Medieval marvels: a peek into Ireland’s past

Destiny Norris

Staff Writer

Beginning last September, the Spurlock Museum opened an exhibit containing modern reproductions of medieval relics, jewelry, and illuminated manuscripts.

The pieces that make up the exhibit are replicas, mostly produced by a technique of copying called electrotyping.

“It’s the process of change into the modern period,” says Professor Charles D. Wright, guest curator of the exhibit.

Wright’s exhibit introduces the work of Edmond Johnson, an Irish jewelry maker. Johnson began restoring and duplicating a small number of medieval Irish pieces in his personal jewelry shop for the British exhibit in the World Fair in 1893.

Johnson, a descendant of a family of goldsmiths dating back to the 18th century, explored nationalist themes in Irish jewelry for the World Fair even though Ireland had not yet become a free state from Great Britain.

Wright came upon the Johnson replicas in the archives at the University of Illinois when teaching courses on old English and old Irish literature. The replicas originally came to the University of Illinois in 1915 thanks to faculty member Gertrude Schoepperle. An avid supporter of Irish culture, the professor had put forth effort to obtain the copies made by Johnson in order to further Irish studies at the University.

“The first shipment ordered was being brought over on a British tanker,” Wright said, “but it was shot down by a German U-boat and is still at the bottom of the ocean.”

Wright thought the timing of the exhibit, which will continue to be open on the centennial of the Easter Rising, an important event in the history of Ireland’s independence, was important to the integrity and significance of the exhibit as well.

In accordance with the historical event of the Easter Rising, many of the pieces in the exhibit are symbols themselves of the Irish nationalist movement. Wright says “many of the pieces are charged with nationalism.”

The exhibit contains numerous replicas of brooches, which have been used in Ireland since the Bronze Age to show the social standing and rank of an individual, and were worn by men and women alike.

The Daughters of Ireland, a nationalist group that fought for Irish heritage, independence, and women’s roles in the country, enlisted Edmond Johnson to create replicas of the Tara brooch, a pin renowned through Irish legend, as their membership badges. Even today, Irish brooches carry the cause and history of nationalism and loyalty to Ireland’s independence.

Wright says the purpose of the exhibit is to not only show off the replicas, but to inform the viewer of the changes in techniques used to make replicas—techniques that surfaced due to modern innovations and electrical science.

“[I wanted the viewer to] explore techniques of reproduction as their own cultural phenomenon,” Wright says. “I wanted people to see the incredible sophistication of Irish art and literature, and that they are still important and relevant emblems of Irish identity and nationality.”

The exhibit was made possible by professors from around the country, as well as from the National University of Ireland, staff at the Spurlock, the Consul General of Ireland, and Parkland’s very own Vice President for Institutional Advancement Seamus O’Reilly.

Denise Seif, an art history and jewelry and metal working professor at Parkland, took both levels of her jewelry and metal working class to see the exhibit.

“Two of my colleagues, Chris Berti and Lisa Costello, had the opportunity to go to Morocco last year to experience the culture and then they were to create assignments for their students at Parkland based on some of the things they learned on the trip,” Seif says. “I could see that the students were really inspired by the enthusiasm of Chris and Lisa and how they were exposed to different ways of looking and thinking about making art. I saw this exhibit at the Spurlock as an opportunity for my students to have that similar kind of experience.”

Like Wright, Seif wanted her students to know the significance of the exhibit and the processes used to create the original pieces, and how that’s reflected in the replicas.

“By going to the exhibit and having [Wright] talk about the work and the reasons for putting together the exhibition my students now have a better understanding of the political, religious, and cultural significance of the [items] that are in the exhibition,” Seif says.

Seif says that she also hopes the visit will help her students share with others the immense amount of resources that the Spurlock has to offer the community.

Open since September, the exhibit is scheduled to close on April 2.