ORB Online Encyclopedia
Danish Church Art(e.g. "Late Antiquity")
DANISH CHURCH FRESCOES: A CLUE TO MEDIEVAL IRISH ART?
>EIRE-IRELAND Vol XIV:1 Spring 1979 Revised 3/96.
- The student of Irish culture lacks one resource available to the Continental student: the church frescoes from A.D. 900 to A.D. 1652. Throughout Western Europe there is a continuum of churches from the earliest to the latest, and a study of the frescoes gives the scholar an insight into the culture at the time that they were painted. For one reason or another, such frescoes did not survive in Ireland. From the earliest times, the #internecine wars of the Irish took their toll. The Annals of Ulster list 25 or more churches destroyed during these disputes, and in 1120, over 70 churches in Desmond were destroyed during a raid by Connachtmen.  The Viking raiders destroyed more. Some blame the loss of wall paintings on the Reformation, but in fact, the Reformation under Henry VIII simply took over the churches and preserved their structure and art, since they were now state property. It was not until Cromwell that the Puritan concepts required the destruction of traditional church art in Ireland and Great Britain.
- The proposal that a study of Danish church frescoes might provide some idea of the appearance, both inside and out, of Irish churches during the period 900-1652 might seem absurd were it not for historical realities. There are relationships that can be established between the churches of Ireland and Denmark that encourage the belief that the Danish church frescoes would give information about what frescoes that may have existed in the churches of Ireland before the #Cromwellian Wars.
- One relationship is in the architecture, and to a lesser extent, the materials of construction. The early Irish church, like the Scandinavian, was of wooden construction. De Breffny quotes a number of sources to show that many of the early Irish churches were constructed of wood. The raiders, both Irish and Norse, used fire as the simplest means of destruction. From a sketch given by De Breffny, it is clear that the same general architecture, stave construction, was used in building both Irish and Scandinavian churches.  Further, in 1186, the Archbishop of Dublin prohibited the use of the wooden altar to serve Mass, a practice common in Ireland. When stone or brick became the material for construction, the link with Scandinavia is evident. Still extant are three Danish churches built during the 12th century in Dublin, Howth, and Waterford. Another, St. Mary's, was built in Dublin in the I2th century. A fifth surviving church in Limerick was built about the same time, but is undated. Historically, the Danish settlements in Ireland retained close ties with Scandinavia and it is logical to assume that the church construction and decoration in the home land were influenced by the religious architecture of Ireland..
- When we turn to architectural detail and decoration, further relationships are found. The description of a wooden church in Ireland, St. Brigid's at Kildare, includes descriptions of painted interior walls. The painting in the stave church at Urnes in Norway is styled "Irish Nordic" by Deitrichson and dated about 1100.  Anker also points out that Shetelig relates the placing of the carvings on the north wall to a style common from Sweden through Norway and Denmark to Britain and Ireland during the period 1050-1100. A third point of contact arises from the fact that Ireland had close relations with a section of Germany, that, in its turn, had close relations with the Danish church. The movement of Irish clergy, which founded the Irish monasteries from the Rhine to the Danube, had other consequences, for this movement was two-way: while the Irish were moving to the Continent, the Continental scholar in search of further education, was coming into Ireland. It was during this period that the Romanesque architectural style appeared in Ireland.
- There are a number of Romanesque remains in Ireland, but, in the interest of brevity, only Cormac's Chapel at Cashel will be considered. O'Brien states that Cormac McCarthy, King of Munster, brought masons from the Continent to build the chapel.  De Breffny relates the design of Cormac's Chapel to the Abbey Church of Murbach in Alsace on the west bank of the Rhine.  In this period, Irish prelates were known to have lived in Wuerzburg, Cologne, Metz, Erfurt, Regensberg, Aachen, Fulda, Speier, and Mainz in the Rhineland, and at St. Martin's in Tours. All of these towns have churches with Romanesque frescoes. Under these circumstances, it seems likely that the Irish church of the same period would have had similar frescoes.
- During this period, the Danish Church was under the See of Hamburg-Bremen, and Hjort calls attention to the frescoes at Hildesheim, in Germany, and connects them with those in the church at Kirke-Hyllinge in Denmark  Saxtorp believes that the frescoes in Ringsted and Broendom, in Denmark, were painted by artists from Saxony.  He also relates the early Romanesque frescoes in Denmark to the Italian of the same period, the high Gothic to the French and the late Gothic to the Netherlands and northern Germany.  Saxtorp's belief that the early Romanesque frescoes showing Byzantine influence are derived from the Italian is supported by Anderson. Anderson believes that this came about because Denmark is poor in stone, and those interested in building churches - King Valdemar, Bishop Absalom, and Esbern Snare - imported bricklayers and other artisans to build the first brick churches in Denmark. 
- Another point of similarity came about because of the great monastic houses. The Cistercians, for example, had 300 houses in a region that stretched from Ireland to Slovenia and from Scandinavia to Sicily. While the greater number of Cistercian houses in Ireland were founded from the mother house in Clairvaux, four were founded from England, and three from Wales. The first Cistercian monasteries in Norway were founded from England. Esrom, on the Danish of island of Zealand was founded from Clairvaux, and there were at least four other Cistercian houses in Denmark at Soroe, Vistkoel, Om and Loegumkloster. Since it was the practice of these orders to copy the general floor plan and style of the mother house, it is reasonable to assume that this practice extended to details of interior decoration. In general these structures in Denmark and Ireland would, outwardly and inwardly, be similar - subject, of course, to local materials and techniques.
- To summarize, a number of relationships suggest that the churches of Ireland and Denmark had many features in common. At the time of the wooden church in Ireland, the stave construction and decorations were common to both cultures. Later, the masonry churches built by the Danes in Ireland very likely followed the Scandinavian tradition and probably influenced the Irish. The direct connection between Ireland and the Rhineland infiuenced the development of a common church style. The Rhineland, in turn, had an influence on Danish church decoration. The spread of the monastic houses was another close tie between the Danish and Irish churches.
- There is some evidence that churches of Ireland contained frescoes. In 1968, this writer found traces of pigment on the walls of the Cathedral at Cashel. Writing of the church in the Cistercian Abbey of Knockmoy, De Breffny states: "The barely visible medieval frescoe on the north wall of the chancel is one of the few surviving in Ireland; it was painted about 1400." 12 The early Irish church was probably decorated in the same styles and themes common throughout Europe in the same period. If the speculations presented in this paper are valid, then it is likely that the frescoes in the Irish church were similar, in style and theme, to those of the Danish churches of the same period. What, then, would the frescoes in the Irish church have looked like?
- Demus lists 109 churches with Romanesque frescoes in Italy, France, Spain, England, Germany and Austria. Saxtorp lists 77 churches in Denmark with frescoes from the same period.  Of the 525 churches in Denmark with frescoes, 475 have murals dating between 1150 and 1600, from the Romanesque to the Renaissance, the greatest number having been painted during the Gothic period. Between the time of the conversion, A. D. 960, and 1250, some 1500 churches were built in Denmark. While only a third remain standing, the explosion of construction at that time was such that few have been built since. The earliest Romanesque churches were of masonry, and, as the population grew, Gothic additions were added to the original structures to provide for the growth of the congregation. It is not uncommon to find in one village church three architectural styles, each with frescoes representative of its respective period. In fact, there are 18 churches in Denmark with frescoes from two periods, 10 with frescoes from three periods, and one, Keldby, with four periods. In Keldby, the earliest frescoes are transitional between the Romanesque and the early Gothic, dated 1275; early Gothic frescoes, dated I325; late Gothic frescoes painted by the Elmelunde masters in 1460; and a minor piece dated 1600. When the Danes adopted Lutheranism, the churches continued to be painted, now with Lutheran iconography. When the Danish equivalent of Purtianism developed, Pietism, the churches being Crown property, were left untouched. The old frescoes were simply whitewashed over and preserved for later generations.
- The Romanesque frescoes in Denmark displays the usual motifs: Christ in majesty, flanked by saints, his feet upon the ball of Earth, the Bible in his left hand, and his right raised in benediction. The face of the arch separating the chancel and the nave customarily showed the shrine of the Madonna on the left, and the patron saint of the church on the right. The lower surface of the arch presented religious figures to the left and right and an Agnus Dei at the top. Where the surviving nave is Romanesque - as in Maalov, fifteen minutes from the center of Copenhagen - you find on the north wall the Betrayal of Christ showing Judas and the soldiers; in another scene, Christ before Pilate. Under these frescoes, Abraham may be seen with the souls in his bosom; an angel playing a musical instrument; a picture of Christ with outstretched arms, possibly the remains of a Crucifixion. On the south wall are the remains of a large Crucifixion scene. The colors used in these frescoes are the same as those used in the Celtic illuminated manuscripts: reds, brown, greens, blue, and metallic gold. Aside from the religious themes described above, other decorations appear. The frescoes themselves are framed in geometric designs and, in Aals, the lower border of the frescoes consists of a battle scene of men on horseback fighting with shield and sword. Saxthorp reports that this kind of battle scene has also been found in England. The Gothic frescoes, filling the spaces created by the ribs of the Gothic arch, are less rigid. The Romanesque fresco is rectangular, following the Romanesque wall space. The Gothic fresco is bounded by curved lines. Each curved space becomes a vignette of a Biblical story, and the succession of arches tells the whole tale: the Annunciation next to the Nativity, followed by the Flight to Egypt; the Betrayal in the Garden, the Appearance before Pilate; the Flogging of Christ and the Via Dolorosa, But, in the Gothic, while the major story takes up most of the area, the lower corners are devoted to other forms. Unicorns and other fabulous animals are found; grotesque masks are shown; hunters with bows and horns go on their way. The stories told often have human touches. In one church, while the Wise Men adore Christ, Joseph sits down before the fire eating his supper. Allegories are told: the story of the swiftly growing grain; the prayers of the rich man contrasted with those of the poor man; devils keeping the butter from coming while the good wife is churning; devils souring the beer by urinating into the barrel, spoiling the bread by defecating into the flour, or creating winds and waves that sink ships at sea.
- In the Gothic period, the judgment scene becomes alive with action. The devils drag the doomed souls into the Mouth of Hell in chains. The flames erupt from the open mouth and, in the crowd of sinners, one can see a king, a pope, a bishop, and abbess, and a friar. In one church a devil pushes a woman into Hell's mouth in a wheelbarrow. The tortures of Hell are shown in detail. The wall is alive with the contrasts of the saved and the damned. And there are moral admonitions: the Wheel of Fortune and the Memento Mori. In Saeby, one can view the old man dying and his soul being received by the angel, to the dismay of the hovering devil. In the lower lefthand corner, the servant is pouring beer for the young wife and her lover. The wife has her arm around her lover's waist while he is running his hands through the money chest. Above the scene the moral is clearly stated: "You may be dead, but your gold is red."
- What do such frescoes imply for the student of Irish history and culture? There can be little doubt that the churches of Ireland were decorated with frescoes similar to those found in the churches of the Continent. The Irish artist-scholars who embellished the Book of Kells with page after page of paintings, and who used the space between the lines of text to show a fish or a running dog, would likely have covered the walls of their church with frescoes. Since the early Celtic church had richly worked altar vessels, and the prelates had finely wrought croziers and embroidered robes, was it likely that they would have left the House of God without ornamentation? Although the frescoes of Ireland are gone, they may have had an influence on the daily life of the Irish. How can this influence be estimated? Only through a study of extant frescoes in other countries. The student of Irish culture must look to those countries where the frescoes remain in the small village church, Medieval Denmark. As a matter of record, a group of artists who painted the frescoes in Brarup, in Denmark, are known to have worked in seven other Danish churches and to have painted in several churches in southern Sweden, at that time part of Denmark, where they are known as the Everlov Masters. It may well be appropriate for the student of Irish history to study the frescoes of the Scandinavian churches to find if they will contribute to a better understanding of medieval Ireland.
-  Brian De Breffny, The Churches and Abbeys of lreland (New York: Norton, I 97 6), p. 9.
-  De Breffny, p. 8.
-  De Breffny, p. 9.
-  L. Dietrichson, De norske Stavekirker (Copenhagen, 1892), p. 225.
-  Peter Anker, The Art of Scandinavia (London: Paul Hamlyn, I970), I, 215.
-  Maire and Conor Cruise O'Brien, A Concise History of Ireland (New York: Beekman House, 1972), p. 4I.
-  De Breffny, p. 29.
-  Oeystein Hjort,KalkmalerierFraDanskeLanbykirker(Copenhagen:Rhodos, 1969), n.p.
-  Neils M. Saxtorp, Jeg Ser Paa Kalkmalerier (Copenhagen: Politikens Forlag, I970), p. 12.
-  Saxtorp, p. 8.
-  Aron Andersson, TheArt of Scandinavia (London: Paul Hamlyn, I970), II, 232.
- [I2] De Breffny, p. 57.
- [I3] Otto Demus, Romanesque Mural Paintings (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1970), index.
-  Saxtorp, index.