Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Glendalough: St Saviour's Priory

The Romanesque chancel arch

After my visit to St Mary’s Church/Lady Chapel, I retraced my steps back to the excavation. While my stay at the church had been restful and contemplative, the excavation brought a whole raft of conflicting emotions. At that time it was the first excavation I’d visited since leaving the profession, four years previously. I simultaneously felt drawn to the immediacy of discovery and the so many other positive things that I remembered fondly from my old life. Sure, there were reminders of other aspects of the profession I was keen to leave behind – the sore back & knees, the pay, the constantly being covered in dirt – but there in the sunshine on a well-run research dig it was the good bits that predominated. It was emotional.

Romanesque capital

I put my cameras and other gear back in the bag, slung my tripod over my shoulder and set off towards the car park. As I turned to go back over the bridge, my eye was caught by the sign that pointed away down the valley in the other direction to St Saviour’s. My eye passed over it … I wasn’t going to go that way today! That was it … I opened the car, put my stuff in the boot and sat in. I got as far as putting the key in the ignition when it struck me that my appointment in south Dublin wasn’t for several hours … it was a gorgeous, bright sunny day … why not walk to St Saviour’s? I locked up the car and again headed towards the bridge. I got as far as the sign and paused … if I was going to see the church, I may as well bring my camera, right? So, back to the car! Well if I’m going to bring the cameras, I may as well bring the tripod to take some 3D shots, right? How far can it be, right? The tripod’s not that heavy, right? … As they say in Northern Ireland: ‘Aye, Right!’, meaning: ‘No, Wrong!’.

View through the chancel arch to the east window

Now lugging my equipment, I was back at the turn-off by the bridge. Once I was set foot on this literal ‘one less travelled by’ the change was instantaneous … the crowds heading to the Round Tower and Kevin’s ‘Kitchen’ and I went our separate ways. And with them went their noise and hubbub … it was practically silent here under the canopy of the trees. The main path was full of visitors and it was occasionally difficult to ensure that we didn’t hit one another with a swinging arm or bag, or even step on someone else’s heel. Out here it was different … there were so few travellers that we greeted each other cordially as we passed. I had been walking for a while and the narrow strap on the Manfrotto tripod was really starting to dig into my shoulder. The camera bag wasn’t feeling too light, either. It was around this point that I realised that I hadn’t had anything to drink all day and was feeling particularly dehydrated. Things didn’t get much better when I stopped a passing walker to ask if they knew how much further the church was. Their response was: “Ha! You’ve a way to go yet!” Not exactly encouraging. I spoke to a second walker who, gesturing vaguely, told me that they’d come onto this path five or six miles back and hadn’t seen any church. Even less encouraging. I’ve got nothing against a good long walk, but I had in my possession Peter Harbison’s Guide to the National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, and it clearly said that St Saviour’s was ‘about half a mile further down the valley floor from the main cluster of monuments’. There are few things you can rely on in Irish archaeology but, by god, you can depend on Harbison! … can’t you? Actually, measuring it now on Google Maps, it’s over twice that distance. On the day, the weight of the book in the camera bag and my dehydrated state may also have contributed to the dark thoughts directed at Harbison and this church.

Detail on the chancel arch

Sometimes, when you’re lost or just ‘lacking in locational certainty’, seeing a signpost can bring much needed relief. Sometimes. Not today. Tucked away on the verge and moderately easy to miss was a small, low sign pointing to St Saviour’s. It was directing me onto a rough, unsurfaced path that appeared to dive into the belly of the valley and through a thick scrubby forest. It probably comes from growing up in the metropolitan fastness of rural Galway, but if the Dublin Jackeens aren’t to be trusted on general principles, you have to really watch yourself in Wicklow – it’s like one long uninterrupted scene from Boormann’s Deliverance. Yep … Wicklow is Ireland’s Georgia … and you don’t just plunge into the forest without taking precautions. After looking both ways to make sure I wasn’t being followed, I adjusted the head of the tripod so I could, if necessary, turn it into a large club to defend myself. I can attest, from an encounter many years ago,* that a Manfrotto tripod wielded with brute force and ignorance can do a surprising amount of damage. One way or another, if I was ambushed by Wicklow Hillbillies, I wasn’t going down without a fight! Think: more Burt Reynolds than Ned Beatty. In retrospect, the dehydration may have been biting deeper into my subconscious that I realised at the time. Warily, I plodded into the gloom of the forest, ever on the lookout for banjo players. Down, down, down the trail went and just as I was really feeling the paranoia, the vista opened up and I was back into the sunlight. And there in the middle of it all, shining like a national guitar, was St Saviour’s Priory.

The chancel arch from inside the later addition to the north

St Saviour’s is a nave-and-chancel church that contains the very finest Romanesque decoration to be found in any of the Glendalough sites. It is often said that the church was founded by St Lawrence O’Toole in 1162 but, on stylistic grounds, it may be slightly earlier. The chancel arch and the east window are both decorated with a variety of well-executed Romanesque motifs, including geometric shapes, along with human and animal heads. In particular, the chancel arch is rather spectacular and is composed of three orders, on finely decorated capitals. Unfortunately, many of the arch stones were clearly replaced in the wrong positions when the church was conserved in the 19th century. In the later medieval period much of the chancel was reconstructed when a second, rather plain building was added on the north side of the church. This second building also included a stairway to a room above the chancel.

Exterior of the east window

While the central area of Glendalough was heavily visited by tourists this, like Lady Chapel, was almost deserted. Almost. When I got there a couple were happily installed and having lunch on the boundary wall. They were rather surprised at my sudden appearance, attempting to look like I wasn’t brandishing a tripod as a weapon. In fact, they were so certain that they were not going to be disturbed, they had set their picnic up directly over the access style into the site. They were very accommodating and moved their stuff to allow me onto the site. Their offer of a bottle of water was also greedily accepted and did much for my state of mind as well as state of body. After some convivial conversation, I went about to explore the site. To be honest, there’s little of interest in the later medieval building. Even in the main church building, the primary foci are the chancel arch and the east window … but what jewels they are! I divided my time between gasping in #RomanesqueFanboyAwe, trying to take photographs that did the carvings justice, and simply sitting in the sunshine, enjoying the place and the serenity.

Overview from the east

Eventually, it was time to head back towards the car. I bade goodbye to both this wonderful site and the kind, picnicking couple and headed back into the forest, refreshed, relaxed, and reinvigorated … but I still kept a grip on the tripod and a wary eye out for passing Hillbillies …

Another Romanesque capital
Another detail of the chancel arch
more chancel arch

Window in the south wall

Overview of the south wall and entrance.

* Long story, don’t ask.

Much of the detail about the individual sites has been rather shamelessly taken from some excellent sites & I urge you to go and explore them too:

To view the 3D Images you’ll need a pair of red/blue glasses. These can be purchased relatively cheaply from Amazon [here].

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