Irish Treasures: The Lismore Crozier

Image Source: Omnilexica
Image Source: Omnilexica

In the same way that the Derrynaflan chalice is often considered a lesser (but no less beautiful) version of the famous Ardagh Chalice, the Lismore Crozier is similarly often touted as the forgotten sibling of the stunning Clonmacnoise Crozier. Each piece has its own merits, unique design elements, and fascinating history - and all have been given their own exhibition space in the national museum of Ireland, so they can’t be all that insignificant. In fact the Lismore Crozier is noted as one of the museum’s ‘ten most important pieces’ while the Clonmacnoise Crozier doesn’t even get a mention! So what’s the difference between these two items, and why are they so important to Irish history?

What you need to know about Croziers

If you think a crozier is little more than a fancy walking stick, you’re essentially correct! A crozier is the staff of office carried by the most important clergy members (usually bishops and the like) in many different Christian faiths, including the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, United Methodist and Pentecostal churches. It’s just one of several adornments they take on when presiding over important ceremonies - some others include a mitre, pectoral cross and episcopal ring.

Croziers are shaped like shepherd’s crooks - this is deliberate, as since the bishop is the head of the church who guides his people, he is the equivalent of a shepherd herding his flock of sheep. Generally speaking bishops use their croziers within their own territory, and must have consent from the presiding bishop before using it in another territory. When several bishops are involved in a single ceremony, only one may use a crozier. The bishop always holds the crozier in his left hand, so that his right hand is free to bestow blessings. The crook is also held forward towards the congregation.

Along with a few other occasions, you’ll see the bishop using his crozier during processions, gospel readings, when giving a homily, giving blessings and accepting vows.When not in use it will be given to an altar attendant, who will handle it with a cloth so as not to touch it with his/her bare hands.Traditionally the form of the crozier is explained as having a crook on one end to bring back straying sheep, a point on the other end to encourage the lazy, and a stem in between to stand as a firm support for all. Croziers are bestowed on bishops and abbots when they are fully ordained, and are usually made of a wooden staff with an ornate crook crafted from precious metal.

Image Source: Met Museum
Image Source: Met Museum

The decoration and ornamentation of croziers varies depending on the church and region. Western croziers tend to have curved or hooked tops, often terminating in a floral pattern or animal head. Eastern croziers are shaped more like a crutch than a staff, often featuring serpents curved around a cross. In Ireland, croziers were widely used during periods of political upheaval as a symbol of wealth, power and authority.

Around the time the Lismore crozier was crafted, the Catholic church in Ireland was undergoing expansive reform, which led to intense competition between larger monasteries as each one battled to become the most important and revered diocesan centre. Many treasures such as croziers, shrines and so on were commissioned, and monasteries studied each other’s work in order to improve their skills and better their reputations. Irish croziers often feature Celtic inspired design and techniques in use during both the Celtic and Viking periods.

Lismore Abbey and Castle

You may have guessed from its name that the Lismore Crozier originates from the town of Lismore in county Waterford. Lismore has strong historical and ecclesiastical links - it was founded way back in the 7th century by Saint Mochuda (also known as Saint Carthage) at the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains and by the banks of the River Blackwater.

The town is best known for the highly significant Lismore Castle and (former) Abbey. Lismore Abbey was founded by Saint Mochuda in the year 635, on a steep hill that overlooks what is now the town centre of Lismore. Mochuda had spent almost forty years in the monastery of Rahan in southern Meath but was evicted due to disagreements he had with the abbot there.

He fled to Lismore, was granted some land by the local prince, and founded the monastery. Sadly he died two years later and never got to see the hugely respected monastery it would become. Like most of the significant monasteries of the early Christian period in Ireland, Lismore started off as a single small building, but soon expanded as more and more people dedicated their lives to Christianity. It produced several notable saints and scholars over the years including Saint Cataldus (or Cathal), Saint Cuanna, and Aldfrith, King of Northumbria.

At its peak Lismore was the most celebrated monastery in the south of Ireland and was an important place of pilgrimage. Many Irish princes in their dying days chose to give up the sceptre and spend the last moments of their lives there. By the 12th century Lismore Abbey was still an important episcopal centre, and was the residence of the local bishop. In 1171 King Henry II stayed there, and in 1185 Prince John rebuilt the site as a stately and beautiful castle. Slowly it became less important as a religious hub and transitioned towards a private residence of the Irish gentry.

From 1588 to 1793 it was occupied by a long line of Earls of Cork, with new aspects to the complex and architecture being added. After that (and an attack by Cromwellian forces in 1645 which left the whole structure seriously damaged) it changed hands by marriage to the Dukes of Devonshire, who still own it today. The 6th Duke revamped the castle in the early 1800s with a largely Gothic style, and it has remained largely unaltered since then.


Discovering the Lismore Crozier

As Lismore was considered to be one of the most important monasteries in Ireland - and by far the most important one in the south of the country - it didn’t come as a surprise to many when the Lismore Crozier emerged in 1814. The 6th Duke of Devonshire had inherited the castle in 1811 after his father’s death, and immediately set out to renovate it.

During the course of the renovations a blocked-up doorway was discovered in a not often used passageway. When the doorway was cleared, two objects of significant value were discovered behind it; the crozier and the Book of Lismore (an account of the Irish saints written in early medieval Gaelic), which was enclosed in a wooden box for safekeeping. We know from an inscription on the body of the crozier that it was crafted from 1090 - 1113, was commissioned by the Bishop of Lismore at the time (Niall Mac MicAeducan) and was crafted by a man named Neachtain. The case of the shrine enclosed an old oak stick, which is said to be the original crozier of the monastery’s founder.

The crozier was likely made on site in the monastery and would have taken considerable skill to complete. Since the abbey was the place of residence of the local bishops, it was no doubt made for one of them; perhaps the bishop who commissioned it actually planned it as gift to himself! As to how it ended up being hidden away behind a door, nobody knows for sure when or why this occurred. Obviously it would have been put there for safekeeping or to be kept away from someone - however Ireland has had its fair share of turbulent times in history from the Viking raids to the Cromwell attacks to the struggle for independence (among others) so pinpointing the exact event is somewhat of a challenge.

Decoration of the Lismore Crozier

The crozier is typical of most medieval Irish croziers. It consists of a wooden staff decorated with sheet bronze, spacer knops and a cast copper-alloy crook on top. The crook was cast in a single piece and is hollow - a small reliquary was inserted into the hollow section. It is very ornately decorated on both sides using multiple techniques and materials including round studs of blue glass and red and white millefiori insets. The aforementioned inscription has been engraved along the base recording the names and dates of the commissioner and craftsman.

Image Source: National Museum of Ireland
Image Source: National Museum of Ireland

Similar to the Clonmacnoice crozier, the Lismore crozier features a ridge along the top edge of the crook in the form of three animals with open jaws. These terminate at the head of the crook (the part which would have pointed out to the congregation) with an animal head with blue glass eyes. The shaft has been divided into a series of bands with four equidistant studs, outlined with etched lines.

The studs themselves are either chequerboard pattern or simple blue glass, although a small few have been lost over the course of history. The shaft bulges out halfway up to the beginning of the crook. At the base of the crook is the inscription and the beginning of the magnificent carved ridge of animals, which is interspersed with intricate interlacing work. Again, the crook is divided into different compartments by etched lines and interspersed with the same studs.

On the underside and along the outside edge of the crook the lines become more elaborate and form interlacing patterns. There are also smaller rectangular shaped studs along the facing edge of the crook. In the case of the Lismore Crozier, the wooden shaft has been covered in sheet bronze, and the bulbous decoration continues halfway down the shaft and at the end, with magnificent Celtic interlacing, animal imagery, spirals and more. The studs have been left off these sections however. The base tapers into a pointed edge. Thankfully, the Lismore Crozier has remained in tip top condition, so if you take the trip to see it ‘in the flesh’, you’ll be seeing it exactly as it was some 800 years ago!

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