Medieval Period Shrines

Crest of bell shrine, circa 9th century A.D.

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This highly decorated portion of an early medieval bell shrine is made from cast bronze which has been gilt and silvered on one side and silvered on the other.

It is the crest of a shrine or reliquary which would originally have enshrined an early church bell, perhaps associated with either an important monastic site or perhaps the personal bell of an important abbot or other church dignitary. Some of the more important shrines were seen as the focus of pilgrimage during medieval and later times. Other shrine types are house shaped shrines which took the form of early churches, book shrines and crosiers, like the portion of a crosier from Durrow, Co Offaly featured elsewhere on this site.

This bell shrine crest  has a hollow d-shaped body which would originally have accommodated the curved bell handle within it. It has two loops on its upper surface, presumably designed for the suspension of the shrine on a strap or straps.

The front of the crest depicts the upper bodies of a human between two animals with amber studded discs between them. The studs are surrounded by interlace typical of this period. The individual appears to grasp the jaws of a pair of long necked animals. It has been suggested that this may be a representation of Daniel in the Lion's Den. Interpretations of this biblical scene are also to be found on the high crosses and in the decorated manuscripts of the early historic period.

The back of the piece is decorated with interlace, hatching and spiral and trumpet patterns. The single amber stud is the centrepiece of a cruciform pattern which extended into four arms each of which has an outstretched hand at its extremity.

This example is possibly the earliest example of a bell shrine or fragment in the Museum's collections. The presence of amber studs, two on the front and one on the back, suggests a date of at least the early ninth century however. By this time amber was replacing the usage of enamel and glass which was extensive in decorative. metalwork throughout the eight century AD and before.

There are a number of more complete bell shrines which are at least a couple of centuries later in date such as St Patrick's bell shrine associated with Armagh and St Senan's bell shrine and outer casing from Scattery Island, Co Clare which features elsewhere on this website. These, along with other shrine types, were added to progressively at different times, for example during the later medieval period.

A number of Irish shrines are also known on the continent, in Bobbio and Bologna in Italy for instance. Fragments of shrines have also been found in Viking graves in the west of Norway.

The find place of this shrine crest is unknown.

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