Cormac’s Chapel

Cormac’s Chapel, 1127–34 C.E., sandstone, Rock of Cashel, County Tipperary, Ireland


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’ve just walked up a steep hill to get to a large medieval complex that sits at the top of a rock. The name of this place, the Rock of Cashel, speaks specifically to the idea of a fortification upon a rock.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:20] As you enter the site and as you look around, you’ll notice that most of the buildings are built of the local limestone, dark grey in color. But, if you walk around the Gothic cathedral, you will notice this lovely building of a golden color made of sandstone that came a distance away.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] And the warm color of the stone was absolutely appropriate because the man who commissioned this building, Cormac Mac Cárthaigh who was the king of Munster and also the bishop, had gone to the Continent and had seen Italianate architecture, and had been inspired to bring Italianate architecture back to Ireland.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:58] The building is named for Cormac Mac Cárthaigh. It is called Cormac’s Chapel, and it was built between 1127 and 1134. It was intended as a way to not only showcase the wealth of the church — which Mac Cárthaigh was part of — but also to showcase his wealth as the king of Munster.

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] It is the best example of Romanesque architecture in Ireland. The word Romanesque means simply to follow the building systems of ancient Rome. And we can see that in both the decorative and structural forms, the rounded arches, the use of blind arcades, as well as purely decorative features like the chevron patterns, the zig-zags that decorate so many of the architectural details, as well as the inclusion of both animal and human faces.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:44] The Romanesque as a style really only comes to Ireland in the 12th century, so we have to ask ourselves why he would choose to look to these Romanesque forms over other styles that were already present here. It turns out, that is for both religious but primarily political reasons.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] He was associating himself with this extraordinarily powerful ancient tradition. In a sense, saying, “I am a king emulating the ancient Roman emperors.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:13] The Romans never conquered Ireland and they were not all that present here, so there was no Roman architecture to look to for inspiration, so it’s when you have artists, monks, and individuals like Cormac Mac Cárthaigh traveling around the Continent, seeing these Imperial ruins or buildings.

[2:31] We know for a fact that this building not only took inspiration from Italianate or Roman things but also from the Holy Roman Empire, centered more in Germany. It’s more a statement about imperial aspirations than anything.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] In fact, the architectural style is mixed with more local traditions. If you look at the high pitch of the roof, that is distinctly Irish. And so in no way is this pure Romanesque but it is a fascinating translation of this tradition here at the far reaches of Europe.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:04] Cashel had been an important site far before Cormac Mac Cárthaigh. This was associated with Brian Boru, who was important for trying to expel the Vikings from taking over much of Ireland and who becomes crowned as the High King of Ireland here at Cashel. So it already had these important associations with royal power.

[3:26] And so, he’s finding a new way to express that.

Dr. Zucker: [3:29] But Mac Cárthaigh Chapel is rightly famous for something else as well. It is one of the very rare examples where we have traces of the original frescoes that covered the walls. We often think of Irish art as focused on metalwork, perhaps illuminated manuscripts.

[3:45] This chapel reminds us that medieval architecture in Ireland likely also was a surface upon which paintings were made. It’s just that those paintings have been lost.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:56] These are the earliest surviving paintings we have from Ireland. In some ways, it distorts the record. Because if you look more broadly at medieval art in Ireland you’ll notice that there’s not a great deal of narrative art that survives outside of the impressive high crosses.

[4:11] These frescoes are important because they also show us that narrative scenes were being painted onto buildings, but they do not survive well, largely because of the climate.

Dr. Zucker: [4:23] It’s wet, it’s cold, and there’s a great deal of wind. Even frescoes that are protected on the interior of buildings suffer deterioration due to climate.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:31] Right around the time of the chapel’s construction, the base of the chancel had these lovely decorative textile patterns, so this idea of hanging textiles to mark a space as important. Later in the 12th century, you had a much more complex narrative program painted higher up on the walls and the ceiling of the chancel.

[4:50] We can make out scenes from the life of Christ, some saints and angels. We know that some of these pigments were costly and were being imported from afar. You can see brilliant blues that have survived, which was made of lapis lazuli.

Dr. Zucker: [5:07] This was an extremely rare mineral that was available at enormous cost in Afghanistan, likely imported through Italy.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:15] We also have traces of gold. We have this red vermilion that’s coming from Spain. The fact that we have these costly materials being used in this chapel would have been another way that Cormac Mac Cárthaigh could show off his wealth and the importance of this space.

Dr. Zucker: [5:32] It’s important to keep in mind that it’s likely that only a select group of people would have had access to this royal chapel.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:39] The murals that were added in the later 12th century are thought to have possibly been painted for the English king Henry II, who came here to Cashel and who we know visited Cormac’s Chapel.

[5:51] Now, we mentioned that climate is a real concern here for the state of preservation. Conservation efforts have been underway to protect these murals, but we’d be remiss in not mentioning another factor that played into their poor state.

Dr. Zucker: [6:04] In fact, the poor state of this site as a whole as you walk around the Rock of Cashel, it’s hard not to notice that most of the buildings have had their roofs removed. None of this is accidental. This is a direct result of the long, complicated history of the Reformation and the English Civil War. Cromwell used the Rock of Cashel as one of his headquarters.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:23] And as Protestants, religious imagery could pose a problem. It’s thought that the inside of Cormac’s Chapel, so brilliantly painted, was whitewashed by Cromwell and his forces in the 17th century. Some of the decorative heads that we find inside were lopped off as well.

[6:40] This is why despite having this wonderful concentration of medieval buildings and art, certain parts of the site have been rendered unusable.

[6:48] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Cormac’s Chapel," in Smarthistory, January 31, 2023, accessed June 23, 2024,