This austere life contrasts quite sharply with some of the elaborate, charming and sometimes humorous sculptures and depictions around the abbey. Inside the church is a wealth of medieval tombs, some with ‘weepers’ (i.e. sculptures of the apostles and saints surrounding the base of the tomb). Many of these were created by the workshop of medieval master-sculptor Rory O’Tunney, who was based nearby at Callan. The saints are recognisable as many hold a symbol to identify them, like St Peter who is often depicted holding the keys of heaven. Others hold symbols of their martyrdom; for example, St Thomas holds a lance, St Simon a saw, St Andrew an X-shaped cross, St Bartholomew his skin (he was flayed alive), and St Paul a sword.
A number of other fascinating tomb effigies can also be seen, the earliest of which is that of Abbot O’Dulany who died in 1202. Perhaps most intriguing is the effigy of two Norman knights known locally as ‘The Brethren’, depicted in their armour side by side. It is a highly unusual stone, as there are few incised graveslabs that depict knights known from Ireland (or elsewhere). The depiction is certainly intimate. The knights are positioned in a manner you would more commonly see a married couple, with arms touching and the knight on the left facing the knight on the right. At this time, no women had been granted the title of knight in Ireland, though some orders anointed female warriors, known as ‘dames’. So it may be a depiction of a married couple of a man and woman, or perhaps a male couple (though such a depiction would be highly unusual at this time). Or perhaps it could be two male relatives, a father and son, or brothers. Local folklore suggests that the slab may represent two of the sons of William Marshal. Or possibly it could just be two very close friends and blood brothers? We will likely never know for sure, but the slab is an intimate and touching depiction of partnership and love, whether platonic or otherwise.
The cloister contains an almost unparalleled wealth of sculpture, where saints, religious figures, courtly ladies, knights and fantastical beasts like dragons and manticores can all be seen, some carved with a sense of humour that one might not expect in an austere Cistercian abbey. Especially as the influential Cistercian leader St. Bernard of Clairvaux had issued a strong condemnation of such carvings during his feud with the Benedictine abbey of Cluny: