One of the twelve murals painted by James Ward in Dublin City Hall depicts an imagined scene prior to the battle of Clontarf where a crowned Brian Boru, astride a white horse, holds a small crucifix aloft in front of his assembled troops.
A Christian Memory?
The Christian symbolism of Brian's battle against the pagans is a regular theme in later retellings of the story. Stressing the Christianity of Brian's army fighting against a pagan force, his victory, suffering and death marks him out almost as a Christ-like figure who has God's support.
The striking image of an army fighting under a Christian cross is also reminiscent of Constantine, later Roman Emperor, who, after being instructed by a dream, fought under the sign of the cross and led his troops to victory at the battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine credited his victory to the Christian God and it convinced him to halt persecution of Christians within the Roman Empire and would pave the way for Christianity to become the official religion of the Empire.
The Emperor Constantine was seen as a great Christian leader helping the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Through history, writers and artists used the symbolic devise of fighting beneath a cross to represent God’s support, lending support in battle and right to their cause. It is perhaps in this context that Brian’s use of the crucifix should be seen. He is portrayed here as a heroic Christian king about to lead his forces against a pagan army of Vikings.
The murals were painted for Dublin Corporation between 1914 and 1919 to celebrate important events relating to the city and can still be seen in situ beneath Dublin City Hall's Rotunda.
It is striking that the 12 events chosen to herald the history of Ireland displayed in Dublin’s City Hall avoids reference to the 700 years of English rule, highlighting the difficulty of portraying such events in twentieth-century Ireland. The City Hall’s situation directly beside Dublin Castle was perhaps enough of a reminder of that part of Ireland’s fraught history.
Who was James Ward?
James Ward was a Belfast-born artist (1851-1924) who was hugely involved in the British and Irish art scene of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Among other things, he was involved in the Museum of Ornamental Art in London (now the V & A) for a decade, and later became head of the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art.
Want to Know More? Are you in Dublin on the 15th of April 2014?
Check out the free lectures 1.10-1.50 p.m. in the Council Chamber, City Hall, Dame Street, Dublin 2
Dr. Joseph McBrinn The Battle of Clontarf and James Ward’s Murals in Dublin’s City Hall
Lawrence William White, 'Ward, James', Dictionary of Irish Biography, (eds) James McGuire, James Quinn (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
Lawrence William White, 'Ward, James' Dictionary of National Biography