Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Church at Kildare - a lost reality?

The description of the church at Kildare by Cogitosus has given rise to some scholarly controversy. In the past it has been suggested that the whole thing is no more than a literary conceit on the part of the hagiographer. In the 1960s, for example, one scholar argued that the description of the church at Kildare was a 'pure figment of the imagination' inspired by a desire to imitate Adamanan's description of the the Anastasis Rotunda in Jerusalem in his work, De Locis Sanctis. I have been reading a recent paper, however, which accepts the historical reality of the church as described by Cogitosus and which seeks to explain it against the backdrop of seventh-century ecclesiastical politics. The author argues that the architectural peculiarities of Kildare can be explained by imitatio Romae, a self-conscious desire on the part of this Irish foundation to ape the features of Roman churches. Here is some of the evidence she offers:

Why does Kildare diverge from the other Irish churches of its day to accommodate a longitudinal barrier down the centre of its nave to separate worshippers by gender, even to the extent of foregoing a western door? The answer may be that Kildare was copying a foreign precedent, not from Africa or Spain as proposed by Radford and Thomas, but rather from Rome. In the Roman ordines, particularly in the seventh-century Ordo I, there are consistent parallelisms of layout and function with the approximately synchronous church at Kildare. In the ordines, the congregation in the nave was separated by sex with the men to the south and the women to the north, as elsewhere in the early church....

...Additional features of Kildare may demonstrate Roman influence. At St Peter's it is unlikely that the faithful used the central doorway ; instead they used lateral doors, two on the north for women and two on the south for men. Kildare with its single gender-specific doorways in the north and south walls of the nave, may provide a scaled-down version of this aspect of St Peter's. The draperies at Kildare were also echoed at Rome as elsewhere in the early church... Whatever the placement and function of the draperies of Kildare's chancel barrier, both the determination to purchase them and Cogitosus's decision to describe them may suggest knowledge of Roman practice and the prestige that costly fabrics could confer.

The evidence suggests that the community of Kildare were aware both of Ordo Romanus I and of specific Roman structures, possibly through pilgrims' reports, and that they were willing and able to modify received ideas to fit the more modest scale and liturgical needs of an Irish monastic church. No particular Roman church is imitated in all particulars, but Roman precedent in general was applied effectively and with probable intent.

Why would Kildare, in reconstructing its monastic church in the mid-seventh century, depart from generalized norms of Irish church construction in order to follow Rome? The answer may lie in contemporary ecclesiastical politics. In the Prologue to his Life of Brigit, Cogitosus claims for Kildare a position of authority in Ireland 'It is the head of almost all the Irish churches with supremacy over all the monasteries of the Irish and its paruchia extends over the whole land of Ireland, reaching from sea to sea'. This is more a statement of ambition than of fact, as Kildare's claims to authority were eventually overpowered by those of Armagh. By the mid-seventh century, if current concensus is accurate in dating the Liber Angeli, Armagh was indentifying itself with Rome in that text in a bid for metropolitan status, a concept in itself profoundly Roman... The deliberate imitatio Romae of its splendid new monastic church, in combination with the claims to ecclesiastical power and advancement of the cult of its founder saint by Cogitosus's Vita, may be the otherwise silenced voice of Kildare in a climate of severe competition and exclusion.. Far from being a figment of scholarly imagination, the Romanitas of the monastic church at Kildare as described by Cogitosus may well be a stratagem in the realpolitik of the internal struggles of the church and the dynastic rivalries of mid-seventh century Ireland.

Carol Neuman de Vegvar, 'Romanitas and Realpolitik in Cogitosus' Description of the Church of St Brigit, Kildare' in Martin Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (Boydell Press, 2006), 153-167.

This post was first published here.


Anonymous said...

Well done for another excellent post!

Anonymous said...

This series is extremely informative and goes well with the Priests sermon on the occasion of the Mass. Simon.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating idea. Are there other examples of the Roman influence in Ireland? I know that there were some Christians in Ireland before Patrick and probably some Romans or peoples with Roman heritage but is there any evidence of a creeping Roman/esque influence in Ireland so early?

Brigit said...

I'm certainly not an expert in this area but it seems that the pendulum has swung back in favour of Roman influence on the Irish Church among scholars. In the past, the enthusiasm for a distinct 'Celtic church' which was supposedly independent of Rome and even opposed to it, denied the reality that the Irish were an integral part of the wider western Church. Yes, there were some distinctive practices in the matter of the dating of Pascha and in monastic practices like tonsure, for example, but scholars now argue that it was not as if everyone else in Europe had a uniformity of practice and the Irish alone were the odd ones out. You can see the Irish regard for Rome in all sorts of ways from the fact that many Irish saints were credited with going to Rome on pilgrimage to the 'threshold of the apostles' to the story that St Brigid herself sent to Rome for the latest liturgical texts. I thought that the theory of the church at Kildare being a deliberate imitatio Romae made sense. I've also been reading a good paper which argues that Rome was the major influence on Irish high crosses. Again in the past, this influence was attributed to Egypt and used to argue that the early Irish Church was more eastern than western. So, my sense is that scholars are now seeing the Irish church in a somewhat different context today.

Anonymous said...

Didn't St. Conlaeth die on pilgrimage to Rome?

Without the obvious Roman references that are to be found the whole of Western Europe except Scotland and Ireland some of us are overlooking the obvious influence of Roman Christianity on the Church in Ireland but they have to paper over a lot of references starting with St. Patrick if not earlier.

Where did St. Ailbe come from if not the Roman diaspora?

Brigit said...

Yes, I agree with you and I am certainly not arguing otherwise. In the past Protestants sought to argue that the Irish Church was independent of Rome and even hostile to it. It's an untenable thesis which although abandoned by serious scholars has, however, received a new lease of life among devotees of 'Celtic Christianity' keen to make the early church here fit into a contemporary mould. Such people portray the 'Celts' as free-spirited egalitarian souls who were not into negative concepts like sin or authority, which they blame big bad Rome for having introduced. It's bunk, of course, but because it taps into contemporary culture it's what a lot of people want to believe. If this scholar is right about the church at Kildare being deliberately modelled on Roman lines it portrays the Irish church not as something peripheral but as an integral part of western Christendom.

Thanks for your comment which has inspired me to start working on a post on the topic of irish pilgrimage to Rome!

Virgo Potens said...

Dear Brigit, I congratulate you for your good works on this site and your own. We need to gather forces of prayer and grace to bring Christ back to the centre of Celtic Spirituality.