A window of stained glass in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)
Anothr stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)
The first version of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin was built of wood just after AD 1028 by the Viking king Sitric Silkenbeard–doesn’t that tell you a lot about him already? It sounds like he could have been Santa Claus! The stone church which is still standing was built by Strongbow and the English in AD 1170 as part of their attempt to invade and subjugate Ireland. The beautiful stained glass windows we see today were installed during the renovations of AD 1871-1878.
Traditionally, the stained glass windows of Gothic churches depict saints or biblical scenes that tell contrasting stories or somehow comment on each other. For instance, a scene of the Last Supper would often be depicted together with a scene of Moses feeding the people with bread from heaven in the desert or a scene of Eve coming from the side of Adam would be matched with a scene of the Church coming from the side of Christ on the cross. The windows in the nave of Christ Church depict fascinating pairs of saints that are not often paired together.
One window pairs King David playing his harp mourning the death of his friend (lover?) Jonathan with Jubal the great-grandson of Adam who was said to have invented musical instruments like the harp [top photo above]. Another window shows Noah blessing his son Shem after the Flood together with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem blessing the patriarch Abraham [bottom photo above]. Another window in the cathedral pair depictions of Adam naming the animals with the murder of Abel, the first shepherd, by his brother Cain.
The unusual pairs of scenes in the windows of Christ Church Cathedral (Dublin) are a fascinating series of sermons in colored glass that illuminate often-ignored aspects of the lives of the characters depicted.
A view into one of the vaults in the crypt beneath St. Michan’s Church, Dublin (photo by Stephen Morris)
A view of another vault beneath St. Michan’s, in which some of the mummies are exposed. The corpse on the left is an early medieval nun, the one is the middle had a hand cut off (accident? criminal punishment?), and the one on the right is a medieval man.
The church of St. Michan in Dublin is a fascinating place! Dublin was first settled by Danish Vikings (“Dublin” is derived from the Viking word for “Black Pool,” referring to the swampy ground the city was founded on) and Michan was apparently a Danish or Danish-Irish monk from that early 10th-11th century period. The church itself was first built in AD 1095 although the current building was erected in 1686 on the older foundation. It was the only parish church on the north side of the River Liffey (i.e. outside the city walls) for centuries.
In the crypt beneath the church are several vaults that were used to inter the coffins of the dead. These were preserved and expanded during the reconstruction of the building. Many of the coffins in the underground vaults date from the early Middle Ages although many also date from more recent times: leaders of a failed rebellion in 1798 are also interred here.
Because opening a sealed coffin is illegal — it is part of the crime of grave-robbing — no one realized there was anything unusual about the corpses below St. Michan’s until the older coffins began to break open as the weight of the newer coffins stacked atop them became too heavy. The coffins that broke open revealed that the corpses, which had not been treated in any unusual way, had all been mummified and preserved. This was probably due to the limestone used to build the vaults and the methane gas of the swamp below the foundations of Dublin. Limestone absorbs moisture and the constant cool temperature of the vaults helped preserve and mummify the bodies as well. The presence of methane reduces the amount of oxygen in the crypt and therefore reduces the amount of bacteria etc. that leads to more normal decomposition. (We presume that the corpses in the newer coffins are also becoming mummies as well although we won’t know for sure until the newer coffins break open as well. The vaults are still used on occasion for new internments so there is always the possibility of additional weight to break open the coffins that haven’t broken open — yet.)
Bram Stoker is thought to have visited the vaults in the crypt below St. Michan’s and possibly to have found inspiration there for at least a few of the scenes in his classic Dracula.
The church of St. Michan is very near the new Teeling whiskey distillery in Dublin, making a visit to both sites an easy excursion.
The Grand Canal in Venice (April 2017, photo by S. Morris)
Sunset on the River Liffey in Dublin (April 2017, photo by S. Morris)
St. Mark’s Square in Venice (April 2017, photo by S. Morris)
I was lucky enough to spend a week in Venice and a week in Dublin during April with my partner Elliot. (We also spent the week in Venice with longtime friends, a couple from New Jersey.) If you follow me on Facebook, you may recognize the photos above. I hope to share a few of my travel experiences in posts here over the next few weeks.
We encountered chill and rainy weather the first day in Venice but the rest of the trip was warm and sunny in Venice; the weather was a bit chilly in Dublin but fairly dry, although there was a brief and sudden hailstorm at one point!
Venice calls out for a novel to be set there. Parts of Ireland have already appeared in Come Hell or High Water and additional regions of Ireland will be the setting of the novel I am currently working on (Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes); there could easily be additional novels set in Ireland as well.
There was a surprising similarity between Dublin and Venice that I had not expected. Each city is beautiful, although in very different ways. Both have legends and ancient tales stalking the shadows of their streets. But both also depend on the water for their history and existence. Both were built on swamps and mud flats, although the ground beneath Dublin is somewhat more solid than that under Venice. Both feature a variety of fish and seafood in their traditional cuisines (making them perhaps strange places to go after the long weeks of no meat and only fish during Lent). 😉
We just got back to New York. I’m still unpacking and doing laundry. But I look forward to sharing more about this April 2017 trip with you in the next few weeks.