Ireland has a long history and a beautiful culture that has brought many stunning pieces of artwork to the world. Often these beautiful works come from historical artifacts, such as the Book of Kells or the Tara Brooch. Sometimes they are shrouded in mystery, while other times they have a long and storied history. But one thing that cannot be denied is the beauty and intricacy of the artwork that has been masterfully incorporated into many of Ireland’s most treasured artifacts. One great example of this is the Ardagh Chalice, a beautifully preserved chalice dating back to the 8th century that was found just 150 years ago.
How the Ardagh Chalice was found
The Ardagh Chalice was found in the little Limerick townland of Reerasta, near Ardagh in 1868. The hoard was found in an Irish ringfort . The chalice was just one part of what was labeled the “Ardagh Hoard”. The chalice was the only ecclesiastical artifact found in the hoard, but gilt silver brooches and a plain bronze chalice were also found. The Ardagh Chalice was the oldest artifact identified, dating back to 750 AD. Given the age of the artifacts found, it is likely the hoard was buried during Viking raids in an attempt to hide the goods from the Scandinavian raiders. It was only covered by a slab of stone, which suggests it was buried hurriedly. Its owner likely intended to come back and retrieve it, but never did.
The chalice was found by two teenagers, Jimmy Quinn and Paddy Flanagan. They found the hoard while digging for potatoes they had planted in a ringfort in hopes they would avoid the potato blight that was destroying Irish crops and causing famine. Unfortunately for the pair, the hoard was not actually on their land; the land was owned by Sisters of Mercy, who they were renting from. The hoard was therefore claimed by George Butler, Bishop of Limerick. The bishop paid the teens £50 for discovering the hoard.
Bishop Butler then sold the hoard to the Royal Irish Academy. Reports differ on the fee the academy paid for the hoard. Some say it was £100 while others say it was £500. It was then transferred to the National Museum of Ireland when it opened in 1890, where it still remains on display to this day. The chalice would go on to help revive the popularity of Celtic art from the 19th century up until today.
Some of the artifacts from the Ardagh hoard. The Ardagh Chalice is the most elaborate and famous piece. (Johnbod / CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Design of the Ardagh Chalice
The Ardagh Chalice is a calyx ministerialis , which means that it was used to hold wine during mass on special occasions. The hoard it was found in likely belonged to a monastery or church. Which church or monastery it belonged to, however, cannot be determined with any certainty. The intricate details found on the chalice mean it was likely crafted by a number of highly-skilled, high-status churchmen.
The Ardagh Chalice is quite large in size. It is two-handled and is made of silver, copper, and bronze with gold filigree panels and enamel studs. It is 17.8 centimeters (7 inches) in height, 24 centimeters (9.5 inches) in diameter, and 10 centimeters (4 inches) deep. This incredibly intricate vessel is made up of over 350 separate parts. The bowl and the base of the chalice are made of silver, while the stem in between is made of bronze. The three pieces are joined together with a copper bolt. It is the gold and enamel detailing that really makes this chalice so special though.
The gold filigree on the Ardagh Chalice is a masterpiece of Irish craftsmanship (Sailko / CC BY 3.0 )
Blue and red enamel studs feature underneath the handle, around the gold panels that circle the rim, and around the girder. The handles also feature studs and gold filigree panels, although this time the studs are glass. Even the bottom of the base has been intricately decorated with gold and a polished rock crystal at the center that cleverly covers the copper stem. In fact, the National Museum of Ireland, where the chalice is kept, have placed a mirror underneath the chalice so that this detail can be appreciated.
An early 20th century reproduction of the Ardagh Chalice (Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain )
More gold decorating can be found at the center of both the front and back of the chalice. These filigree panels contain images of animals and patterns of spirals. The Latin names of eleven of the biblical apostles, as well as Saint Paul , are engraved just below the gold band at the top. The letters found here are similar in appearance to some of the initials that feature in a manuscript called the Lindisfarne Gospels dated to 710-720 AD, which is why the chalice is believed to have dated back to this period. Overall, the style was borrowed from late antiquity. As former director of the National Museum of Ireland Raghnall Ó Floinn stated in A History of Ireland in 100 Objects (as cited in Snook, 2020):
“[The model of the chalice] is Late Roman tableware from the early centuries AD. It has parallels not in Western Europe but with Byzantine vessels now in St. Mark’s in Venice – not because there is direct Eastern influence but because they both draw on a common Roman ancestor.”
The Ardagh Chalice Today
The Ardagh Chalice is one of the best examples of the extraordinary beauty of medieval Irish craftsmanship. Its beauty can be compared to other great medieval Irish works, such as the Tara Brooch or St. Patrick’s Bell and Shrine. Its importance to Irish history and culture cannot be overstated with its influence still seen in Ireland today. It has been a feature on Irish stamps and jewelry for over a century now, and in 1928, its design was selected as the template for the Sam Maguire Cup, which is awarded to the winner of the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship. For this reason, the Ardagh Chalice is probably the most celebrated artifact in the entire collection at the National Museum of Ireland.
Original 1928 Sam Maguire Cup, with a design inspired by the Ardagh Chalice (Chorusman / CC BY 3.0 )
Top image: Image of the 8th century Ardagh Chalice, part of a hoard recovered in County Limerick, Ireland. Source: National Museum of Ireland / CC BY SA 2.0
By Mark Brophy