GALLERIES by Leigh Hatts
THE British Museum, although currently championing free entry, has a temporary pay exhibition which many will find worth the admission charge. For most £2 is certainly less than a ticket to Dublin where this exhibition is heading after 29 April.
Aer Lingus and the Irish government have given generous sponsorship for the show which would have been thought impossible to mount a decade ago. Surprisingly Margaret Thatcher fails to praise the airline in her catalogue message commending the 6th century Irish exports to European monasteries.
Charles Haughey points out that the title, The Works of Angels: Masterpieces of Celtic Metalwork, 6th-9th Centuries is taken from the Writings of Gerald of Wales. Astounded by the artistry of an early medieval gospel at Kildare, he wrote: "If you take the trouble to look very closely, and penetrate your eyes to the secrets of the artistry, you will notice such intricacies, so involved and bound together, and so fresh still in their colourings that you will not hesitate to declare that all these things must have been the result of the work, not of men, but of angels",
Although Gerald was writing in the 12th century his advice is apt for the BM today. Some of the pieces are returning to these shores from the Continent for the first time since the Viking period. Others have never before been seen outside Ireland: in 1980 a hoard of magnificent church vessels was discovered at Derrynaflan in County Tipperary by a treasure hunter with a metal detector.
It was only two years ago that ownership was finally settled on the state by the Irish Supreme Court and London has the first look at the fabulous monastic haul partly thanks to the cleaning work undertaken at the BM.
More revelant than the Gerald quote are the contemporary words of St Patrick who arrived in Ireland with a job lot of bells, plates, chalices and altar stones and insisted that a church which did not have "proper equipement" was "not entitled to the dues of God's Church".
Ireland was never under the Roman empire but it remained loyal to the Rome of Peter and recycled Roman silver into beautiful vessels.
Chalices were derived from Roman tableware and the silver Derrynaflan chalice has a hint of the Byzantine version to be seen at San Marco in Venice. The monastic cup is not as gorgeous but for Ireland its amber studs were riches. The size suggests that all the community would have received from it at Mass.
The wine would have been strained as it was poured into the chalice ready for the consecration. Liturgical strainers are rarer than liturgical gloves and combs. At solemn Masses in Rome the wine passed through a sieve so at Derrynaflan a copper strainer-ladle, with a silver herringbone rim around the bowl, was employed. It can be compared with a less delicate domestic version used in the Derrynaflan kitchen.
The paten, like the chalice, is enormous as this is the period before communion wafers. Its reassembly by the restorers was made easy by the discovery of a letter code which suggests the work of a priest-craftsman. St Patrick was accompanied by a priest-coppersmith.
There is a fascinating example of a 'belt-shrine' but most striking are the miniature 'house-shrines' little oblong buildings with roofs bearing a resemblance to the Temple in the Book of Kens. This 'housereliquary', a metal covered wooden box, would once have been a common sight hung round the neck of an Irish missionary. One got as far as a Tuscan abbey where it still holds bones. The Monymusk shrine is believed to have held the bones of St Columba and been carried