In 2016, the Phoebus Foundation, a trust from the collection and preservation of Belgian art, undertook a large-scale restoration project focused on an altar screen by Goossen van der Weyden (1455-1543) in their collection. This creation with a remarkable historical connection with Ireland, is now on exhibition in Dublin at the National Gallery of Ireland until May 28, 2023.
It will be of very special interest to anyone interested in the history of the cross-border Clogher region. It will also engage the attention of hagiologists, indeed of anyone at all interested in early and medieval religion, through its revelation in physical form of the strange permutations of Irish religious tradition in a wider European context.
St Dympna through her cultus casts light on the complicated and often opaque hagiology of early Christian Ireland. But her real fame is in Belgium, in the city of Geel, where the saint herself is now more honoured as the patroness of the mentally ill than she is in Ireland (hence the spelling variations in her name).
Here in Ireland Dymphna is a legendary sixth or seventh Century Irish saint who was the daughter of a Celtic king. Her story as presented in this show relates that when Dymphna grew to resemble her mother, her widowed father decided to marry her himself – this was an Ireland still partly pagan.
To escape his incestuous intentions, Dymphna fled Ireland to Geel in Belgium, with her personal priest confessor Gerebernus. Dymphna’s father pursued and killed them, and their bodies were buried on the spot by angels.
The Church of St Dymphna in Geel, consecrated in 1247, still holds relics associated with the saint. The altarpiece featuring scenes from the life of St Dymphna is the only work of its kind to focus on the life of an Irish saint.
This Irish princess, who fled her incestuous father in the sixth century, was beheaded in the Kempen village of Geel. On account of her tragic end and uncompromising chastity, the princess was venerated from that moment on as the patron saint of the mentally ill. From the late Middle Ages, pilgrims flocked to Geel in large numbers to catch a glimpse of Saint Dymphna. They paid homage to the local celebrity in the hope that she would alleviate their mental problems. To this day, Geel is known for its unique treatment of the mentally ill, who are cared for at home by locals.
Goossen Van der Weyden’s altarpiece came into being at the height of Dymphna’s popularity. The masterpiece was intended for the church of Tongerlo Abbey. Today this work is characterised by a remarkable iconography and an eventful history: a panel was lost and the triptych was even sawn into pieces. It ultimately came into the hands of a team of specialists from Belgium and abroad who subjected the altarpiece to a meticulous conservation over a period of three years, a colossal undertaking during which new techniques were used. This gave the conservators unprecedented insight into the mind, and workshop, of an early 16th century painter.