of whom held the objects for generations until the nineteenth century. Many were acquired from these families by the Royal Irish Academy and were later transferred to the National Museum of Ireland.
A beautiful embroidery of Columba by Lily Yeats, made in the 1920s, represents the continued legacy of St Columba which endures in the social, political and cultural life of Ireland into the twenty first century.
You may be interested in our Colmcille 1500 series of lectures. This online series of talks explores medieval objects associated with St Columba. Starting in October, 2021 with a talk by Cormac Burke, the first talk explored the functions and use of Irish hand-bells, including those associated with Colmcille. That talk was be followed in November, 2021 by a talk by Dr Paul Mullarkey, NMI, which explored book shrines, with a focus on the Shrine of the Cathach. The last talk is scheduled for 8th December by Dr Griffin Murray, UCC, who will discuss crosiers associated with Colmcille (Columba), and concentrate on discussing St Columba’s crosier from Durrow, Co. Offaly.
Colmcille: Sacred objects of a Saint - 1500 years of devotion is located at:
This exhibition celebrates of one of Ireland’s three patron saints on the 1500th anniversary of his birth, through a selection of famous artefacts associated with him.
Events Related to this Exhibition
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