The Christmas Story, One Window at a Time

Bandon Catholic Church

The Christmas story, as told in stained glass in Irish churches, is the biblical story. There are no Christmas trees or Santa Clauses, no references to anything other than the story of the birth of the Christ child. Not surprising, since stained glass is to be found mainly in churches after all. The one above is from the Catholic Church in Bandon. Pop in next time you’re passing – it will surprise you with its size and striking colour.

Church of the Annunciation, Cork. AnnunciationFive windows in a Cork church tell the story, beginning with the Annunciation

Two years ago I wrote a post about depictions of the Nativity by Harry Clarke. This year I’m branching out, to show you some of the stained glass Nativity images I have found in churches all over Ireland. Some are by artists I can identify, some are by the Harry Clarke Studios (after Harry’s death in 1931), and some are by anonymous artists. Some are traditional and some are avant garde. 

The next two windows show Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth (mother of John the Baptist), followed by the betrothal of Mary and Joseph

In Cork, in the Church of the Annunciation – a church designed by the stone carver Seamus Murphy – a series of windows illustrate the complete Nativity story, from the Annunciation to the Visit by the Magi. These windows are by the Harry Clarke Studios and were installed in the 40s.

The birth in the manger with shepherds visiting, and the arrival of the Magi round out the story

When we visited Kilkenny we saw two examples in St Canice’s Cathedral. The first, a traditional crib scene, looks like it belongs on a Christmas card.

St Canices

On  another wall in the same church is a two-light window by A E Child, depicting the visit of the Magi. A E Child was a highly influential teacher, and member of Sarah Purser’s Tower of Glass (An Túr Gloine) – a contemporary of Harry Clarke and a highly skilled stained glass artist, but with a more orthodox style than Clarke’s.

Canice's AE Childe

Still in Kilkenny, the Black Abbey has reputedly the largest stained glass window in Ireland. It’s divided into numerous smaller scenes and this one depicts the Nativity. It bears a striking resemblance to the Christmas card window from St Canice’s – perhaps it was from the same studio.

Black Abbey Kilkenny

In  Tullamore, the enormous Church of the Assumption has wonderful stained glass by different artists. Several large windows are by the Dublin firm of Earley. This one of the madonna and child shows a small shepherd on her right and three crowns on her left – a clear indication, I think, that this is intended as a Nativity image. The swirling colours and modern lines create a dramatic effect.

Church of the Assumption, Tullamore

The St Joseph window in the Richard King collection in Athlone contains a detail in one of the side panels that depicts the Flight into Egypt, and another of the marriage of Joseph and Mary.

Back to Cork and to the Holy Trinity Church on Father Matthew Quay, just behind the South Mall. Three windows on the west wall are by the Harry Clarke Studios. Research in the Studio archives (held in Trinity College) has revealed the the middle window was designed by Harry Clarke, but executed in fact by his father. It has many of the hallmarks of Harry but lacks the rich detail for which he became justly famous.

Holy Trinity Church, Cork, Designed by HC and executed by his father

Behind the altar, on the north wall of the same church is an enormous window dedicated to Daniel O’Connell and containing scenes from the life of Christ. It is conventional, but finely painted and the colours are rich.

Holy Trinity Cork, East Window

I will leave you with two of our favourites. Close to home I love the the Sarah Purser/Tower of Glass round window in the Holy Rosary Church in Kilcoe. Here’s a detail.

Tower of Glass Magi closeup. Kilcoe

And finally, from the village church of Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula, Robert wrote about  a stunning set of windows by George Walsh. His nativity scene is touching and beautiful.

george walsh nativity

8 thoughts

  1. Our cousin Peg Dempsey Tracey lived at Kilmoylan Bandon and we visited her there in 1979. Just wonder if we went to that beautiful church! Think I must go back and check it out, along with all the others! How very spectacular they are!

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  2. You’ve captured so many splendid examples – all of them moving & totally relevant to the season.
    Tho’ some are very modern, they portray the sincerity of their artists.
    While are in W Cork, I never knew that such sincerity, quality & excellence was all around us in Bandon & elsewhere.
    Wow!
    Now to lower the tone!
    Having spent this pm in a shopping mall in Bristol looking at carpets, your update has both cheered me up & put things back in focus, especially at this season.
    &&
    I look forward to your updates every Sunday evening – it’s when you capture real Irish stuff that your site is at its best!

    Thanks, Tim

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    • Thank you, Tim! We very much appreciate your comments. I suppose it’s easy to overlook stained glass – it’s only now that I’m learning more about it that I notice windows I wouldn’t have looked twice at before.

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  3. Beautiful art, and very timely to highlight this, a breath of fresh air to say the least. I was not aware of the richness of stained glass works in Ireland, I thought the only one worth anything would have been Harry Clarke, now I know how wrong I was. A beautiful blog with lovely photos.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So many different styles and such glowing colours. My favourites: the amazing Tullamore window, the simple shapes of the Eyeries window and the rather aloof blue virgin in Cork. The Bandon ones are pretty stunning too. Great post.

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