Pagan Mythology and Christianity

by Laura McLaughlin

 

 

Everyone knows that our campus is beautiful - from constantly snapchatted Gasson, to its Irish room, to the Bapst reading room. As prospective students, we are impressed by these sights and consciously or unconsciously factor them into our college decision. However, once we arrive, there are hidden places of great beauty on this campus that may take us years to discover: in a small room in the corner of Bapst is the Roche Room where there are three spectacular stained glass windows by Irish craftsman Richard King. On one wall are two life size windows depicting Jesus and the Celtic pagan god of light Lugh, and on another is a smaller one of a medieval scribe.

 

The parallel windows of Jesus and Lugh show them armed with a cross and scepter, and sword and shield respectively, crushing Satan and Balor, the Celtic god of Darkness, with Saints Brigit, Patrick and Colmcille behind Christ and the mythic heroes Cuchullin, Fergus, and Maeve behind Lugh. Jesus and Lugh are mirror images of each other; both depict the battle between light and dark, good and evil, with an army of saints and warriors behind them. The designer and crafter of the windows was a passionate Catholic and Irishman who studied under the foremost craftsmen of the Celtic Revival and said about his work that he wanted to “give visual expression to the fundamental ideas of Ireland’s temperament…the tenacity with which Ireland has held to the Faith which Patrick brought has always seemed to me to be phenomenal (considering the means adopted to kill it down the centuries) and with roots that went down deeper than even Patrick’s time, and always I sensed the parallel between the Christian and pre-Christian ideologies.”

 

It is said that during the black plague, Irish monks - mostly unaffected by the disease and the havoc it wrecked throughout Europe - preserved important Latin texts of Christian literature as well as pagan mythology, as depicted by the scribe in the smaller window.

 

The Catholic Church, at certain times celebrated and at other times derided for its encouragement of ornate Churches and ecclesiastical objects as well as patronage of the Arts, has typically been very willing to co-opt pagan legends and beliefs into it, such as the altering of the Pantheon from a pagan temple to a Church honoring Mary.  Highly held virtues such as bravery, cleverness, and self sacrifice which Lugh, Cuchullin, and Maeve embody, show the ripeness of pagan Ireland for Christianity. C.S. Lewis, ardent lover of Christ as well as Norse hero Siegfried, once described mythology as “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility.”

 

A projection of the windows is displayed in the McMullen Museum’s new Exhibit, “Making it Irish”, which commemorates the arts and crafts at the time of the Celtic Revival and the 1916 Easter Rising rebellion against the British. The exhibit has ornate priest vestments and metal work on incense boats and chalices, as well as oculis head gear which allows the viewer to see as if they were inside of several iconic churches Ireland.

 

Also projected and displayed on the outside of Devlin, is the carefully crafted stained glass window by Harry Clarke, Richard King’s teacher. It depicts the medieval Irish Saint Gobnait, who is said to have established a convent on the instructions of an angel, and to have been a beekeeper who used honey as medicine for the sick. Gobnait is depicted with bees around her, which, according to Celtic lore, should be esteemed as vegetation is possible only through them, and as they are said to be inhabited by the spirits on the dead. Irish monks kept the practice of beekeeping and admired bees’ orderly and productive hives. Some say they sought to imitate their regular octagonal combs through living in small cells and building beehive like structures on Skellig rock, a small lone island jutting out from the sea off the coast of Ireland where monks lived in complete solitude from the world, and where Luke Skywalker is found at the end of the latest Star Wars movie.

 

These works of art suggest that God works through all channels, preparing the way for Christianity in pagan places. Early Christians in many cultures saw fit to preserve the best of their pagan cultures and today we still study Norse and Classical mythology. As Chesterton wrote, “It is only Christian men/ Guard even heathen things”


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