On Saturday I was driving south towards Dublin when we spotted the road sign turning to Monasterboice. I zoomed off the motorway and we stopped to look at the amazing high crosses there. I was especially pleased to get a good stereo pair of the carvings on the Cross of Muiredeach.
This cross features an elaborate scene presumed to be of the last judgement, with Christ holding the instruments of passion flanked by musicians – at his right hand are a stringed instrument player and a trumpeter, with people who may be elders or elect; at his left hand are a triple-pipes player and a devil with a trident herding people who are presumably the damned. Apart from the satisfying classification of instrumental music displayed here, the string player is a figure of great interest. He is clearly in the King David line of iconography, seated in a high-backed chair and with a bird perched on the top of the instrument, very similar to the Breac Maedóic in the National Museum at Kildare Street, Dublin. Both the Breac Maedóic and the Cross of Muiredeach are usually dated c.1000.
While the Breac Maedóic clearly depicts a triangular frame harp, the instrument on the Cross of Muiredeach is far less clear, and there has been disagreement over its organological classification. Anne Buckley in a number of papers identifies it as a “quadrangular lyre”, and most commentators have followed this suggestion. I have always thought it looked suspiciously triangular, but really I don’t think it is possible to draw strong organological conclusions from an image like this – it is too eroded, to fuzzy, and there are too many questions about the nature of these iconic images being copied and recopied without necessarily referring to the real world – I believe it is a mistake to try and read them as technical or photo-realistic representations of actual artefacts.
Hopefully my anaglyph image shown below will help you make up your own mind about what is going on here!