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An Irish Catholic chieftain portrayed as defender of his faith

sir Neil O'neill

Photo by Luceind de Guise courtesy of Tate Britain

Lucien de Guise - published on 05/21/21

This portrait of Sir Neil O'Neill makes a statement about overcoming religious oppression.

One of the joys of UK’s museums reopening this week is that some of them have come back better than ever. London’s Tate Britain has done an especially good job with wall labels that explain the oppression that forms such a lively part of British history. At the Victoria and Albert Museum they are admitting that it was wrong to loot Christian treasures from Ethiopian churches in the 19th century, and are thinking about how to return them. 

At Tate Britain they don’t have any loot – just pictorial records of the looting and other perfidious activities. A prominent example is a portrait of Sir Neil O’Neill. Painted by an English artist who ran away from England for being a Catholic, he found a subject in Ireland who is one of the most striking paragons of a troubled era. The elaborate costume he is wearing is the traditional attire of an Irish chieftain. It’s far from being the peasant smock that the English colonizers of Ireland thought to be the local preference. By Sir Neil’s side is a dog that was the envy of the English nobility. The Irish tried their hardest to stop these massive wolfhounds from being exported to England.

The main indicator of Sir Neil’s sympathies is the suit of samurai armor at his feet. When this work was painted, the Japanese authorities had been persecuting Catholics in their country for a century. The punishments were so extreme they make for impossible viewing in Martin Scorsese’s underrated film Silence. After a while the Japanese relented a little and allowed Dutch Protestants to trade in their country. Catholics were still being hunted down in 1680, when John Michael Wright painted this work. The armor at the feet of the proud 22-year-old Irish warrior is most likely a statement about Catholics overcoming oppression. Sadly, it took a long time for this to happen in either Ireland or Japan.

The virtual Museum of the Cross

The Museum of the Cross, the first institution dedicated to the diversity of the most powerful and far-reaching symbol in history. After 10 years of preparation, the museum was almost ready to open; then came COVID-19. In the meantime, the virtual museum has started an Instagram account to engage with Aleteia readers and the stories of their own crucifixes: @crossXmuseum

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