‘Holy, holier, holiest’: the sacred topography of the early medieval Irish church

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2011), Medieval History (pre-1500), Reviews, Volume 19

‘Holy, holier, holiest’: the sacred topography of the early medieval Irish church David Jenkins (Brepols Publishers, €60) ISBN 9782503533162

‘Holy, holier, holiest’: the sacred topography of the early medieval Irish church David Jenkins (Brepols Publishers, €60) ISBN 9782503533162

In this book—number 4 in the Studia Traditionis Theologiae: Explorations in Early and Medieval Theology series edited by Thomas O’Loughlin—David Jenkins explores the layout of religious settlements in Ireland (from the sixth to the ninth century AD), arguing that a discernible pattern exists consisting of (a) an exterior enclosure, (b) tripartite zoning of the enclosed space and (c) an internal sacred core consisting of an oratory, cross-slab or free-standing cross and/or a saint’s or founder’s shrine. Jenkins’s primary interest, however, is in why, or the motivation lying behind the settlement pattern. The author argues that the topography of the early Irish church, though built in the vernacular media of wood and dry stone, reflects a theological ideal, or a ‘canon of planning’, modelled upon the divinely ordained spatial arrangements of the Jerusalem Temple depicted in the Christian scriptures.
While Jenkins is unapologetically theological in his approach, he attempts the daunting task of synthesising archaeological and textual evidence. Of the numerous archaeological studies cited, the author focuses upon four case-studies: the material evidence of Skellig Michael; High Island (Ardoileán); Reask, Co. Kerry; and Clonmacnoise. Yet, ultimately, Jenkins’s argument is built upon the topographical and textual evidence of Iona, expounding on a 2001 article by Aidan MacDonald, which suggests parallels between the religious landscape of Iona as depicted by Adomnán (d. 704), the ninth abbot of Iona, the layout of the Temple as described by Ezekiel and the eighth-century Collectio canonum Hibernensis.
Particularly reliant upon the Hibernensis, Jenkins argues that the text reveals within a scriptural framework the importance of boundaries and enclosed space for the Irish monastic context, while Book 44, in particular, ‘effectively advocates a threefold division of the sacred space into gradations of holiness . . . radiating out from a central core’ (p. 91). His argument is supplemented with evidence from the Vita Columbae and De locis sanctis, both written by Adomnán. Jenkins, though, believes that the spatial schema reflects ‘a wider Irish settlement pattern than a specifically Columban [or Ionan] template’ (p. 146).
Jenkins’s primary argument is that the Irish religious settlement pattern was based upon the motif of the Jerusalem Temple. He finds no attempt by the early Irish Church to recreate the Temple building itself; rather, it is the idea, or the ideal, of the Temple that Jenkins claims permeated the spiritual world of the Irish. Insular interest in the Temple is well documented—from Bede’s De Templo to the aforementioned Hibernensis—and in one of Jenkins’s stronger arguments he effectively demonstrates how the motif of the Temple had assumed sophisticated allegorical connotations, while the Temple and the city of Jerusalem had become synonymous concepts in patristic and early Irish exegesis.
Jenkins then establishes the parallels between the Israelite and Irish settings. The centre of the sacred space was the most holy—in the Temple, the Holy of Holies contained the Ark of the Covenant; in the Irish context, it was a cross, an oratory and a sacred tomb. The tripartite division of both the Temple and the Irish religious settlements similarly established a ‘sliding scale of sanctity’ (p. 187) as well as the degree of restricted access to the respective zone.
Jenkins believes that this scriptural ideal of sacred space in the early Irish Church did not exist in blueprint form, such as the early ninth-century Carolingian Plan of St Gall: ‘no pictorial depiction or planning blueprint would have been necessary to promote an exegesis of spatial arrangement of the Temple. There was no need of a formal plan other than scripture itself’ (pp 153–4). Thus the question of how this template was transmitted or diffused throughout Ireland is satisfactorily answered.
‘Holy, holier, holiest’ begins with a coherent review of the historiography of the religious organisation of the early Irish Church. The previous scholarly orthodoxy that has assumed a model of monastic hegemony has recently been challenged by a revisionist critique advocating a greater presence of diocesan structures. In the second chapter, Jenkins establishes the ‘anatomy’ of religious settlements—external enclosure, a threefold interior division and an innermost sacred core—in its archaeological and literary context. Chapter 3 explores the biblical hermeneutic for the topography of religious settlements, specifically exploring the motif of the Temple, while the final chapter explores the transmission of these ideas to the Irish vernacular context.
Jenkins’s thesis is clear and succinct, although occasionally repetitive. In places the organisation of the material could be improved, and, as Jenkins admits, some questions remain regarding the interpretation of the material evidence. For a book that focuses upon spatial topography, the absence of maps and diagrams, which would have greatly clarified, if not strengthened, his argument, is disappointing. The reader would also have benefited from a more direct treatment of the Hibernensis, which Jenkins uses as his primary literary source. While sections of the translated text appear in the footnotes, a separate appendix would have strengthened the book’s presentation. Notwithstanding these exceptions, Jenkins provides a welcome and necessary theological contribution to our understanding of the early Irish Church.  HI

Rodney Aist is a Methodist minister in New Mexico.

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