Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Infant of Prague, the Lady on the Rock

An earlier post deals with 83 Manor Street in Stoneybatter, with its magnolia tree and Austin Clarke connections and the work of master craftsman James Beatley. While James's instruments are beautifully handmade, the following two slices of popular culture are mass produced.

Next door at 84 Manor Street is a bed and breakfast. Pride of place in the fanlight above its front door is a statue, sometimes illuminated by an electric light. It's an Infant of Prague, also known as a Child of Prague.

The Infant of Prague

Infant of Prague statues are part of a tradition that stretches back to 1340. They are usually quite colourful things with ornate robes or vestments - apparently the Infant has a bottomless wardrobe - but the one in Manor Street is almost entirely white. The stone and woodwork on the front of the house are all white too, adding to the bleached out, minimalist effect.

There was a time when Infant of Pragues* were almost everywhere in Ireland. They'd be in the fanlight or the front window, or on the best shelf in the Front Room or in the Best Room or the Parlour - in the days when parlours were not just for funerals or for milking or for, um, hairdressing.

And the Infant of Pragues weren't just inside the houses either. Oh no. On the eve of a wedding they'd be taken outside and tucked under a hedge or a bush or buried in a flower bed of the bride-to-be's home, to bring fine weather and good fortune. It seemed to work too: nobody in Ireland got divorced back then, and wedding days were always sunny, apparently.

All the same, I find it a bizarre kind of religious devotion, this statue worship in a country of "moving statues". Yet there’s an intense sadness too, when you stumble upon an Infant of Prague nowadays in a tumbledown old cottage in the middle of nowhere, gathering dust among all the other ghostly icons of a Catholic Ireland that is slowly crumbling away: the Sacred Hearts, the Lourdes Madonnas, the St Brigid's crosses and the family rosary pledges.

So nowadays the Infant of Pragues are no longer ubiquitous. OK, you might come across the occasional battered specimen in a bric-a-brac shop, chipped or decapitated (beheading was good if it happened by accident, as it was said to give the Infant greater powers!), and the statue might get a second life, but this time it will probably be more as a slice of retro kitsch.

In the meantime the Infant of Prague's place within the domestic space - in the fanlight or front window - has quickly been usurped by a new generation of more secular symbols: the "Repeal the 8th" stickers, the NO JUNK MAIL signs, the Lady on the Rock statues...

The Lady on the Rock

The Lady on the Rock, also known as The White Lady or Our Lady of the Northside, is a windowsill ornament for a very different kind of Ireland, and is a particularly Dublin phenomenon. The reclining, half-naked female figure looks decidedly modern and secular compared with the Infant of Prague.

She began life as a clay model made by local artist Harold Gardiner in 1993. After he died in the mid-1990s, a resin cast of the model ended up with Dublin Mouldings, the people on Parnell Street who mainly do building plasterwork restoration and reproduction.

After the statues went into mass production, they "went viral" (as they say) in the city centre around a decade ago, coinciding with the start of the recession. The little white statues began to sprout overnight on windowsill after windowsill, street after street in the working-class communities of the northside and the Liberties on the southside.

I think this one's nose might be out of joint
My two fairly random examples here, taken on Stoneybatter's back streets, show how the statue comes in two main versions: either original plain white, or brightly painted - especially her drape and sometimes her makeup too.

But don't ask what the Lady on the Rock "stands for". She's not a secret sign for a brothel, a drug den (when pointing to the left), a religious cult or some gangland tie. She's not Molly Malone or the naked survivor of a shipwreck off the west coast, or something to mark your turf or to do a bit of one-upmanship on the neighbours. And her "rock" isn't even rocky, is it?

She's just her: a little piece of working-class fun, an anonymous woman who keeps soaking up the myths and meanings and stories that people conjure up about her. So much so, indeed, that this simple little statue has managed to generate art exhibitions, children's art projects, award-winning documentaries (see below) and even blog posts. Like, um, this one.

(* Deliberate grammatical mistake. It should be "Infants of Prague" of course.)