Surrounded by apartments and industrial buildings north of the Liffey, the modest exterior of St. Michan’s Parish Church belies the historical interest and ghoulish appeal of its more hidden features.
Standing on the site of a late 11th-century Hiberno-Viking church, the current structure mostly dates to 1685. Without the ornate stonework found in cathedrals like St. Patrick’s and Christ Church, the interior decoration is almost exclusively determined by the floral patterns in the plaster ceiling and stained glass windows. This relative austerity serves to highlight, through contrast, the baroque 18th-century organ that dominates one end of the nave. According to the church’s oral history, this is the instrument on which Handel first played his Messiah.
Charming as the nave may be, most travelers visit St. Michan’s for the contents of its vaults. Sealed behind heavy iron doors, past precarious, narrow stone steps, lie the mummified remains of some of Dublin’s most privileged and notorious citizens. Spilling out of their wooden coffins, St. Michan’s long-term residents have been drawing in visitors since the Victorian era, including Dracula author Bram Stoker. Consistent with Church policy, most of the subterranean occupants are off-limits to public view, and three of the five vaults are closed completely. However, limited public access is permissible—under the supervision of the caretaker—in cases where the caskets have decayed and broken naturally, and where the bodies are either unidentified or no longer have family to care for them.
The most exposed and accessible mummies all lie in the same room and have been dubbed the Unknown Woman, the Nun, the Thief, and the Crusader. Of these, probably only the “Unknown Woman” is accurately named. The “Crusader”—whose remains post-date the Crusades by several hundred years—was over six-and-a-half feet tall and therefore exceptionally large for his time. Too big for his coffin, his legs have been broken and folded over to get him to fit. Visitors were once encouraged to shake his hand for luck, and are still invited to gently touch his extended finger, now smoothly polished from over a hundred years of strangers’ light caresses.
Photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 30, 2013, unless otherwise indicated.
Now the largest church in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral began as a small wooden chapel beside the well where, according to tradition, its namesake baptized early converts to Christianity in the 5th century. The first stone structure on the site was erected in the late 12th century, and much of the current church dates to work done between 1220 and 1270. The building has undergone several waves of reconstruction and restoration since then, but the most extensive modern-era renovations occurred in the 1860s with funding provided by Sir Benjamin Guinness (1798–1868) of the Guinness brewing dynasty. Neo-Gothic flying buttresses on the exterior date from this time. Today, the church is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland.
Several impressive tomb monuments commemorate notable Dubliners, including Jonathan Swift, buried within the cathedral. Of particular note is the 17th century Boyle family tomb, which possesses an enormous, elaborate, and colorful facade that dominates the west end of the church.
In addition to the funereal monuments, the church’s interior is punctuated throughout by more purely decorative stonework. Compared to the carvings of the nearby Christ Church, Saint Patrick’s sculptural details feel heavier and less fully integrated into an overall decorative design. But what the cathedral’s scheme lacks in unity it makes up for in personality. The animal and (mostly male) human heads adorning the interior tend to be roughly life-size, deeply carved, and highly individualized, often with surprisingly expressive facial hair. Comic realism is juxtaposed with archaic abstraction, and the overall effect is one of a community of individuals in which each member demands its own scrutiny and appreciation.
In addition to being one of Ireland’s largest and most embellished houses of worship, Christ Church also has the distinction of being the country’s oldest cathedral. It was originally established by Dunan, the city’s first bishop, and Sitric, the Hiberno-Norse king of Dublin (r. ca. 995–1036). In 1186, the Anglo-Norman archbishop, John Cumin, rebuilt the church. This building stood for several centuries, and was eventually co-opted for more secular uses. The nave, for instance, once held a market, while taverns resided in the 12th century crypt.
By the Victorian era, the building had fallen into disrepair. Its current appearance, therefore, owes much to the architect George Street, who was in charge of its remodeling in the 1870s. One of the structure’s most unusual features, a bridge that stretches across the road to Synod Hall, was added at that time. The crypt was restored later, in 2000. Today, Christ Church is the cathedral for the Church of Ireland diocese of Dublin and Glendalough, but it retains features from its varied history. A market is held (outside) on the grounds in summer, and visitors can still find refreshments in the crypt.
The church’s striking buttressed exterior has become a symbol for the city, but the interior’s sculptural decoration is arguably even more impressive. Encompassing both organic and geometric designs, the cathedral’s details are unusually complex, with delicate, layered tendrils of rock curling around empty space and finely wrought heads poking out between stony flora. The milky white marble and fluid, smoothly textured carvings lend the walls around the nave a particularly lickable quality, as if the whole structure were fabricated of firm vanilla ice cream. Downstairs in the crypt, the stonework tends to be rougher, the lighting darker. This subterranean area includes tomb monuments, a cafe, and a mummified cat and rat, as well as temporary exhibitions.
The Art Institute of Chicago recently published the first of several planned online scholarly catalogues based on its collection. This flagship edition focuses on the museum’s paintings and drawings by Monet, and promises to be an incredible free resource for scholars and the mildly curious alike. In addition to contextual essays, technical reports, and extensive documentation, the entries include enlargeable, high-resolution images that allow viewers to see the works in greater detail than would be possible even in the galleries. The following are screenshots of these photographs.