The Trinity College harp


Trinity College harp

The forepillar of the Trinity College harp is covered in incredibly fine and detailed carved, incised, engraved, and coloured decoration.

R.B. Armstrong in 1904 was not very interested in this decoration; he seems to have considered it a later addition, and does not illustrate much of it. I would think it is more likely to all be old if not original, and so I have prepared a sheet showing the decorative scheme of the Trinity College harp forepillar: Download a PDF, or order a print from the Emporium.

Note that my drawing only shows the outline of the scheme; various elements are textured with dots or lines, and maybe also pigment. I have only indicated the obvious purplish pigment on the inside of the pillar curve.

Many thanks to Digital Resources and Imaging Services, Trinity College Dublin, for supplying copies of Dr. Paul Mullarkey’s photographs of the harp. I also used my own photos of the harp taken in 2013. Even so, there are areas I cannot make out; these have been left blank on the drawing.

Trinity College harp Trinity College harp Trinity College harp Trinity College harp Trinity College harp
from my old photo postcard

The pillar is carved as a rectangular-section, with a two-headed fish running up the outside of the curve. The fish is divided into five fields. From the top, there is:

1. the upper head, with bulging eyes and lips. The lips have incised lining around them, and the head is covered in a grid, which is made of interlaced ribbons. The ribbons are speckled. The oblong panels inbetween the grid contain sets of two or three leaves, each leaf with three points. Each eye is surrounded by a diamond-shaped frame; the eyes may originally have been carved but now they are worn smooth. The flat central area of the upper fish head bears 8 nail holes from where the badge was attached.

2. the shoulders of the fish have interlace panels, carved in low-relief so that the ribbons run over and under one another. The ribbons have double lines engraved along them. The ribbons turn at the edges and also inside the design, so that there are six figure-8 shape loops in each panel (i.e. the panels are not made from single continuous ribbons). Both panels are very worn away, almost down to the bottom of the relief carving in places.

3. The centre section is comparitively plain, but has four circular designs. The upper and lower circles have only their outer frames remaining, as they have been cut away, presumably for the silver-mounted gem-setting (or possibly for an earlier gem-setting). The side ones are half cut away by the main recess for the missing silver-mounted gem setting The remaining halves of the central two circles contain interlaced ribbons, decorated with double lines, and framed by a narrow twisting ribbon the same as (and presumably originally continuous with) the twisting ribbon that frames the upper and lower shoulder panels. Four three-pointed leaves sprout from between the four circles.

4. the lower shoulders have low-relief interlace, like the upper ones, but with a different design, using chunkier ribbons with three engraved lines along them, and with a very complex pattern with two circles in the centre of each panel, and eleven very tight knots each of four interlacing strands arranged in diamond-pattern within each of the two panels. Again, the panels are not formed from single continuous ribbons.

5. the lower head is similar to the upper head, but instead of leaves it has rosebuds.The centre of the head has been carved away for a gem setting. Also visible on my drawing are the cracks and repairs in the pillar. The cracks run lengthwise along the pillar demonstrating its construction from a curved limb, with the grain of the wood following the curve; the cracks are repaired with butterfly-cleats let in to the wood, just like the soundboard cracks. The decoration has been re-drawn over the cleats.

The inside belly of the fish, facing the soundbox, has panels of geometric design. On the right hand side of the fish, there is a silver nail and plate embedded in the fish’s belly, on the inside of the curve. This is the remains of a silver strap that would have wrapped round to the front and secured the now lost gem setting in the centre of the fish.

The main rectangular section of the forepillar has decoration on the short front panels above and below the fish lips; the long side panels, and the inside panel facing the soundbox of the harp. These are all shown on my drawing (see above).

Trinity College harp
upper left animals

Trinity College harpRBA 1904 tracings of all four roundels

The flat side panels each have a pair of roundels, one above and one below the fish; each roundel has a pair of beasts. Upper left (illustrated right) is a pair of very gentle animals, which look to me very much like the style of animal in the Book of Kells, who face away from each other. Upper right is a scene with a lion straddling and fighting with a wingless two-legged serpent. The tail of the lion turns into foliage very much like that on the left side of the harp. Lower left and lower right are similar pairs of beasts, those on the right looking a bit like wild boar with cloven hooves and bristly backs, and those on the left more like wolves with spiky backs. These lower pairs both face each other almost like they are kissing. Armstrong drew a tracing of these four roundels and published them in 1904 (see right). The actual carved lines on these animals is more fine and delicate and lively than Armstrong’s tracing. The animals are textured with speckled bodies.

Trinity College harp
3D anaglyph image
red/cyan goggles required

The main areas of the side fields between the roundels is taken up with dense foliage designs, different on each side. On the right side, a single vine stem winds its way up the harp in a series of 17 almost circular loops, sprouting rosebuds and strange folded leaves as it goes. At the top it erupts into a little forest of the strange leaves on long stalks. On the left side, a pair of vines start at the bottom and weave in and out of each other in a series of five long lozenge-shapes, sprouting similar leaves within and between each loop, but these leaves are mostly thrice-folded. The zig-zag edges of these folds have often been mistaken in the past for abstract geometric zigzags, and similarly the leaves and stems on the right have in the past usually been mistaken for geometric circular patterns. The stems of the vines on both sides are decorated with speckles or dots, and maybe also pigment - they do look darker in colour but this may be an optical illusion from the speckles.

Trinity College harp

The inside of the pillar curve has geometric designs with clear traces of paint; the outline of this design is illustrated by Armstrong on his soundbox plate. It is the one place on the harp where pigment from the original painted decorative scheme is clearly visible (see photo to the right). The rest of the pillar may well have originally been painted, but it is really hard to discern any remains. I do think that some of the vine stems on the sides of the pillars may show traces of pigment, but it is hard to tell if it is really paint, or just staining from the speckles that decorate the vine stems.

Simon Chadwick