THE INSTRUMENTS OF THE PASSION AT NEW ABBEY, KILCULLEN
by Sean Landers
It seems appropriate at this time of the year, with Easter just around the corner, to discuss one of the side-panels on the Portlester tomb in New Abbey cemetery. It is a remarkable piece of carving. Also known as the Arma Christi, the Arms of Christ, it became very popular in Irish Art of the 15th century and may be found on quite a few of the funerary monuments that have survived from that period . Such was the potency of the images that they continued to be used in folk art even into the 18th century where they may be found on tombstones and Penal crosses. Baron Portlester, Sir Roland FitzEustace, died in 1496 and was buried in front of the High Altar of the Franciscan friary he had founded ten years earlier on the bank of the Liffey. A fine tomb bearing his effigy and that of his third wife, Margaret D’Artois, was placed over his grave. The panel I would like to discuss, along with a similar panel showing the coat-of-arms of Sir Roland and that of his wife, formed part of one of the long sides of the monument on either side of a panel depicting St. Francis. At some time after 1853- they are shown intact in a drawing by drawing by W. H. Brooke taken from “The Publications of the Antiquarian Etching Club For the Year 1853” – both panels suffered some damage. The right side of the coat-of-arms was broken off and there is a crack running up though the centre of the other panel. There is no information as to where these tombs were produced. There must have been workshops, possibly in Dublin City. The name of only one master sculptor has survived for the simple reason that Rory O’Tunny added his name to the inscriptions on the tombs he carved and it is said he worked in the Kilkenny area. It has been suggested that several sculptors may have worked on a tomb. The task of carving the effigies would have been given to the master while the less demanding work such as the Passion panel would have been assigned to the apprentices. Even so, the New Abbey example is one of the finest that has survived in the country.
The shield is supported by three angels, one on either side and a third at the back within a circular frame or rondel. They wear padded tunics with long sleeves and their wings extend downwards to fill the space between the shield and the frame. They have long curly hair, Only the neck and head of the angel at the back can be seen and his delicately-carved hands are resting on the top of the shield. His wings stretch out to fill the upper part of the roundel as if to protect the images on the shield. Three of the four small triangles between the frame and the square which encloses it are decorated with stiff leaf ornament but the upper left one there is a small two-legged dragon. This carving is not decorative. Undoubtedly, this small figure represents the Devil and was intended to remind the observer that Christ through his Passion destroyed the powers of Satan.
The Instruments are not arranged in any particular order, either chronologically or theologically although the Cross is placed at the centre. It is T-shaped. Overhead are three small square objects. They can be identified as the dice used by the Roman soldiers to cast lots for Christ’s outer garment: “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it.” Suspended from the left arm of the cross is a large circular object that resembles two rings that have been wound around one another. This is the Crown of Thorns: “And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head” On the left of the shield is a lance with a trefoil shaped object on top of it, which seems to be punched with small holes.” This is the sponge which was dipped in sour wine and gall and offered to Christ. John writes: “After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost. ”
The next object is the Pillar at which Christ was scourged. In John’s account, he simply writes: “Then Pilate therefore took Jesus and scourged him.” There is no reference in the Gospel accounts to such a pillar but is usually occurs in images of this scene. The New Abbey example is intended to represent a Roman column with a base and a plain capital and a spiral decoration around it. To the left and slightly above the pillar is a scourge with three knotted lashes. To the right are two more scourges. Both of them seem to have four knots. although Lord Walter FitzGerald in his description of the panels states that one has five knots. One expert remarks: “In the later Middle Ages, probably under the influence of Passion plays, the number of men beating Christ may be three or four. This may explain why there are three scourges.
Leaning against the right arm of the Cross are two objects. That on the left is a spear or lance. The upper part of the shaft is badly damaged. It is quite long and touches the bottom of the shield. John writes: “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.” Beside it is a ladder with twelve rungs. This was used to removed the body of Christ from the Cross. It forms a central part of one of the images of the Passion known as the Deposition. According to John: ” And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.” Closely associated with the Cross are some objects between the ladder and the side of the panel. are a hammer with a nail extractor, three nails and pincers to remove the nails. No reference is made to these objects in the gospel narrative. John simply states:” Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.” The most interesting object on the shield is the cock which seems to be emerging from a three-legged pot. Lord Walter FitzGerald writes:” and lastly, a skillet, or three-legged pot, in which stands a crowing cock in full plumage (the tradition is that the cock was being boiled at the other end of the Judgment Hall during our Lord’s examination by Pontius Pilate, and that, on the third denial of Him by St Peter, it stood up and crowed, in fulfilment of our Lord’s prophecy).” There is another more likely explanation. This has its origin in one of the Gospel apocrypha called the Gospel of Nicodemus which dates from the fourth century. Judas having repented of his betrayal of Christ, brings the thirty pieces of sliver back to the priests. He casts the money down and leaves them. The text continues: “And departing to his house to make a halter of a rope to hang himself, he found his wife sitting and roasting a cock on a fire of coals or in a pan before eating it: and saith to her: Rise up, wife. and provide me a rope, for I would hang myself as I deserve. But his wife said to him: Why sayest the such things? And Judas said to her: Know of a truth I have wickedly betrayed my master Jesus to the evil-doers for Pilate to put him to death: but he will rise again on the third day, and woe unto us! And his wife said to him: Say not nor think not so: for as well as this cock that is roasting on the fire can crow, just so well shall Jesus rise again, as thou sayest. And immediately at her word the cock spread his wings and crowed thrice. Then was Judas more convinced and straightaway made the halter of rope and hanged himself”.
The Instruments are powerful symbols and much more evocative in prayer and reflection than any more explicit image might be. Significantly, an image of St. Francis is placed to the right of this shield. He is displaying the stigmata or the wounds of the crucified Christ. His right hand is raised in blessing and his left hand is opening the front of his habit to expose the wound in his side. Finally. it should be remember that these carvings would originally have been painted and the effect would have been quite dramatic.