Harry Clarke at Lough Derg

The Lough Derg Harry Clarke windows are unusual and fascinating – and generally inaccessible unless you are willing to undertake the rigorous pilgrimage. I am very grateful indeed to have been given the opportunity to photograph and write about them. I refer readers to Robert’s post about Lough Derg, Journey into Purgatory, for those unfamiliar with the place and the pilgrimage. Go off and read that first, then come back to me. If you already know all about Lough Derg, but not much about Harry Clarke, then take a browse of some of my previous posts about Ireland’s most celebrated stained glass artist. If you’re not sure what stations of the cross are, here’s an explanationDone that? Back now? Great – let’s get started.

The Apostle Simon

Harry was already starting to get ill in 1927 when he undertook the commission to design a set of fourteen stations of the cross in stained glass for the Basilica in Lough Derg. He was, at the same time, very busy on numerous commissions, including graphic design and book illustration work, as well as stained glass windows for Ireland and abroad. He was so busy, in fact, that he used to absent himself from Dublin so that he could work in peace in a studio in London. Nevertheless, he was keen on the Lough Derg project, not least because the Canon, Fr Keown, was the same one with whom he had worked on the Carrickmacross windows. The design he came up with was unique: each of the windows depicts a different apostle (Judas being replaced by Matthias), rounded out to fourteen by adding St Paul and Our Lady. Each figure holds a mandorla-shaped panel upon which the stations are presented.

The Apostle James – his mandorla contains the station ‘Jesus Meets His Afflicted Mother’

In order to ‘count’ as an official Harry Clarke window, as opposed to one produced by the Harry Clarke studios, Harry himself must have designed, and created or closely supervised the execution of the window. The Lough Derg windows were definitely designed by Harry – the drawings he made for them still exist. Artisans in his studios began the work in his absence following his detailed instructions.

A close look at ‘Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus’, contained in Philip’s mandorla

Nicola Gordon Bowe, the renowned Clarke scholar, described the process* thus: “His choice of glass, detail, colour, design and leading are all fully evident in the dramatically effective concept of these windows, even though any study of the original designs for the inset panels and their realization in glass will reveal his absence.” Indeed, before the windows could be finished and installed Harry had to travel to Switzerland to spend time in a sanatorium.

Philip and his mandorla

Each saint is shown, as is tradition, with his symbol, often the instrument of his martyrdom.  Philip, for example, is shown with a cross, as he was crucified upside down. His medallion shows Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. The apostles and Mary, as well as the small figures in the mandorlas, have all the Harry Clarke hallmarks – large, expressive eyes, long tapered fingers, highly-decorated medieval-style clothing, sleeves with hand points, complicated headgear, forked beards, pointed feet.

‘Jesus Falls the Second Time’ – note Mary in blue and John in green

Despite the absence of the master’s hand, it is hard to imagine how these tiny stations could be any more exquisite than they are. The same figures occur in all or most of them – Jesus, his mother, Mary Magdalen, John his beloved apostle, and the tormenting soldiers. There is also, of course, a host of minor characters, often peeking in from the sidelines or half-hidden behind others. Harry habitually drew from life and used himself and his friends as models. Some of the glimpsed faces in the scenes are no doubt based on people familiar to him. They range in expression from sorrowful and noble to cruel and savage.

‘Jesus is Condemned to Death’

One of the intriguing aspects of these stations is that many of the figures are rendered in ways that depart radically from the conventional depictions of biblical characters, images that were for the most part based on Renaissance paintings. Indeed, some of the characters as imagined by Harry would fit more comfortably into his illustrations for Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales, or stories by Edgar Alan Poe. Look, for example at the first station ‘Jesus is Condemned to Death’. Apart from the tragic figure of Jesus, the individuals would not be out of place in a picture for the sort of fanciful and macabre tale that Harry relished illustrating. In the background Pontius Pilate washes his hands attended by a page dressed in what looks remarkably like a frock coat. The fierce executioner is distinguished by his strands of hair and by a striking outfit that combines an Elizabethan skirt with medieval armour.

We meet him again, cloaked but recognisable in ‘Jesus Falls the First Time’ (above)

In the crucifixion station the soldier who stands gazing down is wearing a pair of elaborate shoes and yellow stockings that strikes an odd note in what is otherwise a sombre scene. Soldiers in each station wear helmets that come to points over the bridge of the nose or that are decorated with feathers and tufts. Mary Magdalen is dressed in colourful garments and hair adornments that could be suitable for a princess going to a ball, no doubt an allusion to her background.

‘Jesus meets his Afflicted Mother’: Mary Magdalen’s colourful dress provides a contrast to Mary’s modest blue

On the other hand, Mary and John, who appear in many of the stations, are shown as gentle and sorrowful. Mary is dressed in her traditional blue: in the final station (below) it is she, pictured as the Queen of Heaven, who hold the mandorla showing Jesus being laid in the tomb (the lead picture in this post).

It is tempting to see in John, with large sad eyes and cropped hair, an image of Harry himself, who must have known by this point that his illness was serious. Harry poignantly dresses John in green, the colour of bountiful life and the triumph of hope over death.

Mary and John witness the crucifixion

My sincerest thanks to Maureen Boyle for facilitating my visit to Lough Derg, and to Sharon for looking after us on the Island and sharing so much information.

‘Jesus is Laid in the Tomb’

* In 1990 the windows were exhibited in Dublin. They had deteriorated over time, and were completely overhauled and restored by the Abbey Stained Glass Studio. Before they were returned to Lough Derg they were put on display in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham for two months. I have the program from which I took the Gordon Bowe quote, thanks to my late and dear friend Vera who was a huge Clarke fan and attended the exhibition and whose notes I now have. However, I have just discovered that the program is also available online.

11 thoughts

  1. Thank you for another rich reading experience. Discovering the art of Harry Clarke is one of the greatest gifts of my “senior” years, and this post and the photographs will be enjoyed many times over. Just for the record, I did follow directions and read Robert’s piece on Lough Derg and its pilgrimage history first – and glad I did!.

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  2. They are absolutely stunning -so complex, colourful and often bizarre; yes very fairytaleish – shades of Arthur Rackham and Beardsley too. Oddly, t e one figure I don’t feel quite satisfied with is Jesus, I think Harry has held himself back and gone for the conventional.

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  3. Good stuff – I knew Nikki Gordon Bowe in Dublin in the late 1970s when I was living in Ranelagh for a while and she introduced me to the work of Harry Clarke. Your images on this post are a brilliant reminder !

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