Gothic Ireland: Saint Patrick’s Cathedral

Artistic and Architectural highlights of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral 

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland, located in Dublin. It is also designated as the local cathedral of the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. The site was initially known for a holy well that was used by Saint Patrick for baptisms and, thereafter,  a church was established in the late 5th century.  The cathedral was founded in 1192 by Archbishop John Comyn and is the largest medieval church in Ireland which boasts of aisled ten-bay lady chapels, retrochoir, and nave with both west and east sides to the transepts.  It has undergone heavy repairs and restoration work since the mid-19th century and most of it has lasted until the 20th century. 

Critical Elements 

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Saint Patrick 

This solid stone sculpture of the revered Saint is a compilation of multiple additions that it has received over different periods. This can be divided into two categories: the body and the head. The body dates back to the 1300s, while the head was produced around the 17th century and is believed to have replaced the original stone head which could have been damaged for various reasons. This sculpture was created in honour of the great Saint, who was a 5th-century bishop in Ireland. Whilst observing the arms of the sculpture, it is evident that they have endured great damage. The “new” head also seems to be disproportionate to the rest of the Saint’s body and has a slight tilt to it. The clothes exude seamless creases and provide an illusion of multiple layers of clothing tucked underneath. The detailing on the face, especially the Saint’s expressions, are mystically gravitating, and, thus, the intricacy and aesthetics of the sculpture are realised. 

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Crossing Piers 

Gothic architecture embraced the idea of crossing piers, which have been an integral part of their blueprint. This pier, which is located on the northwest side of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, opens up access to transept arms, the nave on the west, and the chancel to the east. The unbroken vaulting shafts are there to emphasise the Gothic interiors. Even though the crossing piers never required reinforcement, it still shows the design laid out by the master mason, and, as the image shows, it is to accentuate the “verticality” and exude a tall but slim work of masonry.  

Since there is little to no evidence of a central tower of stone, it made sense to make the enlargement of the crossing in a way that may impede the flow of space from one part of the structure to another. It eventually results in an integrated and well-designed interior that expresses the “classic” era of Gothic architecture. The masonry is crisp and precise, and the entire structure comes together through the intricacy put into each element. 

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Nave 

As one of the most integral parts of a church, the nave (pictured above) underwent massive restorations in the mid-19th century. As a result of these restorations, the nave was brought to the level of the choir, and it got a new ceiling.

The change in the interior brought more light and warmth into the nave. The screens that initially separated the nave, transepts, and the choir were stripped off. The two-story high ceiling and the pointed arches gave the church a unique gothic style of its own. The patterned floor tiles along with the valet shafts that were placed directly against the choir turned the nave into a more welcoming and open area. 

The interiors are indeed quite ‘sharp’ as can be observed in the church’s nave. When facing straight, directly towards the choir area, the interiors are reminiscent of  true Gothic architecture. 

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Archbishop Tregury 

One of the most treasured antiquities within the church is the stone figurine of Archbishop Michael Tregury, who died in 1471. Research indicates that he was an Oxford alumnus and served as a chaplain to King Henry VI of England. It was fixed to the wall on the north side of the western door, from which it had to be removed because of a decayed chapel at the west end of the south aisle. He is sculptured on a very plain slab along with his pontificals, surrounded with gothic inscriptions. While observing the effigy closely, most parts of the figurine are intact, except the nose. The detailing of his robe is admirable and he is seen holding an angel, who is presenting the shield of England. 

Execution of the detailing on the cross is also quite noticeable as are the carvings on his hands, which is because of the attention paid by the sculptor to the inanimate objects. 

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Choir 

The choir at St Patrick is four bays long, aisled, and has a three-storey elevation. Here, single filleted shafts are made to engage directly against the faces of the piers. The work of the master mason in St Patrick’s Cathedral shows usage of an octagonal core that can accommodate arcade arches of three orders and still have room for a shaft. 

Although much of the surface area of the walls of the tower, as well as lateral walls of the choir, seem to be original except for the repositioning, most of the exterior part (in particular the stone trim) has been replaced.  We can draw parallels between the importance of the choir and its altar, which serves as the heart of the cathedral, with the architectural rebuilding of this particular section as both of them prove to be of incredible importance. The designer of St Patrick’s also needs to be credited for creating east of the crossing as one of the most successful compositions of insular Gothic architecture. Even though the designer decided not to overdo this area, the incredible result of his restraint paid off eventually. 

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Capitals

When analysing the interiors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, multiple beautifully sculpted capitals can be observed within the interiors of the historic building. This particular kind of foliate capital flourished in the Classical Period, and has been retained and enriched by local elements in possibly the late 12th or early 13th centuries. This style is unique in terms of the verticals that push the leaves up only to curl around every side of the capitals. Instead of finding the traditional Irish trefoil leaves, which were common in the Cathedral, this particular capital presents two types of leaves. Additionally, instead of presenting a more clear, dynamic, or even symmetrical representation that follows conventional capital methods, this one goes on to showcase a more au natural style with only one kind of plant, in the absence of any other shapes or human faces. It gives the capital a more natural and nuanced composition, and exudes an impression of leaves moving and tossing in the wind outside.

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Crossing Vaults 

Many important buildings over the centuries seem to have never received masonry vaults. At Saint Patrick’s, ribs are either partly or wholly restored. The original webs have been composed of roughly split or shaped pieces of stone arranged in a tapered fashion. The webs were smoothly plastered over and marked with lines, as this was widespread in medieval times. Masonry of both brick and stone, most likely stemming from restorations of the 19th and 20th century, create the vaults of the choir and south transept, and most of the south aisle which is directly above the nave. 

The crossing vaults keep to the aesthetic principle of gothic architecture, and crossing lines give the ceiling a taller and sleeker look overall. There are also instances wherein vaults of lath and plaster simulating stone occur in the Lady Chapel. The early tattered remains of the original vaulting in St Patrick’s are probably of little interest now, except for the extreme roughness of those in the south transept aisles, but the execution of the nave vaults was truly extraordinary. 

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Head at the end of the hood 

This carved portrait of Saint Patrick is located on the south side of the upper storey in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The restoration date on this portrait sculpture appears to be around the 19th century, and it must have been retouched several times. Unlike the floral or leaf capitals, human portraits and heads (in this case Saint Peter’s) functioned as decorations for aesthetic reasons. The portrait is carved in stone and is not as detailed as the solid stone sculpture of Saint Patrick. The artistic technique does not do justice to the world of portrait sculptures, as the refinement seems to be missing. It has a very wide and protruding nose and lips, but a well-defined face structure. The motif adds to the interior of the church by giving it more character that might not have been fulfilled otherwise. 

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral remains of the most cherished and beloved institutions within Ireland, primarily due to its history and importance within the Catholic community. Amongst the focal points discussed above, there are various other elements that make the church a very famous tourist attraction. Nevertheless, it has and will remain subject to intensive studies and research by historians, theologians and architects for the foreseeable future.

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About the author

Gandharva Joshi

Recent 23 year old MPhil in Art History and Architecture graduate from Trinity College who holds great passion for the arts, culture and heritage industries. You can usually find me painting, reading or watching World War 2 documentaries on Netflix. Contact me for any info or collaboration ideas on my Instagram- @notjoshie

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