St. Patrick Patron Saint of the Island of Saints and Scholars
The Painting's Symbolism
St. Patrick was born in western Britain about 390 A.D. At age sixteen he was taken prisoner to Ireland and sold into slavery. After six years he escaped, symbolized in the painting by the broken chain on his right leg, and fled to France. There he was ordained a priest and later consecrated a bishop. In 432 A.D. he returned to the island of his captivity as a missionary bishop.
In this painting he is carrying as his bishop's staff the famous Irish crozier of Clonmacnoise of County Offaly. Hanging by a cord from his right arm is Patrick's Bell, which, like other Irish saintly bishops, Patrick used to call God. St. Declan used his bell to alert God to his need for a ship to cross the channel from France. Over his left shoulder Patrick is wearing the satchel of St. Molaise, an ornate bronze and silver jeweled book shrine to carry his Holy Scriptures.
He is wearing the ancient bishop's low soft cap, or miter, decorated with Celtic designs, rather than a tall Roman miter. It is a sign of the unique status of the Irish church with Rome. The Celtic church for centuries kept its own date of Easter, following the practice of Patrick's time, and retained the Irish style of clerical tonsure, in which the entire front of the head was shaved and the hair on the back of the head was allowed to grow long. Patrick's green cope or cloak is lined with purple, since regardless of any outward festivity of dress or lifestyle Patrick wore a rough penitential hair shirt under his tunic. His practices of penance linked with his enjoyment of the good things of life make him the ideal patron of the Lenten season during which his feast of March 17 is always celebrated.
To the left of St. Patrick's shoulder are the megalithic pagan stones dating back to around 2500 B.C. Below the standing stones is the dome-shaped Turoe Stone, and next to it the New Grange grave passage stone. They symbolize the pagan Celtic Druidic religion of Ireland which Patrick converted to Christianity.
Above the stones to the right of the first full moon of spring is the blazing Easter fire lit by St. Patrick. By the law of the land, only the king could light the first fire on the hill of Tara on the pagan feast of Beltine Eve. This feast fell on May 1, which by the old calendar was also Holy Saturday Night, and Patrick lit the first fire in defiance of the Druidic priests and the king.
Patrick's years as an Irish slave had given him a love for the pagan poetry and folk lore of Ireland which he respected and did not seek to destroy. The fairies, or shee, were the Tuatha De Danann, the old fallen pagan gods banished to live hidden below the realm of mortals. The leprechaun who is repairing the saint's shoe represents Patrick's harmonizing of the old beliefs with the new faith of Christianity. Patrick's shoes needed mending because he was a perpetual traveler who made all of Ireland his diocese and loved, like many Irish clerics, the wandering life. The saint is standing on one of the Tuatha De Danann 's gifts, the stone Lia Fail, which screamed out whenever the rightful king of Ireland placed his foot on it. It points to how St. Patrick symbolically became the true king for the Irish people.
Another leprechaun is playing music for the fairy dances, symbolized by the green fairy ring, to their right, where the Wee Folk danced. Next to him is another shee or fairy who is carrying a chest of gold which, according to myth, the fairies guarded. These Wee Folk also represent the unique joy and good humor, the parades and parties, associated with the celebration of St. Patrick's feast day on March 17th.
Near the leprechaun repairing his shoe is a cluster of snakes. St. Patrick was known for his great devotion to prayer and fasting. After forty days of Lenten prayer and fasting on the mountain now called Croagh Patrick, he gathered together all the snakes and poisonous creatures from all parts of Ireland and drove them headlong into the ocean.
From the lower left of his green cope are emerging a parade of Irish saints: St. Columbanus, with his unique Irish tonsure, symbolizes the ever-wandering Irish monks who with their Gospel book bag and sturdy staffs became the missionaries of Christianity to the European Continent. Next to him is the patron saint of poets, St. Columba, playing a harp, which along with the shamrock is a symbol of Ireland. Poetry, storytelling, dancing, singing and music are among the gifts of the Irish Celtic heritage. Behind him is his good friend, St. Brigit, who is called the Mary of Ireland. She is the patron saint of nuns and milkmaids. Her ever-full bucket of milk symbolizes her endless miracles of providing food and dairy products for the poor and needy. Behind her is a bishop, symbolic of all the holy priests, religious women and men who would leave Ireland to minister to the four corners of the world.
To their left on a small barren island is St. Ciaran, seated in a crude hermitage of woven twigs daubed with mud. He is one of the four Irish saints already in Ireland when Patrick came. As Ireland's first holy hermit, he represents all Celi Dei, the companions of God, those countless unnamed Irish saintly hermits, anchorites and monks who sought God in what they called the desert of the ocean. They embraced the white martyrdom of solitude or the green martyrdom of penance and repentance.
On St. Patrick's other side is St. Brendan, who is setting sail with a crew of monks in a curragh, a small, wood-ribbed boat covered only with ox skins, on his daring sea voyage to Tir Nan Og, the Promised Land of Youth. Hundreds of years before the Vikings or Columbus, St. Brendan sailed to Iceland and even beyond to America, the Land of Promise across the western sea.
On the hills above the leprechauns is a high cross, or Celtic cross, typical of hundreds found throughout Ireland. Covered with carvings, these crosses were both devotional and educational for they were story books of the Old and New Testaments for the unlettered- Celtic stained glass windows in stone. Above the cross is Gallarus Oratory, a relic of the dry-stone primitive chapels that once were found in the west of Ireland. Above it are the round Irish bell tower and the small stone, beehive-like huts of Irish hermits who lived by the hundreds in stark solitude and prayer along Ireland's western coast.
Rising above St. Patrick, who humbly called himself "a rustic, a fugitive, and unlearned," is a Judaic Christian symbol for God, a mighty thunderhead cloud. It rises up behind him as the sign of God's presence both with and within the saintly Patrick of Ireland.