By Rachel Moss
Published Online (2011)
Introduction: The image of a bearded man wearing a mitre and carrying a staff or crozier has become almost synonymous with the patron saint of Ireland, in particular when his vestments are green and adorned with shamrocks and a snake slithers around his feet. However, were a contemporary of Patrick to be confronted with such an image, it is certain that he would not recognize the Saint in the form with which we are familiar today. The manner in which he has come to be depicted represents the culmination of over a thousand years of art, influenced by various texts and evolving belief systems, both localized and international.
Visual representations of saints were relatively commonplace in Europe from as early as the fifth century. Devotional images and reliquaries created a focal point for prayer, and the walls of the churches were adorned with narrative scenes that reinforced their sanctity. Miniatures depicting their miraculous activities illustrated the pages of various religious texts and helped further to establish an unambiguous visual language by which they could be recognized. In this way images of individual saints came to be clearly identified through their association with a particular object or attribute, often associated with their life and miracles, or, in the case of martyred saints, the manner in which they met their death.
In Ireland, there is clear evidence of devotion to local saints and the active promotion of them through the writing of hagiographies and enshrinement of relics from as early as the seventh century. However, the degree to which native cults may have been expressed visually, in particular through the figurative representation of Irish saints, is unclear. Tírechán, one of Patrick’s earlier biographers, mentions ‘wooden images’, suggesting the existence of devotional statues in Ireland in the seventh century. Cogitosus’ Life of St Brigit similarly describes the decoration of the church at Kildare with painted linen hangings. Unfortunately neither writer expands on the subject matter of these now lost early Irish art forms; but Giraldus Kambrensis’ reference to the manner in which St Kevin was traditionally depicted in Ireland, holding a blackbird in his hand, would seem to confirm that figurative representations of native saints certainly did exist before the late twelfth century.