The power of the Passion

Envisioning Christ on the Cross: Ireland and the Early Medieval West, ed. Juliet Mullins, Jennifer Ni Ghrádaigh & Richard Hawtree, (Four Courts Press, €55.00 / £60.00)

This is a truly fascinating book, with insights of all kinds, not merely what were the beliefs and practices of the early middle ages, but also others hints about how some forgotten aspects of the church then might be important to its very future.

The essays collected in this book were presented at an Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences funded conference in Cork and they adopt a wide variety of approaches to the theme of the crucifixion and in a second part the wounds of Christ in art and belief.

The book adopts a novel approach, rather than just treating the art objects as art objects, which alas is so often these days, they are seen as expressions of a culture of belief and practice that is also found in poetry and in theology. All three are utilised in providing news insights.

European context

All through the book are essays which attempt to deal with Irish items in a European context. Indeed there is little patience in some of the experts with the widely beloved nature of Celtic Christianity. To some this may be a cold douche, but it is as well for us to be reminded that Ireland was integrated with European movements of beliefs and practice in both faith and art.


The book is expensive and scholarly, though accessible. But if the ordinary reader encountering the volume in a library were to read only one chapter it would have to be Celia Chazelle’s on ‘Mass and the Eucharist in the Christianisation of early medieval Europe’. 

Those who look back to the middle ages as a high period of Christian culture to which we should return, may well be in for a shock when they read what she says, drawing on the very latest scholarship, about what were the actual rather than the supposed approaches to the celebration of mass and to the concept of the Eucharist.

What those European beliefs and practices were may surprise readers. In remoter places far from cities, other elements than bread and wine were used, and there was theological support for this. The Mass was often more of a sacred ‘family’ meal than an austere religious service. What people were seeking was to achieve the promised communion with Christ and each other. Quite how it was to be done, and what local customs in language and act could be introduced into the celebration of the Mass varied considerably in the days of deepest faith.


Though there was general belief that the elements were indeed the body and blood of Christ, what elements were used and how a mass was performed seems to have been more varied that general histories have led us to believe. In these practises and belief, she seems to suggest are hints of the future.

What she says may be disconcerting to some, but to many others it may lead to a deeper current awareness of what the Eucharist really means. As is the case today, what Catholics were supposed by theologians to believe, and what the people of faith actually believed and did were far apart.

The scholarship displayed in these pages is at a very high level, though much in these pages will delight, astonish and dismay.