Saint Patrick and His Jewelers
Saint Patrick’s Day means vastly different things to different people. For many of us here in the U.S., it’s Saint Paddy’s, a wild, Guinness-infused romp—a sort of Irish-American mini-Mardi Gras. For the more devout, it’s The Feast of Saint Patrick, a day of reverence and churchgoing.
But isn’t it time we in the jewelry industry ask some pertinent and pressing questions—who exactly was this Patrick, and, even more importantly, who were his jewelers?
That may sound like a very silly question. But it’s only partially silly.
The story of Saint Patrick actually intersects with the world of jewelry in a number of important and intriguing ways. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today: the Saint Patrick of history and legend, and the fascinating jewels and jewelers that are part of his story.
Bishops and Bling
First, let’s address the leprechaun in the room: who was this fellow?
As with all saints, what we know of his life is a mixture of fact and—very beautiful and meaningful—fiction. A few basic points:
Patrick was a fifth-century Christian missionary of Romano-British heritage, who later became one of the first bishops in Ireland and, eventually, Ireland’s most famous patron saint. He most probably spoke a form of British as his native language.
Kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16, he spent years as a slave, herding cattle for an Irish overlord. Eventually, he escaped and returned to Britain, but not before thoroughly absorbing Irish language and culture and deciding to devote his life to spreading Christianity.
Although, once again, the border between history and legend remains murky, with Patrick considered the central figure in spreading Christianity in Ireland after converting thousands of people and founding hundreds of churches. In legend, he assumes supernatural proportions, performing a number of miracles, the most famous being the banishing of all snakes from Ireland.
But What About The Jewelry?
As anyone with a passing knowledge of historical jewelry knows, religions have engendered some of the world’s most glorious jewels. The Catholic Church is no exception, and jewels have always figured prominently in the regalia of upper-echelon prelates, such as bishops, archbishops, and, of course, popes. Anyone questioning the ecclesiastical appropriateness of jewelry or gemstones need look no further than the Old Testament, which is famously full of interesting ritual usages for gemstones and jewels (think of the golden rings cast for the Ark of the Covenant, or the bejeweled breastplate of the Hebrew high priests).
Patrick, as a senior prelate, likely owned his fair share of ecclesiastical jewelry. Bishops and other upper clergy in the early middle ages wore pectoral crosses—large, ornate crosses worn on a chain across the chest (the ancestors of the tiny ones folks wear today). Patrick, in particular, is associated with a certain cross type, the so-called “cross pattée,” which features arms that flare outward as they extend from the center. It may be the case that Patrick himself wore a large, ornate, pectoral cross pattée of the sort that remains prominent in Irish iconography.
Bishops also had ceremonial croziers, curved staffs with crooks, sometimes gilded and covered in jewels. According to legend, Patrick’s crozier was none other than the Bachal Isu, the Staff of Jesus, which he reputedly received from a hermit who had received it from Jesus himself. An ancient, bejeweled staff believed to be Patrick’s was housed for centuries at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin before being burned during the Protestant Reformation.
Established churchmen also wore a variety of ecclesiastical rings. Bishops, in particular, when ordained by a cardinal, received a so-called episcopal ring (episcopal meaning ‘having to do with bishops’). Episcopal rings are and have been quite large gold rings, either stone-set or engraved for use as a signet. Bishops inherited the episcopal rings of their predecessors, and many beautiful and ancient rings were passed down this way through the centuries.
Saint Patrick In The Jewelry Business
Saint Patrick, however, apparently had few predecessors and thus little in the way of glorious jewelry to inherit. As a missionary in a pagan land, where the Roman church had yet to build up a significant following, much less a store of ecclesiastical treasure, it fell to Patrick not just to convert souls, but to create the precious ritual equipment of Catholicism—the altars, the tabernacles, the bejeweled chalices and patens and pyxes for the bread and wine, the golden shrines for holding the fragile bound Gospels, not to mention the bells that would call the flock to worship.
To do this, of course, he needed jewelers. Or, at least, he needed the early medieval equivalent of jewelers—skilled goldsmiths, coppersmiths, and bellfounders who had the technical knowledge to create the items that a growing church would need. It comes as no surprise, then, that two of Saint Patrick’s best-known disciples, Saint Asicus and Saint Daig, were apparently highly skilled metalworkers.
Again, although their stories are a blend of folklore and fact, what they represent is important: the fusion of ancient Celtic and Scandinavian metalworking artistry into a creative vessel for Judeo-Christian history, religion, and culture. The result was a mighty artistic explosion that influences Irish art and culture to this day.
Often called Tassach or Tassac, we celebrate Saint Asicus as Patrick’s chief ironworker and coppersmith, also revered as the patron saint of coppersmiths. Converted to Christianity by Patrick, he receives credit for the original ecclesiastical ornaments in many of the early Irish churches, including the one in Elphin, Ireland, where Asicus later became the first bishop.
Hagiographers (people who research and write about saints) point especially to Asicus’s reputation as a sought after bell-maker, or bellfounder. The expanding church needed church bells, and people with the necessary casting skills were in high demand.
So, it may have been Asicus who cast one of the most famous Irish relics, Saint Patrick’s Bell. Believed to have belonged to Patrick himself, the simple iron bell resides today in the National Museum of Ireland, accompanied by its magnificent gilded and bejeweled shrine. Jewelers will perhaps be most interested in the shrine, a beautiful example of hybrid Celtic/Scandinavian artistry, complete with filigreed gold patterns and large rock crystals cut en cabochon. Although they appear elsewhere in Christendom, Irish bell shrines are particularly famous—for their beauty, craftsmanship, abundance, and, of course, their unique Irishness.
Another of the chief relics associated with Patrick is the Domnach Airgid, a shrine that once contained what was believed to be Patrick’s personal copy of the Gospels. Like bell-shrines, book-shrines combined beauty and functionality in the service of the expanding church, protecting parchment from Ireland’s notoriously damp climate. Although the Domnach Airgid was likely crafted hundreds of years after the death of Patrick, book shrines were extremely common in the early days of the church in Ireland as well.
In fact, we celebrate another of Patrick’s disciples, Saint Daig, as a fabricator of particularly beautiful and effective book-shrines. As Daig’s legend goes, he became trapped as a boy in a monastery fire and initially believed dead. When the fire finally subsided, however, he was discovered completely unharmed. The abbot, Saint Mochta, then prophesied that Daig (which means ‘great flame’) would become a celebrated craftsman in the service of the church. And the prophecy came true:
Afterwards Daig became a celebrated artificer. This holy man is said to have fashioned no less than one hundred and fifty bells, and one hundred croziers. He likewise made cases or covers for sixty Gospels—i.e., books containing the writings of the four Evangelists. Such is the O’Clerys account, and in confirmation of it they quote an Irish quatrain, of which the following is an English translation :—
“Thrice fifty bells, victorious deed,
With one hundred strong-ringed croziers,
With sixty perfect gospels,
By the hand of Daigh alone.”
Besides these, it is stated, that he manufactured shrines, cases, chalices, pyxes, dishes, altariola, baculi, crucifixes, and chrysmals. We are informed, moreover, that while some of these were plainly made, others were highly wrought with gold, silver and precious stones, which were added as ornaments to them. (Lives of the Irish Saints, Volume 8)
Why All This Matters For Us
So the point of all of this is that we in the jewelry business have very good reasons to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day. The history of Irish metalworking is fascinating and deep, extending far into the reaches of pre-history, and it remains relevant to people today interested in expressing Irish identity through jewelry.
Whether today finds us piously revering the goodly saint by singing solemn hymns at mass in our parish church, or raucously celebrating the wild Irish spirit by singing bawdy ballads in the local pub, or both, jewelers can take heart in the fact that their medieval forefathers played a mighty role in the story of Ireland’s most famous holy man.
So let’s raise a glass and toast to them and all of the beautiful things they created.
Ever wondered why we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day? Find your answer here!
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