The Reliquary At York

There are at least three known reliquaries designed by the architect George Goldie, two are located in Ireland and one in York.

The church of Mount St. Alphonsus in Limerick is home to the relics of St. Urban. The relics consist of bone fragment and phials of the martyr’s blood.[1] The reliquary is made of oak and it was carved by Arthur Hayball, of Sheffield, a carver who had worked on other projects with George Goldie in the U.K., Ireland and Spain.[2] Goldie designed much of the interior of Mount St. Alphonsus, as well as the addition of an exterior tower. The reliquary is located inside the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, within the church.[3]

Also in Ireland, Goldie designed the reliquary for the ivory image of Our Lady of Graces in the Dominican Church, St. Mary’s, in Cork. The diminutive  image of the Madonna and Child has an interesting history surrounded by legend and embellishment. The Rev. Urban G. Flanagan, O.P., conducted extensive research into the image and provides the most definitive record of the image, its associated miracles and its origin.[4] The ivory had spent many years in Youghal, Co. Cork before being moved to the Dominican church in Cork city  and once located there it was placed in a reliquary designed by George Goldie. The image was placed in a shrine made of silver during the reign of Elizabeth I by one Honoria Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald and it remains in this casing.[5] Once relocated to St. Mary’s it was placed in the reliquary designed by George Goldie. Goldie designed a large portion of the interior of St. Mary’s including the altar, pulpit and baldachino.[6] Goldie’s reliquary consists of a gilded casing in the shape of a Gothic chapel, encrusted with emerald and ruby stones and mounted on feet in the shape of hounds. The reliquary stands at about one foot in height and bears an inscription, in Latin, that reads: ‘Michael O’Callaghan and Family return thanks to Saint Mary of Graces, 1872.’ Michael O’Callaghan was father of the Dominican Bishop of Cork at the time.[7] The reliquary was made in Paris under the supervision of Goldie.[8]

The relic in York is located in the Bar Convent, outside Micklegate Bar, the ancient entrance to the walled city from the south, a house of the international congregation founded by the Yorkshire woman Mary Ward, 1585-1645. Founded in 1686, it is the oldest surviving Catholic convent in England, and, until the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, it functioned in secret because of the anti-Catholic laws operating in Britain and Ireland from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. [9] The chapel within the convent was not visible to the outsider and it was built within the fabric of the existing building with numerous means of escape for worshipers – should they be discovered illegally practicing Catholic rituals.[10] One of the most important books dealing with the history of the convent is St. Mary’s Convent, Micklegate Bar, York, 1686-1887 by Henry James Coleridge.[11] It is from Coleridge’s book that we learn of the connections between the Goldie family and the convent, information that is supported by census records and information from the present Sisters of the convent, as well as the history of the relic of the True Cross that is in the possession of the Convent.

The Reliquary containing relic of The True Cross, York.

Coleridge tells us that two sisters of the Goldie family entered the convent school in 1843, Catherine and Mary. Mary took the name Walburga and would remain part of the community until her death, while Catherine is not recorded as having progressed to becoming a member of the community.[12] It can be confirmed from census records that Catherine died at the young age of 28. George Goldie’s family were very much of the Catholic faith, his brother Edward would become a Canon and Monsignor in Leeds, his brother Francis became a Jesuit and a noted writer on Catholic themes, while his father was a member of the Catholic Association and ‘took an active part in the agitation for Catholic Emancipation.’[13] Later in life, George Goldie would be awarded the Cross and Order of St. Sylvester in 1877 by Pope Pius IX for his work ‘as a Catholic architect.’[14]

The reliquary in York contains a fragment of the ‘True Cross’. The relic is encased in a silver gilt pectoral cross that is further encased in the Goldie designed reliquary. An inscription on the pectoral cross reads:

Reliquias Smæ. Crucis D.N. Jesu Christi in theca hac argentea deaurata formæ Crucis Hierosolymitæ inclusas Arnulphus Patriarcha Hierosolymitanus dono dedit D. Sherlæo Armigero ut præmium eximiæ eius virtutis quam in exepugnatione Smæ. Civitatis ostendit. A.D 1099. Quas ipse ut maximim thesaurum suæ familiæ reliquit.

From this we learn that the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Arnulphus, gifted the relic of the True Cross to a crusader named Shirley as a reward for his part in capturing Jerusalem. However, the inscription appears to have been placed on the container in around 1657-62 as a statement of the relics origins which Coleridge traced to St.Omers, in France. The authenticity of the relic was not certain but Cardinal Wiseman was of the opinion that this could be achieved.[15] In 1866, a one Rev. D.H. Haig of Erdington visited the convent and took on board the task of identifying the source and authenticity of the Cross.[16] Haig’s investigations concluded that:

The Patriarchal Cross was repaired at St. Omers between 1657 and 1662: that the inscription was then embodying the tradition of its origin; that the portions were separated from the relics it contained, so as not to impair the appearance of its filling the reliquary: that one of these remained sealed up until the elder father Lawson secured it for his native land, had it enclosed in his reliquary, and authenticated by the Bishop of St. Omers; that this was brought to York by the younger Father Lawson in 1792, and that the Patriarchal Cross from which it had been taken was brought thither also some years later.[17]

The outcome of Haig’s inquiry led to the relic being accepted as authentic and permitted for public veneration.[18] The then Bishop of Beverley, the Right Rev. Dr. Cornthwaite, decided that the relic and its reliquary should be further enhanced by the commissioning of a larger case that would contain both.[19] This new reliquary, in the shape of a monstrance, was that which was designed by George Goldie. Sometime between April 1867 and 1868, the order for making the new reliquary was sent to Armand Calliat of Lyons.[20] In the archives of the Bar Convent there is a bill and a letter, all in minute handwriting, on a piece of paper folded and sealed and posted from the silversmith, Armand Calliat, in Lyons, dated 11th June 1868, for the work on the reliquary.[21]

Thomas Joseph Armand Calliat was a noted goldsmith that worked primarily in France but and would also design ecclesiastical works in the U.K. including for Cardinal Manning and works additional to the Bar Convent reliquary for the Bishop of Beverley.[22] While the history of the relic and the reliquary is important, the symbolism around the completed monstrance type container devised by Goldie is very much worth exploring.

The reliquary is notable for its shape – the monstrance is a vessel often used to hold relics of the saints but, more importantly, it is primarily used to hold the Host during Benediction and Exposition. In Goldie’s use of the monstrance we are seeing it act both as a holder of a relic but a relic that is a symbol of the sacrifice of the body of Christ – the Host. The reliquary is a beautiful object in itself, made of silver and holding precious stones it features two angels in attitudes of adoration and clothed with drapery very much in the fashion of angels that formed part of Goldie’s designs for church altars the U.K. and Ireland during the nineteenth-century[23] The most interesting feature is the feet at the base of the monstrance. The feet do not depict any generic imagery but a mixture of highly targeted symbols that relate to the Convent and the Sisters within it as protectors of the relic. The four feet consist of two pairs, one pair portrays griffins in their traditional form while the other pair portrays griffins with the eagles head replaced by what appears to be a nun wearing a crown.

The nun’s crown is not usually portrayed as it is on the feet of the reliquary but here it may act as a symbolic iteration of the linen virginal crown worn by medieval nuns on the occasion of their coronation as brides of Christ.[24] The crown might also be a reference to St. Walburga the English-born saint, who is sometimes depicted wearing a crown in reference to her noble birth. Walburga was the name adopted by Goldie’s sister, Mary, on her entering the Sisterhood at the Bar Convent. The coronation of the Virgin might also add substance to the links that we can find between the two symbols of the griffin and crowned females at the base of the monstrance.

According to George Ferguson in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art the griffin can either be a symbol of the Saviour or also symbolise those who seek to oppress Christians.

In Dante’s Commedia there is mention of the griffin and, although the meaning is much disputed by scholars, many suggest that it is a reference to the duality of Christ, the eagle representing Christ in Heaven and the Lion representing Christ on Earth. In Traces of Servius in Dante, Erich Von Richtoven, suggests a lineage that allows Dante to introduce the griffin as a representation of Christ and that the carriage that he pulls in the Commedia stood as a symbol of the Church.[25]  Maurus Servius Honoratus had proposed that the griffin could denote the dual role of Apollo as a  divinity, in the heavens and on earth. [26] Richtoven also informs us that St. Paulinus of Nola saw Apollo and  Diana as being succeeded by Christ and Mary.[27] If the griffin could represent a pagan divinity from antiquity  for Servius then Dante appropriates this symbolic reference and restructures it as to allow the griffin  represent the true God; not only this but also to outshine and supersede the pagan gods.

There is thus a complexity in looking to the griffin as a symbol of support for the True Cross in the Bar Convent Reliquary. But, this complexity is nullified when we consider its location and that it could not but be intended as a Christian symbol. There is also the traditional association of the griffin as a guardian of treasures, and we cannot be in any doubt that the contents of the reliquary are considered as a treasure of Christian faith. [28] The griffins that support the reliquary are thus both representative of Christ and guardians of his cross. What then is the possible meaning of the adaption of the griffins where they are altered in two of the supports and the head of the eagle  is replaced with the head of a nun?

Here we can look to the nineteenth-century philosopher Stephen Scotus Eriugena who asserted that the griffin was highly monogamous and mated for life and that when the mate died the other partner would never re-mate. “Tantae castitatis ferunt esse gryphum qui, dum semel coniugale consortium perdiderit, semper castitatem suam inviolatam conservat, prioris coniugii memorans. Quad etiam de turture, naturarums inquisatores tradunt’  (Periphyseon III. 39; P.L. 122, 738 C)

The sisters in the convent are also protectors of the True Cross and have wed Christ who died on the Cross but are avowed to remain wedded to the living Christ that rose from the dead after the crucifixion.  That Goldie had two sisters that joined the convent and brothers that were members of the clergy in and around York should permit us to assume that the symbolism used in the reliquary would speak both to the members of the Order but also to those aware of the  meaning of the griffin and thus transfer this meaning to the sisters as depicted on the reliquary and as living guardians of the relic.

The crowned females, complete with habit, symbolise both the chaste status of the convent congregation and the special role they play as living Marian symbols with a privileged spiritual connection to Christ. The nun’s linen crown was seen as a symbol of  the special status of the ‘mystical marriage to Christ’ at her consecration/coronation.[29] The Griffin and the Nuns are placed at the foot of the monstrance not as mere decorative embellishments but serve to provide a concrete link between the relic and its unique location in the Bar Convent.


[1] ‘Solemnities at The Redemptorist Church’, The Limerick Reporter and Tipperary Vindicator, December 31, 1867.

[2] Banham, Julie P., Furnishing a City : The Design and Production of Furniture in Nineteenth-Century Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University,  Thesis, Degree of Master of Philosophy, 1999, 108.

[3] McConvery, Fr. Brendan, Church of Mount St. Alphonsus: 150th Year Anniversary Guide, (Dublin: Redemptorist Communication,  2013), 53.

[4] Flanagan, Urban G., ‘Our Lady of Graces of Youghal: Origin of the Image’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1950,  Vol. 55, No. 181, 1-13. And, Flanagan, Urban G., ‘Our Lady of Graces of Youghal: Origin of the Image’, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, 1951,  Vol. 56, No. 183, 1-10.

[5] Curran, Bernard, O.P., Saint Mary’s Dominican Church: A Guide, (Cork: Dominicans, 1970s).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. and Flanagan, 1951.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Kirkus, Sister Gregory,  Aspects of York – Discovering Local History, (Barnsley: Wharncliffe Books, 2000), 55-6.

[10] Ibid. 83-5.

[11] Fortunately this book is available freely online at: https://archive.org/details/stmarysconventm00convgoog/page/n8

[12] Information also from Sister Patricia Harriss, Bar Convent.

[13] Gillow, Joseph, A Literary and Biographical History, or Bibliographical Dictionary, of the English Catholics from the Breach with Rome, in 1534, to the Present Time, Volume 2, (London: Burns & Oates, 1885-1902), 510-13.

[14] ‘Mr. G. Goldie’, The Waterford News and General Adviser, July 13, 1877.

[15] Coleridge, Henry, S.J., St. Mary’s Convent: Mickelgate Bar, York (1686-1887), (London: Burns and Oates, 1887), 381.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid. 382.

[18] Ibid. 383.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. Coleridge gives the name as Calliart but it is correct to identify the silversmith as Thomas-Joseph Armand-Calliat.

[21] Information also from Sister Patricia Harriss, Bar Convent.

[22] The Tablet, September 28,  1878, 405.

[23] See section on reredos and notes on same at: http://caoimhindebhailis.org/the-architecture-of-george-goldie-in-ireland/

[24] For a discussion on the nun’s crown and its role see: Hotchin, Julie, The Nun’s Crown, Early Modern Women:An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2009, vol. 4, 187-194.

[25] von Richthofen, Eric,  ‘Traces of Servius in Dante’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, No. 92 (1974), 117-128.

[26] von Richthofen, Eric,  ‘Traces of Servius in Dante’, Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society, No. 92 (1974), 117-128.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Mayor, Adrienne and Michael Heaney, ‘Griffins and Arimaspeans’, Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 1/2, 1993, 40-66.

[29] Hotchin, Julie, ‘The Nun’s Crown’, 189.