Conservation of the St Molaise Shrine

Conservation, Research

The Molaise Shrine or the Soiscél Molaise is an 8th Century reliquary bronze box. It has links to Devenish Island in lower lough Erne. St Molaise founded a monastery on Devenish and spent the remainder of his life there. His fame spread throughout Ireland and he is reputed to have been visited by many kings. The box is sheathed in openwork plates of silver which date mainly to the 11th century. There is an inscription within that says that it was redecorated under the direction of Cennefaelad, who was abbot of Devenish from 1001 to his death in 1025. The shrine depicts images of a cross with panels which are interlaced with animals and symbols of the evangelists. A figure on the back panel is possibly a representation of Saint Molaise. ( see An Archaeological Survey of County Fermanagh Vol 1 Part 2 by Clare Foley and Ronan McHugh for more details. )

The shrine was redecorated in the 15th century and embossed silver plates were added. The shrine is said to have been made to protect a book of the gospel, however no book is now housed with the shrine. The book shrine survived in the care of the Meehan family, herenachs and conhards of Molaise, until the 19th century when it was donated to the National Museum of Ireland by Charles Meehan.

In 2007, Fermanagh County Museum was informed that a 19th century copy of the St Molaise Book Shrine was up for auction. Fermanagh District Council and the Association of the Friends of Fermanagh County Museum supplied the funds to allow the museum to purchase the shrine at auction on the 11th of December 2007. The shrine dates to the late 19th / early 20th century and is exquisitely designed. The shrine has recently undergone conservation work in order for it to go on display when the museum has completed its redevelopment.

The shrine is an intrinsic part of Fermanagh’s history and tells the story of a saint who was famed throughout the island of Ireland. It has been chosen as one of our #fermanagh100 as it is a wonderful example of ecclesiastical art and a fine representation of a time when reliquaries were a popular way to preserve items.

When the shrine was purchased it was in very poor condition. The means by which it had been previously stored were unknown to the museum. It was deemed necessary to conserve the shrine and make it presentable for display. Colin Fawcett, the museum’s conservator was tasked with this job.  Here he takes over to explain the process that was involved in cleaning and conserving the shrine……….

 

“When I received the shrine it was clear that the artefact was in very poor condition and was not as aesthetically pleasing as it could be. I could see that the work needed on the shrine would be long and arduous but I was confident that the end result would warrant the task I had ahead of me.  I have previously worked with silver but as is the case with all objects, each job is very different. I firstly completed an assessment report on the artefact detailing the areas that needed treatment, knowing that doing a full 100% clean would ruin the aesthetics of the piece.

 

The shrine was extremely tarnished and I hoped to restore it to its former glory. The detail on the shrine was filled with a black material; on testing it appeared to be a wax coating with a silver cleaning product base underneath. This was causing corrosion to the inner parts in places. This meant that I had to manually clean out all the individual embossing under a microscope. I did this square centimetre by square centimetre until the entire shrine was cleaned. Each centimetre would take roughly twenty minutes to clean which made this a long and slow job.  

_CFP2745cropped Shrine before cleaning

 

In order to remove the wax and base powder, I knew that I would need to use a small thin object. I tried many different implements including thorns, wood, plastic, bamboo and eventually settled on a blunted pin for the job. Usually, I wouldn’t use metal on metal; however in this case it was the only implement that was suitable for the job. Also when I had cleaned down to the silver it was apparent that it wasn’t bright silver but mottled unpolished silver. This meant that the pin wouldn’t damage or scrape the base. I used white spirits to help break down the wax as well during the cleaning process.

_CFP2723 closeup2_CLF1246 closeup lid

 Close up of sections of the shrine before cleaning

After removing all the wax, I felt that it would be counterproductive to add a wax seal over the shrine and so felt that a silver cloth polish would suffice.  I rubbed this all over the shrine to create a bright and clean finish.

Untitled_Panorama1a cropped fClose up of a section of the shrine after cleaning. 

Taking photographs of the shrine.  _CFP2736

The shrine will be going on display when the redevelopment is completed. It will be stored in a sealed case, and kept at 40% RH and 19 degrees.  As it is held in a sealed case it will mean that there will not need to be a large amount of upkeep on the shrine. It will need to be re-cleaned with a silver cloth to keep its shine every two years.”

Untitled_Panorama1aThe completed piece

Helen Lanigan Wood,former curator of Fermanagh County Museum has been commissioned to write the report brief on the Shrine of St Molaise. Her research journey and a detailed account of the story of the shrine and it’s significance in Fermanagh’s history will be posted here in due course.

 

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