Saint Patrick was born in Britain during the latter half of the 5th century. As a teenager, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and kept in Ireland for six years as an enslaved person. He worked as a shepherd, spending his time outdoors, and it was during this time he first 'found God.' He escaped captivity and returned home to his family on a waiting ship.
After studying to be a priest, a vision told him to return to Ireland, so he did, preaching to the pagan people and converting them to Christianity. He gained many followers and spent the rest of his life working, setting up churches and parishes, and teaching people about God.
St Patrick was a hugely significant figure in Ireland and received honors and commemorations after his death, including countless churches and cathedrals dedicated to him. His life and teachings were also chronicled widely after his death, leading to him becoming a god-like figure long before he was granted sainthood.
Sixty years after he died, another missionary by the name of Colum Cille removed three relics from his tomb, which became known as the 'precious Minna. These three relics were a small iron bell, a goblet, and the 'Angel's Gospel.' He kept the gospel for himself but sent the goblet to county Down and the Bell to Armagh (where Patrick had spent a lot of time) to commemorate Ireland's hero and keep up the momentum of his teachings and work.
The early Christian period in Ireland was a time when the people who brought Christianity to Ireland were heroes. After their deaths, they were seen as saintly and were constantly celebrated. Objects that they had used in their life, such as staffs, books, or in Patrick's case, a bell, were kept for people to worship in churches and during religious ceremonies.
People took pilgrimages to the location of the relics to pay their respects, so to offer both protection, a suitable display, and some pomp and ceremony worthy of the occasion, shrines were crafted to house relics. Shrines came in many forms – simple glass boxes, altars, statues, crosses, book shrines, and of course, bell shrines, to name just a few. To provide housing worthy enough of the holy relics, they were often made by expert craftsmen, with the highest quality materials possible and with exquisite decoration.
At this time in Ireland, the artwork was still heavily influenced by the old Celtic style and was, combined with new Christian imagery concepts such as crucifixes. Celtic knots, interlacing patterns, and zoomorphic imagery were often seen on shrines from this period, along with representations of biblical figures, biblical stories, and so on. One perfect example of this is in Ireland's high crosses; huge stone crosses on religious sites were often decorated with Celtic artwork and well-known bible characters. Saint Patrick's bell shrine is an excellent example of Celtic-style artwork and decoration at its finest.
The Bell, reputed to have belonged to St. Patrick, is made of two iron sheets immersed together and coated in bronze.
St. Patricks Bell is one of the principal relics of Ireland.
An inscription on the Shrine's surface indicates that it was made around AD 1100. It is trapezoidal, matching the shape of the Bell to cover it.
The Shrine is formed by bronze plates and topped by a curved crest that covers Bell's handle. The Shrine's front is covered with a silver-gilt frame that initially held thirty gold filigree panels, which are arranged in the form of a ringed cross.
The Shrines sides are embellished with panels portraying ribbon-bodied snakes. The rear of the Shrine is plain and flat and is decorated with a silver plate displaying interlocking crosses.
The backplate inscription records the names of the craftsmen who created the Shrine, and Domhnall Ua Lochlainn, King of Ireland between AD 1094 and 1121, who commissioned the Shrine.
The Shrine remained in possession of this family until the end of the 19th century. The long-term hereditary keepership of this Bell is a remarkable story obtained for many medieval objects. This tradition shows the resilience of belief in the power of objects to effect change, for better or sometimes worse, in people's daily lives. The naming of the craftsmen provides fantastic insights into how this work was organized and how crafts were learned.
The Bell of St. Patrick and its Shrine are on permanent display in the National Museum of Ireland , Kildare Street, Dublin 2.