The Waterford Kite Brooch

The Waterford Kite Brooch is Ireland's finest piece of early 12th century secular metalwork, being commissioned almost certainly by a layperson. This is by far the finest of the thirteen kite-shaped brooches found to date in Ireland. Made of a hollow cast silver box and decorated with sumptuous gold filigree, impressed gold foil, amethyst-coloured cabochon glass studs and niello, it was made to close a cloak and had a long pin on the back; the hinge and short section of the pin remain. The brooch was secured by a chain or cord and worn such that the mask was positioned facing the wearer and the pin pointing away from the wearer. Longer pins protruding could cause injury to a passerby who could under ancient Irish law seek compensation for damage done. Irish law also stipulated that people had to wear brooches appropriate to their status.

It is a remarkable and well-preserved find from the excavations of Waterford city centre between 1986 and 1992 and bears testimony to the wealth and sophistication of the city's inhabitants. It was found in a pit in Peter Street having presumably been lost. Secular metalwork was not as highly valued as church so when jewellery went out of fashion it was simply melted down and the materials reused. To date it is the sole really ornate piece of Irish jewellery to survive from this period and has many traits in common with contemporary ecclesiastical metalwork, e.g. St. Patrick's bellshrine.

In its use of low-relief ornament bordered by strips of niello it is matched by the Lismore crozier group of reliquaries. Kite brooches are in the native Irish tradition with some English, continental European and Scandinavian influences and the Waterford brooch perfectly reflects the Irish-Viking town of Waterford. New research is revealing the complexity of the arrangement of the tiny filigree pieces. A lozenge-shaped dress fastener has many parallels in both early Christian and Byzantine models. The Virgin in the 'Virgin and Child' page of the Book of Kells wears a kite brooch on her shoulder.

date/period: c.1100 A.D./Viking

inventory no.: 1999.0488

collection: Waterford City Council

location: Waterford Museum of Treasures exhibition

dimensions: brooch 39mm x 27mm x 6mm; Incomplete pin 26.5mm Weighs 20.6g

provenance: found in excavations of Waterford city centre 1986-1992

material: gold, silver, glass

Further Reading:

  • Late Viking Age & Medieval Waterford Excavations 1986-1992. ISBN 1 872002 98 6
  • Raghnall Floinn, 'Schools of Metalworking in eleventh and twelfth-century Ireland', Ireland and Insular Art A.D. 500-1200, Dublin 1987

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