A view of the replica of St Manchan's Shrine.

Replica of St Manchan's Shrine goes under the hammer next month

A 19th century replica of Offaly's best known ecclesiastical treasure, St Manchan's Shrine, is set to go under the hammer in early December with a guide price between €20,000 and €30,000.

The life-size replica made of wood, plaster of Paris, gilding and other media, was commissioned around 1850 by Sir William Wilde and presented by him to the 3rd Earl of Dunraven who displayed in its home in Adare Manor for over a century before it was sold along with the house contents in 1982. It will come up auction again at The Talbot Hotel, Stillorgan, Dublin on December 6 and 7 as part of a major sale by Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers, which also includes the library of the late Noel Heavey, a well-known Athlone architect.

Considered a masterpiece of medieval art, St Manchan’s Shrine is Ireland's largest surviving reliquary, a container for holy relics. The original medieval shrine is still preserved at the parish church at Boher near Ballycumber, not far from its original home in Lemanaghan, where, in the seventh century, St Manchan founded his monastery.

A unique example of Irish monastic metalsmithing combining Irish, late Viking/Urnes and Romanesque Christian art styles, it is this mixture that makes the shrine such a unique piece in terms of history, archaeology and metalsmithing. Internationally known, the shrine has been the focus of detailed academic study over many years, as well as featuring in several international publications on Viking art. In 1979, it was brought to Clonmacnoise for the visit of Pope John Paul II, and the following year it was exhibited as part of a major international exhibition on the Vikings at the British Museum.

The replica going under the hammer next month is acknowledged as a fine example conveying “the magnificence of one of the greatest examples of twelfth-century metalwork to have survived in Ireland,” according to the auction's catalogue for lot 610.

In the 1874 Journal of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, the Rev James Graves gave a detailed account of the Shrine of St Manchan. Dating from around 1130, it is the largest surviving medieval reliquary in Ireland, and with its combination of Hiberno-Romanesque and late Viking decoration, can be compared to the Cross of Cong. It is likely that both were commissioned by Turlough O'Connor, High King of Ireland, and made at the monastery at Clonmacnoise in Offaly. In the Annals of the Four Masters, there is an entry for the year 1166 which mentions the shrine of St Manchan.

By the early 19th century, when first described scientifically by George Petrie, the reliquary, having suffered the ravages of time, was in the care of the Mooney family, of the Doon in Offaly. Petrie described in glowing terms referencing its beauty and design details.

In medieval times, on the saint's feast day which falls on January 24th, the reliquary was carried in procession, held aloft by poles passed through these rings. Restored and conserved, the Shrine of St Manchan is now displayed in the church at Boher, Ballycumber, not far from Clonmacnoise. Nearby are the ruins of an ancient church, and a holy well, both named after the saint. Manchan was revered not only for his piety, but also for his poetry.

The auction marketing documents explain that, when first exhibited in Dublin's Great Exhibition of 1853, the Offaly shrine attracted “enormous interest” and as a result several life-size replicas originate from this time. One of these, based on casts taken by Dr Alexander Carte, curator of the RDS museum, was in the collection of Dr Lentaigne of Dublin.

His replica, now in the National Museum, gives an idea of how the reliquary originally looked, with its elaborate Romanesque and Viking decoration fully intact. Another similar imaginative version is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The present replica, to be auctioned next month was commissioned by Wilde, and is acknowledged as a more faithful copy. Wilde also commissioned a second replica, which he presented to the Royal Irish Academy.