Monday, September 22, 2014

Island Life | Part II | White Island

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< Part I | Part III >

White Island from the jetty
Following on from our trip to Boa Island, we decided to head for White Island, about 10 miles to the south-east by road, and still in Lough Erne. This one you can’t drive to, so we had to get a boat from the Castle Archdale marina [map]. And that’s where it went wrong … the sign clearly said that the boat ran from 11am to 6pm and that they took lunch from 1pm to 2pm, with departures every hour on the hour. We arrived at a little before midday only to be told that the boat would be coming back at 12:00 and the next outgoing sailing would not be until 2pm. It was little annoying, but hardly a burden as the area has some lovely walks and shady trees. Most importantly for my sons, the Castle Archdale campsite had a play park with swings and a slide, and the adjacent shop sold ice cream. By 2pm it was getting hot and both the children and I were getting restless. We’d walked the walks, we’d eaten our fill of ice cream, and we’d certainly seen enough of the play park. All three of us were pretty ratty and feeling bedraggled by the time the gates opened to let us on to the boat. Once clear of the marina the light wind was beautifully refreshing. We were only chugging along in a little lake ferry, but the breeze coming in off the placid water was just what was needed to revive our dropping spirits.

Overview of the church and enclosure, from the north-east.
Overview of the church and enclosure, from the north-west.
No more than 15 minutes later and we were disembarking onto the White Island jetty. Pretty much the only upstanding archaeology on the island is a small church, quite near the shore. It’s on the site of an earlier monastery and boasts an intact, if reconstructed, arched Romanesque doorway. The doorway is lovely, but it’s not worth a long journey to Fermanagh and a wait of over two hours for the boat. Not even close! But that’s not what we were here to see! Along the inner face of the south wall there are some seven carved figures and one carved head. As a group, they are unique in Irish archaeology. Hickey (1976, 1985) argues that, on stylistic grounds, the figures date to the period from the 9th to the 11th centuries AD, before being incorporated into the walls of the 12th century Romanesque church. Hickey (Op. Cit.) draws parallels between the work of the ‘Master of White Island’ and the Irish High Crosses, along with illustrated psalters of the period. The styles of the costumes and personal ornamentation (crozier & penannular brooch) are also consistent with this dating. She dismisses as ‘fanciful’ all other theories, including the idea that they represent an episode from the life of St. Patrick as set out in the Vita tripartita Sancti Patricii. The carvings are paired in terms of height to form three pairs of caryatids and it is thought that they were used together to form the stepped base for an ambo - a pulpit or preaching chair used in the early church. In this way, each pair would have supported a wooden step. The figures have shallow sockets on the tops of their heads, suggesting that they may have held a larger superstructure of some sort. Today, these are used as receptacles for coins deposited by tourists, in the same way that coins are placed in the head of the Boa Island figure. It is suggested that this is a relatively recent development and that they were not used in this way in the 1970s (Anne Given, pers. comm.). Hickey notes that one of the statues (Christ with the gospel book) has two sockets in its head, not one. The matching figure (the grotesque female image) may also have been carved in the same way, though it is difficult to be certain owing to damage to the carving. She speculates that they may have had a different function to the rest of the group – perhaps being used as supports for an altar or credence table. In such a situation, the other two caryatids may have functioned as the supports for a sedilia.

Reconstructed 12th century Romanesque doorway
Interior of east window in 12th century church 
However they were originally utilised, they represent a unique corpus in Irish Early Christian art. I hope you enjoy the photos below and will consider coming to Northern Ireland and adding an excursion to White Island to your trip!

Overview of figure carving group
Sockets in the heads of the caryatids, today holding coins
Overview of group. Descriptions of individual figures (left to right) are adapted from Hickey (Op. Cit., 35-42).

Grotesque figure. Female figure with bulging cheeks and crossed legs, naked except for a round-necked cape covering the upper part of the body. It could be interpreted as an illustration of Lust and a warning to the monks against the sins of the flesh. The crossed legs, recalling the squatting Buddhic posture of pagan gods, suggests once again the survival of earlier traditions in this locality. A further clue to the meaning of this statue is to be found in Muiredach's Cross, where a somewhat similar female figure with splayed legs is shown in its magnificently composed judgement scene, where she is significantly placed among the Damned.
Christ holding gospel book. Seated figure holding a rectangular object on his knees, probably a copy of the gospels, perhaps within a box shrine. He wears a short-sleeved collared 'leine' with a front seam between the waist and the hem. This statue probably represents christ, although the evangelists are sometimes portrayed in a similar manner in illuminated manuscripts.
Statue with bell and crozier. Christ abbot of the world? The veil-like hood has been interpreted as evidence that this figure was a nun or abbess. However, the presence of bell and crozier would suggest that the hood identifies the figure as either a travelling abbot or bishop or as an anchorite abbot or bishop. In the Irish Early Christian period these episcopal items were used to identify both abbots and bishops, though the inward pointing crozier was more usually an indication of an abbot. Hickey notes that the term ‘Abbot of the world’ is applied to Christ in a number of Irish texts & the description would fit with the symbolism. She adds that it is also possible, but less likely, that the figure is St Anthony of the Desert, the first abbot. Anthony was frequently depicted on High Crosses, including Muiredach’s Cross, where he holds a similar form of hooked crozier. His popularity is linked to the origins of Irish monasticism in the anchorite tradition of Egypt. 
David. The hand gesture to the mouth is a reference to David’s role as author and performer of psalms. This identification is further bolstered by the form of his staff, which is similar to two 10th and 11th century psalter illustrations. In 1 Samuel (17: 40) David is described as confronting Goliath, armed only with a shepherd’s staff and his sling. This ammunition, five smooth stones, hung in a bag. The item hanging from the waist of this figure may be interpreted either as the bag of ammunition, or the sling itself. Although others have argued that the somewhat unusual hairdo of this figure is a form of Irish clerical tonsure, Hickey is unsure. Instead she notes that the tonsure theory is presented without much evidence and may, instead, be a representation of a cap, helmet, or crown. 
The Tetramorph or Christ with Griffins. This figure has the same curly-fringed coiffure as its ‘partner’ the Christ as warrior figure. Both wear the same form of tunic and both show similar facial expressions. This figure holds two beasts. Hickey argues that the heads, claws and wings are of an eagle, and rear legs may be those of a lion. In this way they may be interpreted as griffins, symbolising the dual nature of Christ. However, if the hind legs of one of the animals are interpreted as those of a calf, the whole could be a representation of the four evangelists: Matthew = Man; Mark = Lion; Luke = Ox; John = Eagle.
Christ in warrior attire. As noted above, this appears to be a direct ‘partner’ to the Tetramorph or Christ with Griffins figure. The figure is armed with a short sword and small, round shield. He is seated and also wears a penannular brooch on his left-hand side. Hickey suggests that the brooch may be of Viking ‘Thistle’ type and date to the period from the 9th to the 10th centuries, though it may easily be of earlier type and date to the 8th to 9th centuries. Based on the work of Helen M Roe, Hickey identifies the figure as Christ in the guise of King of Glory as part of the ‘second coming’. Depictions of a ‘warrior christ’ are known from the Tall Cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth, and on the Market Cross at Kells, Co. Meath.
Possible unfinished carving, indicating that the carving were created on the island, and not brought in from elsewhere.
Carved head. This piece was found in 1928, built into the east gable of the 12th century church. Although often considered to be later than the other carvings, its reuse in the Romanesque church suggests that it is of similar date and origin to the others.
Chapple - tired and sweaty, but just delighted to have gotten the opportunity to see this marvelous site.

Note
For anyone who would like to see the site in 3D, I’ve added two panoramic overviews of the church on a separate page. Just grab your home made 3D glasses (or go buy some) and enjoy! Here!

Suggested reading:


Hamlin, A. E. 2008 The archaeology of Early Christianity in the north of Ireland. BAR British Series 460. Oxford.

Hickey, H. 1976, 1985 Images of stone: figure sculpture of the Lough Erne Basin. Enniskillen.

Lowry-Corry, D. 1959 ‘A newly discovered statue at the church on White Island, County FermanaghUlster Journal of Archaeology 22, 3rd Series, 59-66.

Wakeman, W. F. 1879 ‘White Island, Lough ErneJournal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 15.1, 66-69.

Waterman, D. M. 1959 ‘White Island church - note on a recent excavationUlster Journal of Archaeology 22, 3rd Series, 65-66.


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