Mysterious Janus Figures of Ireland Reflect Pagan - Christian Fusion
Tucked away on two tiny islands in Northern Ireland – Boa Island and White Island – are a series of ancient anthropomorphic figures that are regarded as the most enigmatic and remarkable stone figures in Ireland. Resembling pagan deities but sometimes depicted with Christian symbols, the mysterious statues reflect a fusion of the two religions.
The carved statues are typically referred to as Janus figures because the primary example on Boa island has two faces, resembling the Roman two-headed deity Janus , although they were not actually intended to resemble Janus.
White Island is an island in Lough Erne, a lake in Northern Ireland. It is known for its ancient church , built in the 12th century, and the enigmatic Janus figures that were hidden within the walls of the church when it was built.
These figures are a series of six statues which were built in a very early style, suggesting Celtic influences . They were made about 350 years before the church was built, sometime in the 9th century AD. It is possible that these statues represent the work of early Celtic craftsmen who had recently converted to Christianity and continued to use their native art style.
Christianity had already spread to Ireland by the late 4th century AD. At the time, the infant Irish church was under the direct supervision of the church in Rome and several bishops were sent to manage the parishes and dioceses. By the end of the 5th century, however, the western Roman Empire had collapsed, and the Roman church lost its influence on the island for several centuries. During the intervening centuries, Celtic Christianity developed independently of the Church in continental Europe.
The monastery ruins on White Island, with the six Janus figures found against the back wall. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Irish Christian communities developed around monasteries where the monks, although they engaged in austere, prayerful, and pious living were also active in the community. They would care for the sick and the elderly, educate children, and translate ancient Greek and Hebrew writings into Latin. These monasteries also became major centers of learning where foreign students would come from Britain and continental Europe to study philosophy, theology, languages, and even astronomy.
The Monastery on White Island. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Statues of White Island
After the fall of the Christian western Roman Empire, the Christian communities in Ireland were isolated from the Roman culture that Roman Christians brought with them when they first came to the British Isles. Because of this, the art and architecture of Celtic Christian settlements took after the artistic styles of the pre-Christian Celts.
This is reflected in the statues at White Island built sometime in the 9th century. The statues accentuate the head so that the head is large and detailed while the rest of the body is minimized in detail. This reflects the ancient Celtic belief that the soul resided in the head while the rest of the body was earthly. As a result, in spiritual art, the head would be enlarged and detailed while the rest of the body would be small and schematic in its representation.
The Janus figures of White Island. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Janus figures of Boa Island at the Caldragh Cemetery, which is nearby White island, also show this distinctive characteristic.
They were carved about 800 years before the White Island figures and has all the features of pagan Celtic art. The head is enlarged, accentuating the person’s spiritual qualities while the earthly qualities are minimized in detail.
Janus Stone on Boa Island used the same art style as the Statues on While Island. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Despite having a style clearly influenced by pagan Celtic art, the symbolism in the sculptures at White island is clearly Christian. The six figures all represent figures from Biblical texts or Christian tradition.
One is female and appears to represent a mythical hag that may have been used to discourage lust. This one was probably carved later when the church was being built since it is also characteristic of Romanesque architectural styles. Another statue is thought to represent an early saint, either Saint Patrick or another early Christian figure such as Saint Anthony of the Desert or one of the early abbots of the ancient monastery associated with White Island.
Another figure is a man pointing to his open mouth. He is thought to be King David since David was held in high regard by Celtic Christians as the writer of the Book of Psalms . The Psalms were important to ancient Celtic Christians because they were written songs that reminded the Celts of oral traditions of their culture, also recorded in song. By pointing to his mouth, the figure may be saying, “listen to my words.”
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King David depicted on one of the Statues of White Island. (AliciaFagerving / Public Domain )
Another figure is a bearded man with a shepherd’s crook. He is thought to represent Jesus watching over the Church. The crook and garment of the figure also reflect the regalia of bishops of the time and may reinforce the idea of the bishop’s responsibility to shepherd his congregations and the idea of Jesus being bishop of the world.
All the figures represented by the sculpture wear a type of tunic worn by Irish elites at the time rather than garments that would be expected of ancient Middle Eastern people. The Irish missionaries and Medieval European missionaries in general, would represent Biblical figures wearing contemporary clothing and in contemporary settings in order to help pagan populations better understand the Christian message by placing it in a familiar context.
Legacy of the Statues of White Island
Celtic Christianity represents a European Christian tradition that developed independently of both Rome and Constantinople from the 5th century to until about the 12th century. As a result, it developed a unique approach that demonstrates how religion and culture interact. Celtic Christianity, despite its foreign influences, was still an inherently Celtic religion and thus in many ways, a true successor to the tradition of the pagan Celts who had settled Ireland during the Iron Age.
Top image: The Janus figures of Boa Island. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
By Caleb Strom
Lehane, Brendan. 2005. Early Celtic Christianity . A&C Black.
Woods, Richard. 1985. The spirituality of the Celtic Church . Spirituality Today.