The Ardagh Chalice

Intricate metalwork dons this medieval Irish chalice made for performing the Eucharist.

The Ardagh Chalice, c. 8th century, silver, gilt copper, gold filigree, gold, gilt bronze, silver, polychrome glass, amber, rock crystal, 18 cm high, 19.5 cm in diameter at the rim, found in a hoard in the ringfort of Reerasta, near Ardagh, County Limerick, Ireland (National Museum of Ireland)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] The central rite of Christianity is the Eucharist. That is, the taking of the bread and the wine in reference to the body and blood of Christ.

[0:15] And so it follows that religious communities put a tremendous amount of effort into creating beautiful, luxurious objects for this ritual. That could include a plate to hold the wafer, which is known as a paten, and a glass or a chalice to hold the wine.

[0:31] We’re looking at an exceptional early example of a chalice that comes from around the year 800 and is from Ireland.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:40] This is the Ardagh Chalice. This is considered one of the finest examples of early medieval art generally, but certainly one of the best examples, if not the best example, of early medieval metalworking.

[0:53] This chalice is made in three parts. We have a silver hemispherical bowl that has small handles attached to it. Then we have a gilt silver stem attached to the bowl with golden disks. Then, the foot of the chalice.

[1:08] It’s very lustrous. That’s punctuated by these design elements. We see circular bosses on the sides and the lip is made of brass color. Then there’s a band with gold filigree.

Dr. Zucker: [1:22] Filigree work is essentially wire work. In this case, gold wire that is intertwined and elaborately patterned.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:29] Within that band, we see what almost looks like small circular enamels, but they’re not quite.

Dr. Zucker: [1:35] True enamel are grains of colored glass that are fired and fused together. This glass was actually cut to fit.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:43] The filigree is so fine that it’s almost impossible to make out the details. If you are looking through a camera and you can zoom in, you can see beasts, you can see birds.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] In the surface of the silver bowl itself, you can see an inscription with square lettering. It is quite similar to the painted letters that we see, for instance, in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:08] What that inscription says is the names of the 12 apostles, except for Judas, who is substituted with the name of Paul. On the stem, there are spiral designs. That is related to designs brought from mainland Europe. The Celtic peoples, when they migrate here, bring those traditions with them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] Celtic art comes to Ireland in the pre-Christian era. Nevertheless, those designs are adopted into a broader vocabulary and become part of the Christian tradition when it is established in Ireland.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:40] We could say the same thing about the elaborate interlace in the filigree work. This looks similar to the type of interlace work in Northumbria or in the metalworking objects that we find at places like Sutton Hoo in England.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] In order to see all of the work of the chalice, it would have to have been tipped up and then the bottom is revealed.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:00] There’s a mirror placed underneath this so that we can see below the chalice. There’s another golden disc with more filigree. Then there’s also rock crystal or quartz. The rock crystal would’ve been imported. There is also small pieces of amber on this chalice that would’ve been likewise imported from the Baltic region.

[3:19] Typically, people call this type of art Insular art, meaning from the isles of Ireland and Great Britain, and that it’s really looking inward. What these materials demonstrate is that people were trading and acquiring things from elsewhere.

Dr. Zucker: [3:33] In fact, the tradition of elaborate chalices can be found at quite a distance in this period. One could look to the Byzantine empire and their precious goblets.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:44] What it suggests is that artists in different places were looking to ancient Roman prototypes. When this was made in the 8th century, we do not have large churches being constructed in Ireland. What we find are smaller structures.

[3:58] In textual records, it’s noted that churches were often built in wood, and so they no longer survive. What that suggests to us too is that people were channeling their energy, their time, and their resources into finely crafted objects like this chalice or the paten that we see near us.

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] Given Ireland’s violent history of invasions by Vikings and by other outsiders, one of the reasons that objects like this survive is that they were portable. They could be hidden and they could be safeguarded.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:27] This was found buried along with an unadorned bronze chalice and several other objects, which suggests that it was so precious that at some point someone decided it needed to be buried, perhaps as a dedication or votive offering, but more likely to protect it.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] We have in this chalice an object that both signifies the great history of Irish art, but also its connections to a wider world.

[4:49] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Ardagh Chalice," in Smarthistory, October 11, 2022, accessed May 19, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-ardagh-chalice/.