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Architecture & Sculpture

During the 11th and 12th centuries, Ireland came more into contact with Britain and the Continent. The elaborate stone architecture of the Romanesque style made an impression on the Irish ecclesiastical travellers and the style was introduced to this country with some modifications. The style was simple with lavish decoration concentrated on the round headed doorways with a tympanum and a multiplicity of columns. Blind arcading was introduced inside and outside. There were endless varieties of decoration with exquisite stone carving. A three light window featured over the western doorway.

The Hiberno-Romanesque style of architecture is distinctive, with high pitched gables, splayed windows and doors and peculiar corbels at gables. Antaes, elongated buttresses at the gables, are also a Hiberno-Romanesque feature. The carved decoration used in the Irish style is derived from Celtic motifs.

The chapel itself, designed by Cork architect James F. McMullen, is in perfect accord, not only with its surroundings, but also with our architectural heritage. It exemplifies in a striking manner, all that is best in the Hiberno-Romanesque architecture of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries.

There are two distinctive areas in the Romanesque floor plan – the nave and the chancel. The Honan Chapel conforms to this mediaeval layout. At 72 ft. by 28 ft., the nave is larger than most examples of the style and is twice the size of Cormac’s Chapel in Cashel. As in most known examples, the chancel is at the eastern end of the east / west axis. One feature of the Irish modification is the introduction of a square chancel; on the continent and in Britain, the chancel is usually semi-circular. The Honan Chapel chancel, at 26ft. by 18ft., is among the largest.

Romanesque churches have their entrances in the western gable. The Neo-Hiberno-Romanesque Honan Chapel is no exception. The richly decorated entrance is a striking feature of the church, which is modelled on the 12th century church of St. Cronan at Roscrea. The doorway is built in a series of orders, i.e. several concentric rings each set back behind the one in front, each supported on their own columns. Each order has an individual style of ornament. The Honan Chapel has three orders; the main order has a chevron design. The middle order has a bead and pellet ornament with a zigzag and saltire pattern on the outer order. The supporting columns are decorated with human heads representing 6 saints also depicted in the stained glass windows. The tympanum, or triangular gable, over the doorway, has a statue of St. Finnbarr in bishop’s garb. There is blind arcading on either side of the doorway, with a chevron design on the round arch.

The north and south elevations emphasise the nave with horizontal lines of string courses at window sill level and a second course at a higher level. Anthropomorphic heads are carved at the end of drip moulding at each window. Blank arcading is seen at eaves level, an unusual feature in Ireland. The nave is a simple one aisle oblong layout with no side aisles or columns to obstruct the view.

North of the chancel, a small building houses the sacristy. This is typical of Hiberno-Romanesque design. Underneath the Honan sacristy is a heating chamber from which warm air is ducted into the church. Continental and British Romanesque churches have square belfries. Hiberno-Romanesque churches are more conspicuous by having a round tower adjacent to the church, which was used to house valuables in times of trouble. The round Honan belfry is incorporated in the main building and also acts as a bell tower.

Irish Stone Carving: An Ancient Tradition

The Neolithic inhabitants of Ireland erected great stone tombs and decorated them with simple geometric designs. Their skill in carving and decorating stone was to become a deeply rooted and persistent feature of Irish art.

During the Bronze Age, similar designs of chevrons, circles, spirals and diamonds were inscribed on tombs, pillars and rocks. Such patterns were part of an ancient European tradition.

When the Celts migrated to Ireland they brought with them La Téne art. The circles and loops of their designs blended easily with pre-existing Irish art. It was largely on the traditional materials of gold, bonze and stone that the La Téne designs were applied. A number of pillar-stones throughout the country carry these distinctive designs.

Stone carving flourished in the Christian era. St. Patrick’s Cross at Carndonagh is an early example. It bears stylised human figures and abstract ornament carved in low relief. The west side of the cross is covered with a graceful and flowing pattern of interlaced bands. On the topmost part of the east-face there is a decorative cross of similar broad interlaced ribbons with ornamental birds beneath its arms.

The high crosses of the 9th and 10th centuries are a further development of stone art. The Ahenny high crosses are decorated with firmly carved spirals, interlacing and fret patterns. There is a carving of a funeral scene and a hunting scene. On the bases are figures of animals, trees and ecclesiastics with crosiers. Here the natural world is an integral part of the spiritual side of life.

At various places in the Irish midlands sandstone crosses were erected, which featured carving both on the shaft and on the bases. Sculpture on the south cross at Clonmacnoise, the Cross of St. Patrick and St. Columba at Kells, Co. Meath, includes biblical as well as secular scenes. Interlacing and animal ornament are a feature of these crosses.

The Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries disrupted monastic life and Irish artistic expression. The quality of the metalwork declined and manuscript illumination ceased altogether. Sculpture in stone, however, continued to flourish; for nearly 200 years figure carving in stone was the chief form of creative activity in Ireland.

Sculpture and stone-carving are important features of Hiberno-Romanesque architecture. Common features include: