The Navan or Smyth Crucifix
The Edward Smyth Crucifix
The Navan Crucifix
Journal of the Royal Society of
Antiquaries of Ireland 1950.
In the Dublin Evening Post of
9th August, 1792,
there is found the notice which follows:-
An inimitably fine piece of sculpture is at present exhibited at the Dublin Museum, Mary Street. It is a CRUCIFIXION, large as life - from the chisel of Mr. Smith - an Irish artist - who already stands eminently distinguished by the superior excellence of his productions in his professional line. To him the City of Dublin owes the beautiful statue of LUCAS at the Exchange - that of the Marquis of Buckingham - the emblematical figures of the new Custom- house - the statues erected at the House of Lords, etc., etc.,
Besides the novelty of the admirable piece of sculpture - the first of its kind ever attempted in Ireland - it has strong claims to public admiration.
It is indeed but truth to remark, that if there is anything like divine inspiration in sculpture, Smith in the accomplishment of this figure has caught the flame - the exact proportion and symmetry of the whole exactly corresponding with the description of the Divine Person, the correctness of the anatomy, with the beautiful composure of the countenance when the last breath of life has departed, and all convulsive motion seems just to have left the
Sacred Body - added to the simple and solemn manner in which this awful subject is displayed, makes it impossible to behold it without feeling the strongest emotions of grief and veneration.
This fine piece of sculpture, which is as large as the human figure, we hear has been executed through the means of a liberal subscription of the Roman Catholics of Navan, as an altar-piece to their Chapel.
The 18th century prose does not overrate the merits or the effect of this excellent piece of sculpture which is one of Smyth's finest works and, so far as is known, his only statue in wood. According to a competent authority the material used is lime wood. The paint, which appears to be original, is in excellent condition."
Through the kindness of Rev. Dr. H. Dunne, Administrator, Navan, to whom Mrs. Leask has communicated the gist of the newspaper reference some years ago, it has been possible to examine the sculpture and make some photographs of it, one of which is reproduced in the article. In May, 1949, Dr. Dunne kindly informed us that for the purpose of providing a new cross ( the old one being affected by the wood beetle ) the whole had been taken down and was accessible and, on examination of the back of the figure, an inscription was discovered. This, partly covered by a metal attachment for suspension, is cut deeply with a wood carver's chisels - in a space about 10 inches square - and reads:
This proves conclusively the authenticity of the newspaper reference.
National Gallery of Ireland Dublin
Smyth's date of birth is given variously as 1746 or 1749. His place of birth is unknown, although it may have been in County Meath. As a youth he was apprenticed to the master sculptor Simon Vierpyl. Smyth first achieved public recognition when his model for the statue of Charles Lucan was exhibited in 1772. The finished marble stood in the City Hall, Dublin.
Smyth left Vierpyl's workshop to join the team of Henry Darley who was really a builder with a large stonemason's yard. Darley was working for the renowned architect James Gandon on the construction of the Custom House. Gandon was so impressed by the models for carvings for the Custom House submitted by Smyth that he told Darley that this sculptor ought to left free to work from a workshop of his own. This began the long partnership between Gandon and Smyth.To this day Smyth's sculptures embellish Gandon's architecture on the Custom House, the Bank of Ireland (formerly the Houses of Parliament), the Four Courts and the King's Inns.
During all this work on public buildings Smyth also found time to carve statues and church memorials. In this area a special place must be made for the Navan Crucifix, one of the very few purely ecclesiastical church commissions by a leading contempory sculptor. In 1792 Smyth was firmly established and extremely busy.
The Navan Crucifix has been published by H.G. Leask in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Volume 80 (1950). In this article he quotes the eulogy published in the Dublin Evening Post for 9 August 1792, a passage found by his wife who continues to enrich the history of Irish Art by her learned papers in scholarly journals. The newspaper records: "This fine piece of sculpture, which is as large as the human figure, we hear has been executed through the means of a liberal subscription of the Roman Catholic inhabitants of Navan, as an altarpiece to their Chapel."
The sculpture at Navan to this day is certainly that commented upon in the Dublin Newspaper. It would appear that Smyth was proud of this commission to judge by the large scale signature, for obvious reasons not normally visible to the viewer.
In 1973, James White, Director, asked the Board of Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland for permission to examine the crucifix, and if necessary, have it restored in the Gallery's Department of Conversation. It was found necessary and desirable to treat this rare and important wooden carving. A small team of part time restorers was formed to work under the direction of the Gallery's Restorer for Painting and Sculpture, Andrew O'Connor.
In 1950 Leask considered the paint on the sculpture to be original, but this was doubted in 1973 by the Gallery's staff, and in particular by the Restorer. A tiny tranche was made in the most suspect area, the beard. Not only was the paint non original, but the beard had been built up. A decision was then made to proceed with the removal of the additions to Smyth's original form.
A subsequent stage in the work showed that not only had the beard been strengthened; the beard had been extended and Christ had been given a moustache not envisaged by Smyth. The superimpositions were made of gesso ( white plaster ) and the head over painted in order to disguise the additions. The removal of the additions was a slow and painstaking operation, because it was essential not to cut into the original carving. The non original parts of the beard, the moustache, and a large additional lock of hair falling down and under Christ's chin had all left scars on the original Smyth surface. These were toned down slightly, as their total obliteration would have involved a complete repainting of the entire head and upper torse - a new falsification of the artist's creation. When the work was completed, the crucifix was put on exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland, together with full photographic documentation and report of the Restorer's intervention. The conservative approach to restoration was fully justified and explained.
Why and whenwere the additions made? Until some archival material is found one may only make a reasonable suggestion. Edward Smyth's crucifix for Navan belongs to the classical tradition with its roots in the Italian Renaissance and in later work by such distinguished artists as Berini and Algardi; this is exactly what one would expect from the sculptor of the public works and statues in Dublin.
In 1839 Smyth's crucifix may have been transferred to the new church in Navan. By that date there had been a development in religious art; it tended to make images more sentimental, and this style used such devices as long droopy moustaches and beards, and long flowing hair. As the century progressed this degenerated into a mawkish idiom which, unfortunately for Ireland, became the norm for readymade sculptures for church and repository art for the homes of the pious faithful.
Smyth's Navan Crucifix, as restored to its original state, is artistically a major piece of sculpture; it still remains his only known work in timber; moreover, it is a crucifix which serves the Church, even if one might not wish to accept verbatim the paragraph in the Dublin Evening Post:
" It is indeed but truth to remark, that if there is anything like divine inspiration in sculpture, Smith in the accomplishment of this figure has caught the flame - the exact proportion and symmetry of the whole exactly corresponding with the description of the Divine Person, the correctness of the anatomy, with the beautiful composure of the countenance when the last breath of life has departed, and all convulsive motion seems just to have left the Sacred Body - added to the simple and solemn manner in which this awful subject is displayed,makes it impossible to behold it without feeling the strongest emotions of grief and veneration."
Happily for Navan, happily for Ireland, Smyth's crucifix is fulfilling the role for which it was carved over 200 years ago.