The art essay of the month

The Landing of Saint Patrick in Ireland (1912) by Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862–1927)

Saint Patrick had no illusions about the Irish when he came to evangelise the island in a.d. 430. He had been kidnapped by raiders as a boy in England and sold as a slave to an Irish tribe. For six years he lived among them, herding their livestock until his escape. Thus, the fierce warriors readying their weapons by the shore in Frederick Cayley Robinson’s painting would not have taken the “Apostle of Ireland” by surprise.

This mixed watercolour on panel was a preparatory design by Cayley Robinson for a mural project destined for the Dublin Art Gallery. Born and raised in England, Cayley Robinson spent his formative years studying art throughout Europe: Michelangelo and Mantegna in Italy and the Pre-Raphaelites in England. From the former, he mastered the skill of drawing austere, majestic figures; from the latter, he learned how to apply light for ethereal effect. But it was his study of the newly completed murals by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in France that definitively shaped his style. Cayley Robinson was struck by the dreamy, misty effects with which Puvis de Chavannes imbued his works. Similar to the way modern films often use a fading effect to cut to flashback scenes, this style of watercolour also evoked the soft edges of memory. A distant past, romantically remembered—what better way to portray a story as steeped in legend as it is in fact?

The shoals of evangelisation

Looking at the work, the viewer is first assaulted by the phalanx of warriors on the left, clad in a mix of pelts and armour. For all their primitive attire, the men are powerfully drawn and are captured in dignified poses, reminiscent of the heroes of Renaissance art. They carry various weapons—sword, axe, spear, shield—and both old and young men stand amid the seasoned fighters. Here is a people dedicated to combat. They stand along a slender dock: next to them a steep cliff face closes the space, with a cascade of warriors streaming along its height. The wall, as well as the young soldier turning away while raising his hand against the circular shield slung over his shoulder, conveys the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, both physical and spiritual, that Saint Patrick will have in evangelising the denizens of the island. At the top of the cliff, one figure holds a flimsy torch, its flickering flame about to be snuffed by the gusts of activity.

Portent of peace

The agitated warriors prepare their weapons while the saint is in the distance. Cayley Robinson draws their sinuous arms, twisting trunks, as a flow of tumultuous movement along the cliff face as Saint Patrick approaches. The restlessness, the contrasting gazes and movements, signal a world of constant turmoil. Patrick’s vessel glides into the scene, bringing with it a sense of peacefulness. No flapping sails, no visibly toiling oarsmen, no wake churning in the water—all is calm. The chattering men are faced with the silence of prayer. Saint Patrick, during his long years as a slave, prayed for his Irish captors while he tended their animals through lonely days and nights. Once home, he prepared for the priesthood, his intentions increasingly focused on the conversion of his former captors. He now stands in the prow of the boat, that age-old symbol of the Church, in front of the broad sail on a horizontal beam laid across the high mast, reminiscent of the cross. Patrick, no longer a boy but a wise old man, serenely surveys the shore. He has prepared the way with prayer and now comes to complete his mission.

To bring light into the darkness

Even more powerful than Patrick’s presence is the light he brings with him. Slightly behind the saint a lantern rests in front of the sail. The light burns bright and steady despite its precarious perch, unlike the wind-whipped torch of the Irish soldier. The glow expands along the length of the sail and envelops Patrick in its warmth. Neither the dazzling beam that blinded Saint Paul nor the invigorating fire of Pentecost, this light is warm, constant, and comforting. Patrick, violently wrested from his family as a child, enslaved and neglected, returns not with vengeful lightning bolts from the sky but with the light of Christ and the gentle fortitude of faith. Cayley Robinson’s atmosphere of reverie is anchored by that radiance. One might wonder if the strains of Saint John Henry Newman’s “Lead, Kindly Light”, written eighty years earlier, played through the mind of the painter as he worked.

The arrival of Saint Patrick in Ireland transformed the bellicose natives. The Gospel entered their lives along with education and societal structure through the dioceses he founded. Evangelised Ireland, for her part, then produced monks who preserved the learning lost at the fall of the Roman Empire. With this haunting image, Cayley Robinson captured the fertile radiance of the Christian message, which, once kindled in Ireland, would illuminate the world.

 

Elizabeth Lev

Writer and professor of art history in Rome, Italy

 

The Landing of St. Patrick in Ireland (1912), Fredrick Cayley Robinson (1862–1927), Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane, Ireland. © Bridgeman Images.