The Bell Shrine of St Mura, Irish, 11-16th centuries
This beautifully crafted hand bell is one of the most mysterious objects in the Wallace Collection and it was believed to have supernatural powers. It is made of bronze with ornaments applied in stages. The earliest, from the late eleventh century, is the brass strip with a Viking-inspired ornament, visible in the bottom right corner where a fragment of the later silver decoration is detached. There is also a cross in the centre of the bell embellished with rock crystal and amber.
The bell is reputed to have come from the long-demolished Abbey of Fahan, County Donegal, Ireland, where St Mura (c. 550-645; venerated on 12 March) was the first abbot. Such bells were used in monasteries for time-keeping; they were rung to call monks for prayers and meals. They were also used in the devotional context, for example, the sound of bell-ringing accompanied processional exhibition of relics. This might be one of the reasons why the bells became identified with relics and particular saints. At some point in their history they were enshrined – a decorative metal box (shrine) was made to house a relic or, less commonly, ornaments were applied directly onto the surface of a bell, as with the Bell of St Mura. More bells-turned relics survived, some examples can be found in the National Museum of Ireland and the British Museum, although the Bell of St Mura belongs to the most decorative ones.
The care for relics was entrusted to special families, called keepers. Thanks to them so many Irish relics survived the Viking raids, the dissolution of monasteries under Henry VIII and other historical upheavals. It was during the nineteenth century when many relics were dispersed, greatly due to the Great Famine of 1845 and emigration in the following years. The last keeper of this bell was a poor fisherman who sold it for 6 pounds probably in the 1840s. John McClelland, who acquired the bell in 1850, published an article about the bell in 1853 (J. McClelland, ‘The Bell of Saint Mura’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, First Series, Vol. 1 (1853), pp. 274-275). It is an interesting source of information about the object and legends related to it, which were still alive in the nineteenth century. The bell was believed to have power in alleviating human suffering and pregnant women drunk from it to assure a safe confinement.
Sir Richard Wallace bought the bell in 1879 and must have appreciated not only the historical and artistic qualities of the object but also its Irish provenance. He owned large estates in County Antrim in Northern Ireland and took his responsibilities as a landowner very seriously, becoming the principal benefactor of the city of Lisburn.
Thursday 1 and Wednesday 21 March at 1 pm with Ada de Wit, Assistant Curator, in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.