Extract from

Abbey Knockmoy, Co. Galway-Notes on the building and 'frescoes' by Robert Cochrane


Another feature peculiar to this church is the so-called fresco paintings in the chancel. It should be mentioned here that there are no known examples of real fresco painting in the mediæva1 churches in this country or in England. This is now admitted, notwithstanding which, mediæva1 wall-paintings are still sometimes called frescoes.
The term fresco can only be properly used when the painting is applied on the fresh or wet plaster, with oil as the vehicle. The method actually employed in the wall-paintings of churches is more properly described by the Italian term tempera, from which the English word. ‘distemper’ came into use.


It is to be regretted that we cannot make good the claim of these drawings to the term “fresco”—a name they have always been known by; but it is worse when we find that there is not sufficient evidence to show that they were ever coloured, except by damp and vegetation, and that they are only outline drawings. Sir William Wilde, in his Catalogue of the Antiquities in the Museum of the Royal Irish Academy, published in 1861, described the work as a painting, and referred to the colouring in detail, but was obliged to modify his opinion on the subject and admit that he was misled by the colouring introduced by Mr MacManus in his representation of the subject in 1853, who, no doubt, took an artist’s licence, and made an effective picture out of unpromising materials. The earlier record of Beranger, in 1779, removes all doubt as to the nature of the drawings : they were then ‘‘bare, black outlines.”
    Sir W. Wilde, in editing for our Society the ‘‘Memoir’’ of Gabriel Beranger, records the visit made by Beranger about the 29th July, 1779, to Knockmoy. “We [Beranger and Bigari] drew the abbey and plan and fresco-painting on the wall. We had heard much of these ancient fresco-paintings, and, on inspection, were much disappointed, as they are bare, black outlines. Mr. Bigari, who possesses the art of fresco ­painter and has done great works of this kind abroad, assured us, after a nice inspection, that they had never been coloured, and that the spots of various hues were occasioned by time and damp, since the same colour extended farther than the outlines, and, supposing the coats had been green, the same colour went through the face and hands, which shows it to be the effect of the inclemency of weather, so that they may be called fresco drawings.”
    Wilde adds ‘Their present condition certainly confirms this opinion. In my description of them in the ‘Catalogue of the Antiquities of the Royal Irish Academy,’ I mentioned the green and yellow colours, because I was describing the coloured copy of the painting which was made by Mr. MacManus for the first Dublin Exhibition” (See the Journal R.S.A.I., vol. ii., p.241, July, 1870.)
    The inscriptions on the frescoes and on the tombstones are discussed at length by Rev. Dr. I. K. Todd in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. vi., p. 3.
    The abbey was visited in 1867 by the late George V. Du Noyer, a member of this Society. He made careful copies of the drawings in pencil as they then appeared, and a reproduction of his sketch will be found on p. 243.
    Du Noyer, in a communication made to the Royad ArchæologicaI Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, which was published in the Journal of that Society, vol. xx., p. 180, said that the drawing ‘was not intended to represent, as explained by Dr. Todd, the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, but that of St. Christopher, who was in much higher repute in Ireland as well as in Great Britain;’ and, in proof of his explanation of


the Knockmoy painting, referred to “the remarkable representation of the legend of St. Christopher in mural paintings discovered, April, 1847, in Shorwell Church, Isle of Wight, and figured by Mr. Fairholt, Journal Brit. Arch. Assoc., vol iii., p. 85. According to the Golden Legend, the King of Lycia ordered forty archers to put St. Christopher to death; but their shafts hung in the air, and none reached him. The representation of the incident, at Shorwell, closely resembles the subject which appeared on the wall of the chancel at Knockmoy” There is not much room for doubt as to the symbolism of the six figures in the upper compartment: “Les Trois Rois Morts et les Trois Rois Vifs” was a popular legendary morality intended to illustrate the vanity of human greatness. It appears on the walls of Ampney Crucis Church, Gloucester-shire ; Ste. Marie du Chastel, Guernsey ; St. Clements, Jersey,1 and twenty-two other churches in various parts of England as mural and in ceiling paintings in distemper. Three kings are represented, generally on foot, but sometimes on horseback, in hunting costume, face to face with three crowned skeletons, who admonish them that they too were once kings, and that soon the living will be such as the dead.
    The representation of the Crucifixion at the back of the O’Connor monument has been assumed to be of the same date as the monument, and the other drawings to have been done at the same time as the Crucifixion ; and in this way the whole is dated as of the fifteenth century.
    If the drawings at Knockmoy belonged to this period, it becomes of interest to note that it is the earliest and, indeed, the only instance of mural decoration in the interior of a Cistercian church.2

1 ”Archæological Journal,” vol. xxxvii. p. 106.
2 The Cistercians did not at first allow coloured decorations in their churches—not even stained glass in their windows ; but the extreme severity of their ritual relaxed considerably in the fifteenth century, at which period many of their houses were considerably improved especially the refectories. Traces of colouring of the fifteenth century have been found at Cleeve Abbey in the vestibule to the chapter-room and refectory. At Fountains Abbey, in Yorkshire, traces of a chevron pattern, in three colours, round the cloister court doorway, have been found; and at Jervaulx Abbey, in Yorkshire, remains of vermilion colour on the ribs of the chapter-house, and other places but the colour seems to have been applied to accentuate architectural features, and not for pictorial representation.

Back to the Drawings on the wall of Abbey Knockmoy, Co. Galway, Ireland, 15th Century.