Themes in Irish Art


The high crosses are the earliest examples of Irish art to survive that depict figures in narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments, typically surmounted by a representation of the Crucifixion and Judgement Day. Inspiration for the choice of scenes, and the way in which they were depicted, appears to have come from Europe, although they are sometimes given a local flavour, for example in the way that figures are dressed.

During the later medieval period wall paintings, of which few now survive, depicted the stories of particular saints, moralising tales and devotional figures. Other paintings and carved panels used to decorate altars were destroyed at the Reformation, but their influence can sometimes be seen in other artworks of the period.

Following Catholic Emancipation in the early nineteenth century the church once again became a significant patron of art. Initially much of the imagery used to adorn newly-built Catholic churches was imported. In the earlier part of the twentieth century though, churches such as Loughrea Cathedral (Co. Galway) and the Honan Hostel Chapel (University College Cork) provided a showcase for the work of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement. Examples of fabrics by the Dún Emer guild, stained glass by artists such as Harry Clarke and liturgical vessels by metalworkers such as Edmund Johnson drew inspiration from early Christian Irish art and were major contributors to the Celtic Revival.

Mass in a Connemara Cabin (1883) by Aloysius O’Kelly (1853-c.1951)
Photo (c) National Gallery of Ireland (c) The Artist's Estate

Religious themes have also been of interest to artists representing Irish social practices, particularly in rural Ireland. Aloysius O’Kelly has addressed the practice of holding the Stations of the Cross in private homes, a practice that still continues today. 

Entering Jerusalem 3 (1994 – 96) by Hughie O'Donoghue (b.1953)
Copyright Hughie O'Donoghue Studio

More recently, religious imagery has been adopted as means to challenge the power of the church, and associated issues such as the stereotyping of gender roles. For example, Dorothy Cross’s Virgin Shroud (1993) comments, provocatively, on the traditional expectations of women regarding both purity and reproductivity. Hughie O’Donoghue, on the other hand, has used religious symbolism, particularly the Passion of Christ, to sensitively explore human suffering, survival, and redemption.

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