Vincent McDonnell's unusual exhibition re-writes Enniskillen's past from under the guise of a biblical discovery

The invitation card for the current exhibition at the Higher Bridges Gallery in Enniskillen, MASKparade & Unearthed Works – an Island Story, carries an arresting image of a mask, seemingly centuries old, and a surprising storyline: 'sometime during the 1970s, buildings between Down Street and Water Street in Enniskillen were demolished to accommodate a car park next to the Buttermarket. During this work a chest from a bygone era containing unusual masks was unearthed in ground mainly composed of chimerical soil deposits.'

The use of the word 'chimerical' is intriguing and I wonder why this amazing find has not come to light until now. When I visit the exhibition the penny drops. Chimerical means imaginary and Vincent McDonnell’s clever conceit seems designed to introduce visitors to a different kind of treasure, the word of God as it appears in the bible.

The Antrim based artist grew up in Fermanagh at Garden Hill on the shores of Lough MacNean and attended St. Michael’s school in Enniskillen. He graduated from the Belfast College of Art and Design where he specialised in illustration and graphic design but was increasingly drawn to portraiture, producing impressive likenesses of Maeve Binchy, Louis MacNeice, W B Yeats, James Joyce and others.

He painted a series of impressionistic mask-like heads, inspired perhaps by his personal collection of Jamaican and Venetian masks. Then McDonnell, who had been brought up a Roman Catholic, enrolled at the Evangelical School of Theology in Wales and became a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian church. Alongside his priestly vocation, he has continued to practice his art.

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In an early series of three-dimensional masks, he depicted some of the saints associated with Fermanagh: St. Ninnidh who brought Christianity to the southern shores of Lough Erne and gave his name to Knockninny, the hill where he fasted during lent; St. Molaise who founded a monastic settlement on the Island of Devenish; and St. Sinnell who taught the young Columbanus on Cleenish Island.

Each one of the 92, 3D masks McDonnell has made for this exhibition represents a person from the bible. Some names like Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar from the book of Judges, Bezelel, the first craftsman and Jubal, the first musician, are less familiar than Isaiah or Abraham. Old Testament patriarchs, minor prophets, princes from the tribes of Israel and Christ’s apostles pose in groups of twelve.

Also present are six characters who figure in the parables of Jesus: the good Samaritan; the wise man who built his house upon a rock; the wise servant who, during his master’s absence, faithfully carried out his duties; the sower whose seeds flourished not in rocky places or among thorns but on good soil; the prodigal son whose father killed the fatted calf when he returned home; the humble tax collector who, in contrast to the self-righteous Pharisee was well aware of his sins.

Three sets of twinned masks depict couples from the Old Testament  Xerxes and Esther, Ruth and Boaz, David and Bathsheba. The Persian King Xerxes forsook his wife Vashti, who disobeyed him, and married the orphaned daughter of a Jew, a woman named Esther.

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Ruth, the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi, met Boaz, a wealthy Bethlehem landowner who showed her kindness and when she asked him to marry her he did. David took Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah the Hittite, slept with her and she conceived a child. But what David had done displeased the Lord.

I long to see the smaller masks with their crenellated heads and barbed chins freed from their glass display boxes. I would like to put my nose in theirs and peer through their eyes to see the world as they saw it. Each one is subtly different from the next, with face colourings that range from copper to bronze, bearing traces of verdigris, orange tan and blood red.

Other than the notice 'mixed media' there is no indication of how these masks have been made to seem so convincingly ancient. Without touching them, one cannot ascertain if their rough metallic look has been achieved with wire and metal or papier maché layered with paint. In any case the artist is not revealing his secrets.

The larger, more imposing masks and sturdier shields, some with the gravitas of wood, have taken on sterner, more intimidating expressions. And while at times the listing of many of the biblical characters in Irish without the St. James Bible English equivalent is confusing, there remains an abundance to appreciate and discover in this unusual show.

MASKparade & Unearthed Works – an Island Story runs at the Higher Bridges Gallery, Enniskillen, until Februrary 27. The gallery is open from 10.00am - 6.00pm between Tuesdays and Fridays, and from 11.00am - 3.00pm on Saturdays. For more information visit the gallery website.