Mantle of St. Brigid, Relic

Small square of woolen material
Date- anywhere from the 5th to the 16th century
Cathedral of St. Sauveur, Bruges, Belgium

 

The mantle of St. Brigid or La Manteline de Sainte Brigid díIrlande as it is called in Bruges, is a small rectangular piece of woolen material kept in a triptych shaped reliquary. The reliquary is made of wood with a glass covered opening so that the mantle is exposed for viewing by the faithful. It is only brought out of storage once a year for the feast of St. Brigid, on February first. The actual relic measures only twenty one by twenty five inches. This small piece of cloth is has an appearance like lambís wool with small curly tufts unobscured by the tight weave. The mantle is dark crimson, chemical tests in 1936 showed that it was dyed with iron oxide.

Periodically in the history of this famous object of devotion it has been removed from its reliquary with special permission to study its composition and search for the source of its origins. Two of the most recent studies took place in 1866 and in 1936. In 1866 it was discovered that the item of clothing within the reliquary was not the actual relic but in fact a decorative covering made in the fourteenth century. This yellow silk mantle embellished with gold lace was dated as such based on the materials and dyes used in its construction. Also at this time the shaggy square also may have had a bluish-green linen lining that mysteriously disappeared in the intervening seventy years between studies.

H.F. McClintock, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland, found in his research that a similar type of woven material, died with iron oxide, had been found in early Bronze Age burials in Denmark. This bit of archaeological evidence,although not conclusive in any way regarding the mantle ,at least makes it possible that the relic could actually have belonged to the fifth century saint.

The earliest mention of the mantle is found in the records of another Netherlandish church, the Cathedral of St. Donaas, in 1347. After the Battle of Hastings, and the Norman conquest of 1066, which resulted in the death of the Saxon king Harold, his family including his sister Gunhild fled to Flanders. According to tradition but not written record, the Princess gave the mantle and various other valuable objects including jewelry to the church of St. Donaas as a repayment for their protection and shelter. This event is certainly a possibility, even if the mantle itself was not as old as it was purported to be. A similar type of wooly material to that found in Denmark was consistently made up until the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Ireland and the British homeland of Haroldís sister would certainly be well within the region where this cloth was made.

Another possibility, however, is that the mantle was made in the sixteenth century. In this period, there are written descriptions as well as illustrations that depict a particular kind of woolen garment. This cloak known as a Shag-Rug Mantles seems to bear some of the same characteristics of the scrap of woven wool said to be the sacred clothing of Brigid.

Even though there is no immediate evidence that this mantle was made in Brigidís Ireland, or for that matter that it wasnít, does not detract from its importance as an object of devotion. A small fragment of the mantle is also kept in the Convent of the Redemptoristines of Dumcondria, Dublin. Bits of her bones, her head and items such as her embroidery tools are scattered throughout the world and are testament to her strong appeal.

Unless we take the mantle figuratively, as a symbol of the saints protection over all her people rather than literally, of all of the items in this exhibition it has the least significance to the goddess. What this indicates is that although the monastic recorders of St. Brigidís lives borrowed intensely from the Celtic lore so prevalent in Ireland, there was a good deal of development from goddess to saint that had little to do with mythology and much more to do with politics, power and defining sanctity and sin.

 

Sources:
McClintock, H.F. " The Mantle of St. Brigid at Bruges", Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland vol.VI. (1936) 32-40