Explore St Dymphna. The Tragedy of an Irish Princess at the National Gallery of Ireland

Painting of a woman in a pink dress getting into a boat with a man dressed in blue, a man dressed in white and a women in a white headdress.
Goossen Van der Weyden (1455–1543), Dymphna and her Companions about to Embark, ca 1505. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp.Credit

The National Gallery of Ireland is delighted to announce the opening of a brand new exhibition St Dymphna. The Tragedy of an Irish Princess. Depicting the life and legacy of an Irish-born saint, this show is centered on a magnificent eight-panel altarpiece and is the first of its kind on display in Ireland. 

The exhibition has been organised together with The Phoebus Foundation (Antwerp) and features eight freestanding plinths. The plinths each house a panel, which can be viewed from both sides. A 12-minute introductory film with subtitles also accompanies these works detailing their history. 

After extensive restoration and research carried out by The Phoebus Foundation, the Dymphna altarpiece by Flemish artist Goossen van der Weyden (1455-1543) has since travelled around Europe. This January, the eight panels will be on display here in Ireland for the first time at the Gallery. These colourful sixteenth-century works tell the compelling story of St Dymphna, the daughter of an Irish King. 

Legend suggests that Dymphna’s mother died when she was a child, and so her father went in search of a new bride. As Dymphna began to grow up resembling her late mother very closely, her father decided that he wanted to marry her. 

To escape his incestuous intentions, Dymphna fled Ireland with her confessor Gerebernus and two companions; first to Antwerp and then to nearby Geel (or Gheel) in Belgium. Dymphna’s father pursued them though, tracing them by coins that they had used on their journey. When the King’s daughter refused to return home with him, he became enraged and killed both his daughter and Gerebernus. 

Dr. Katharina Van Cauteren, Chief of Staff of The Phoebus Foundation and curator of the exhibition said: ‘The tragic end of Dymphna's life was the beginning of a centuries-old tradition. Her heroic resistance made the princess so loved by the local population that her fame reached the Pope, who canonised her. She became the patron saint of the mentally ill, resulting in pilgrims travelling to Geel in the hope of finding solace for their psychological problems. Through exhibitions such as this, Dymphna’s story can become part of a collective consciousness and thus continue to inspire the same courage and kindness she has demonstrated throughout her life.’

Dr Brendan Rooney, Head Curator at the National Gallery of Ireland said: ‘The Gallery is excited to be hosting the earliest-known depiction of the life of an Irish-born saint, and to be presenting Goossen van der Weyden’s exquisite panels in such a novel way.’

Dr Lizzie Marx, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Art at the National Gallery of Ireland said: ‘Goossen van der Weyden was a gifted and imaginative artist, much like his grandfather, the artist Rogier van der Weyden. He is a master of storytelling, depicting Dymphna’s legend in glorious colour, and with marvellous details. Thanks to The Phoebus Foundation’s conservation treatment, the panels show Goossen’s work at its finest.’

This unmissable show marks the princess’s symbolic return to her homeland through the physical presence of these eight panels, offering a unique opportunity for visitors to encounter Dymphna's story. The Phoebus Foundation also published a large, lavishly illustrated book detailing the history and restoration of the original altarpiece. A limited number of copies of this book entitled ‘Crazy about Dymphna’ is available to purchase from the Gallery Shop and from The Phoebus Foundation’s website.

‘We are grateful to the administration of the city of Geel for their help during the realization of the project. It is thanks to their willingness that today we have here for the first time the eighteenth century copy of the lost sixth panel of the altarpiece. The artwork depicting the martyrdom of Saint Dymphna disappeared during the French Revolution but the Gasthuis Museum in Geel is lending an early copy of this representation for this exhibition.’ – The Phoebus Foundation.

Exhibition listing:

St. Dymphna. The Tragedy of an Irish Princess 
Opens: 28 January 2023
Closes: 28 May 2023
Grand Gallery| Free admission 
Curators: Dr Brendan Rooney, Dr Lizzie Marx and Dr Van Cauteren

Visitor information at the National Gallery of Ireland:

No booking required – the permanent collection and many temporary exhibitions are free for all to enjoy. Tickets are required for some temporary exhibitions – currently on display is Turner: The Sun is God. For tickets and opening hours, see nationalgallery.ie

About the National Gallery of Ireland:

The National Gallery of Ireland is one of the country’s most popular visitor attractions housing the nation’s collection of European and Irish art from about 1300 to the present day, and an extensive Library & Archive. Entry to the collection is free for all to enjoy, learn and be inspired.

About The Phoebus Foundation: 

The Phoebus Foundation is an art foundation with philanthropic objectives based in Antwerp (Belgium). The Phoebus Foundation acquires art and provides a professional framework for the conservation and management of art works, ensures their preservation and restoration and aims to achieve a high level of scientific research. The results of these efforts are shared as widely as possible by means of exhibitions and loans, cultural events, symposia and publications.

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