St. Cuilean’s Bell by Unknown Artist - 8th - 11th century - 30 cm  x 24 cm British Museum St. Cuilean’s Bell by Unknown Artist - 8th - 11th century - 30 cm  x 24 cm British Museum

St. Cuilean’s Bell

Iron, bronze, enamel, niello, and wire • 30 cm x 24 cm
  • Unknown Artist Unknown Artist 8th - 11th century

Reportedly found inside a tree in the 18th century in Kilcuilawn in Ireland, this iron bell has been associated with St. Cuileáin and the foundation of Glankeen monastery. The history of this piece, however, is somewhat unclear.  Although the bell itself may be a 7th or 8th century Irish creation, the saint in question, Cuileáin, is often given as the brother of Cormac, king-bishop of Cashel, another sainted figure, who died in the early 10th century. It is certainly known, however, that this bell shrine is a composite piece representing two different periods of Irish Christian history.

In early medieval Ireland, iron bells like this one would have been used to call the faithful to prayer, and one of the earliest testaments to this practice is associated with St. Patrick in the 5th century. If particular bells were linked to famous religious figures, they were sometimes later encased in specially-made shrines like this one. The shrine itself, comprised of the outer layer of bronze and the decorative handle at the top, was made in the late 11th or early 12th century, and it would have been placed inside churches or displayed on tours with shrines containing saints’ bones or relics. Although there is no historical testament in this particular case, saints’ bells would have likely had miracle-working histories, such as healing the sick, which would have been advertised by the church. St. Cuileáin’s bell demonstrates the special place local saints held in the Irish Christian Church throughout the medieval period, and the Irish Church’s continued campaign to revere and honor its own special heroes.

- Stephanie Skenyon

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