Rejecting those Earthly Dignities: Irish Women Saints by Harry Clarke

I’ve been struck by the absence of sacred women in the iconography of stained glass windows in Irish Protestant churches. Sure, there’s the odd window devoted to or including Mary (such as Nativity scenes) or Bridget, or images of women as Charity or Hope, but for windows depicting women who are venerated for their piety or leadership or courage you have to visit Catholic churches in Ireland. 

The top picture is St Dympna, depicted with a sword – it is a tradition to depict martyrs with the instrument of their death. She looks wide-eyed and innocent – she was only 15 when she died. Above is St Ceara, bearing a rose and with a kindly expression

We’ve written already about Bridget here and here and about Gobnait: Bridget is considered the female equivalent of Patrick in being the most widely known and celebrated of the Irish women saints. Gobnait is a good example of a local saint, in this case she is associated with the Muskerry area of Cork. When you read the lives of Irish saints, women and men, you are reading accounts written many centuries after they lived, often a mixture of tradition, mythology, folklore and reconstructed hagiography. 

Harry Clarke, as I have discovered before, had a thing for red hair and gave St Dympna a particularly glowing crop. Here she shelters her patients, the mentally ill poor who came to her hospital

Robert and I have been travelling in Ireland and visiting stained glass here and there, and in the process discovering more unfamiliar Irish saints. Harry Clarke, Ireland’s incomparable stained glass artist of the early part of the 20th century, was often asked to depict local saints and always did as much research as he could into their lives, to enable him to tell their stories and use appropriate elements and symbols. [For more posts about the genius of Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most famous stained glass artist, go to our Navigation page and scroll down to C5.] In Carrickmacross (Co Monaghan) this week I found three Harry Clarke windows illustrating three Irish female saints, two of whom I had never heard of before. Let’s start with the one I thought I knew because I’ve had friends with that name – St Dympna.

Dympna flees her father’s house. Following her is the court jester, his wife, bearing medicines, and Gerebran, her confessor

Dympna was the daughter of an Irish King called Damon. When his wife died, her father became unhinged and decided he would only marry the one who was as beautiful as her – his own daughter Dympna. Horrified, she fled with her confessor, Gerebran, and travelled to Gheel in Belgium. There she established a hospital and tended to the poor and sick. But her father found her and in his rage beheaded first the faithful Gerebran and then, when she refused to yield to him, his daughter.

Harry Clarke did not shy away from depicting the grizzly end of Dympna and Gerebran

She is venerated in Ireland and in Belgium, and particularly associated with care of the sick and those who are mentally ill. She is also a patron saint for those who have suffered incest. There are shrines and hospitals named for her in Belgium, Ireland and the United Stares. She is also known as St Davnet, and there are hospitals and holy wells with this name.

St Ceara is the subject of one window with two lights

Like Dympna, Ceara was of royal blood and established her first monastery in present-day Westmeath on land granted by St Fintan – or perhaps in Kilkeary near Nenagh in Tipperary at the behest of Brendan of Clonfert. You see, there may have been two Cearas and over time their stories were conflated. To add to the confusion, St Ceara, also known as Ciara, is known to have been an abbess who founded a monastery near the spot currently better known as Kilcrea Friary in Cork.

St Ceara and her virgins

Harry Clarke in his windows chooses to depict her as beautiful and royal, in one window carrying her monastery and in the other (below) sumptuously dressed and appearing more the princess than the holy woman.

St Fanchea was the sister of St Enda of Aran, and they share the two lights of one window. St Fanchea was famed for her holiness and founded a monastery in Fermanagh. Enda was a warrior-king but was finally won over by the piety of his sister and converted when he came to see her in her convent.

Fanchea and her brother, Enda of Aran

For a full (and graphic!) account of the brother and sister relationship, see the marvellous post in Omnia Sanctorum Hiberniae, a fabulous blog for anyone interested in obscure Irish saints. Marcella starts her story of Fanchea this way:

Aengus, son of Natfraich, King of Munster, is said to have desired Fanchea’s hand in marriage. Notwithstanding all his pressing entreaties, however, and rejecting those earthly dignities to which she might be advanced by yielding to his suit, the holy virgin’s mind was intent on a life of celibacy, and on those rewards promised by Christ to his spouses.

St Fanchea stops her brother, Enda, and turns him from his warrior ways

I’d love to hear from readers who have their own favourite women saints, especially Irish ones.

Richard King in Mayo

Scenes from The Old Testament by Richard King

In my post Discovering Richard King, I introduced you to the stained glass artist and the extraordinary windows in Athlone. If you haven’t read that post, pop back now and read it for an overview of King’s career, before continuing. Ever since then, I have been trying to track down Richard King’s art – he was active in several media and also exported windows to the US, UK and Australia. In Mayo recently, I was finally able to photograph more of his stained glass.

The Assumption window in Swinford

King was greatly influenced by Harry Clarke in his time at the studio, and when he took over as chief designer upon Harry’s death in 1931 he carried on very much in Harry’s style. After all, that was the style the clients wanted, and he excelled in producing it. I think I have tracked down several windows produced in the decade from 1930 to 1940 (when he left to open his own studio) that bear his hallmarks, but since Studio windows were never signed by individual artists after Harry died (with a few notable exceptions) it is impossible to verify whether or not I am correct. That’s why it was a thrill, on a recent visit to Mayo, to be able to view and photograph three Richard King windows, all of which date to the period after he left the Harry Clarke Studio. Richard came from Mayo (from Castlebar) so no doubt was a popular choice when stained glass was needed. Together, these three windows illustrate the evolution of his style over time.

The earliest, and largest, window dates to 1952 and is in the Church of Our Lady Help of Christians in Swinford. It consists of three lights and a rose window above them and the theme is the Assumption of Mary into heaven. The rose window above the depiction of Mary rising shows the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – with the Son holding the crown with which he will declare his mother to be Queen of Heaven. I can’t help thinking that the Father looks a little like a depiction of one of the ancient Irish chieftains from the Athlone Patrick windows.

Mary is flanked by John the Evangelist and by Patrick – unusual choices and one wonders who dreamed them up. We know it’s John since he holds a quill pen with which to write the gospel, and is accompanied by an eagle, his symbol as one of the four evangelists. Patrick is always recognisable in green, with a crozier on his arm and a snake underfoot, and is accompanied by geese. I’m not sure of the symbolism of the geese – perhaps they were to balance the eagle. He’s wearing fetching green gloves and slippers. Take a close look at the church he carries – the windows are the same configuration as these windows – a little visual pun that Richard must have enjoyed making.

The lingering influence of the Clarke style is still visible in the extraordinary detail of every part of the window, in the glowing colours, the symmetry of the matched angels and in the cherubim faces below Mary. However, in every respect this is the work of an artist who is his own man – it could never be mistaken for a Clarke, or even a Clarke Studio, window.

But the Swinford church has a surprise – a second Richard King window, dating from 1964 and radically different from the Assumption. This is a two-light window depicting the Old and the New Testaments. The style is suddenly modernist, bold, faux-naïf and reflects his own study of the modern styles of the time and his experimentation with new ways of capturing religious themes. The windows are also delightful – strong colours and carefully placed figures create an attractive whole.

Pentecost – the Holy Spirit descends on Mary and the apostles

I think my favourite image is the one in which Pope Paul VI steers a boat full of bishops – a reference, apparently, to the ‘barque of Peter’. Paul was pope from 1963 to 1978, much of my young life, and his likeness was instantly recognisable. It brought a smile to my face.

The last Richard King window is a two light window in the St Patrick’s Church in Newport. The theme is I Am The Resurrection And The Light. This one dates from 1973, the year before he died and what is striking is how far now he has moved towards a fully modern style with elements of cubism and abstraction.

The glowing colours are still there, the strong reds and blues, but there is no attempt at realism in the figures (note for example his treatment of Christ’s ribs as a series of rectangles) and a strong geometric arrangement is obvious throughout the composition.

So far I have only written about Richard King as a stained glass artist, but there was more, much more, to him than glass. In future posts I will endeavour to expand on that statement. Meanwhile, I will leave you with a photograph of the young Richard King, courtesy of the Capuchin Archives.

Looking for Patrick

Patrick lights the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Slane. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone

A joint post – text by Robert, images by Finola

Last week we talked about Ireland’s very first saint – Ciarán (or Piran), who was born on Cape Clear. His aim in life was to convert the heathen Irish to Christianity, but they were having none of it: they tied him to a millstone and hoisted him over the edge of a cliff. Fortunately – and miraculously – the wondrous millstone floated him over to Cornwall where he became their Patron Saint and is celebrated with great acclaim on March 5th every year.

A typical representation of Patrick, older and bearded, in bishop’s robe, holding a shamrock in one hand and a crozier on the other. Skibbereen Cathedral

To return the favour of gaining an important saint from Ireland, the British have given Ireland their special saint – Patrick – and he is being celebrated this week in similar fashion. So here’s the story of Saint Patrick, seen through the eyes of an Englishman (albeit one with Cornish connections) and illustrated by Finola with a series of images from her collection.

Still traditional – looking fierce – but this one has beautiful detailing, including the interlacing surrounding the cherubs. St Carthage Cathedral, Lismore

Of course, there’s the real Patrick – the one we know through his own Confessio. The best summary we’ve come across of what can be deduced from the historical documents is the audio book Six Years a Slave, which can be downloaded from Abarta Heritage, and which is highly recommended (be warned – no snakes!). But what you’re going to get from me today is the good old-fashioned Patrick, with all his glamour and colour and centuries of accrued stories – just as he’s shown in Finola’s images.

Six Years a Slave – this Harry Clarke window in the Church of The Assumption, Tullamore, seems to depict Patrick tending sheep during the period of his captivity

Patrick was born and brought up somewhere in the north west of Britain. He was of Romano British descent: his father was a a decurion, one of the ‘long-suffering, overtaxed rural gentry of the provinces’, and his grandfather was a priest – the family was, therefore, Christian. In his own writings Patrick describes himself as rustic, simple and unlearnèd.  When still a boy, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and taken to be a slave in Ireland. He was put to work on a farm somewhere in the west and spent the long, lonely hours out in the fields thinking about the Christian stories and principles he had been taught back home.

Patrick is visited by a vision – the people of Ireland are calling to him to come back and bring Christianity to him. Richard King window, Church of St Peter and Paul, Athlone.  Read more about Richard King and the Athlone windows in Discovering Richard King

After six years he escaped from his bondage and made his way back to Britain – apparently by hitching a lift on a fishing boat. Because he had thought so much about Christianity during those years away, he decided to become a bishop which, after a few years of application, he did. Although he had hated his enforced capture he was aware that Ireland – as the most westerly outpost of any kind of civilisation – was one of the only places in the known world that remained ‘heathen’, and he was nagged by his conscience to become a missionary there and make it his life’s work to convert every Irish pagan.

Detail from Patrick window by Harry Clarke in Ballinasloe

When you see Patrick depicted in religious imagery he always looks serious and, perhaps, severe. You can’t imagine him playing the fiddle in a session or dancing a wild jig at the crossroads. In fact he was well know for his long sermons: on one occasion he stuck his wooden crozier into the ground while he was preaching and, by the time he had finished, it had taken root and sprouted into a tree!

Patrick with his hand raised in a blessing, accompanied by his symbols of the Paschal Fire and the shamrock. Harry Clarke Studio window, Bantry

Perhaps it was his severity that caused him to be respected: while giving another sermon (at the Rock of Cashel) he accidentally and unwittingly put the point of his crozier through the foot of the King of Munster. The King waited patiently until Patrick had finished sermonising then asked if it could be removed. Patrick was horrified at what he’d done, but the King said he’d assumed it was all part of the initiation ritual!

In Richard King’s enormous Patrick window in Athlone, the saint is depicted as youthful and clean-shaven. Here he is using the shamrock to illustrate the concept of the Trinity

Patrick first landed on the shores of Ireland just before Easter in 432 AD and established himself on the Hill of Slane – close to the residence of the High King. In those days the rule was that only the King himself was to light the Bealtaine Fire to celebrate the spring festival, but Patrick pre-empted this by lighting his own Paschal Fire on the top of the hill, thus establishing his authority over that of the High King (see the first image in this post). Somehow, he got away with it – and the fire has been lit on the top of the Hill of Slane every Easter from that day to this.

Another panel from the Richard King window – Eithne and Fidelma receive communion from Patrick. They were daughters of the King of Connaught; Eithne was fair-haired and Fidelma a redhead, and they were baptized at the Well of Clebach beside Cruachan

St Patrick seems to have been everywhere in Ireland: there are Patrick’s Wells, Patrick’s Chairs (one of which in Co Mayo – the Boheh Stone – displays some fine examples of Rock Art), Patrick’s Beds and – on an island in Lough Dergh – a Patrick’s Cave (or ‘Purgatory’) where Jesus showed the saint a vision of the punishments of hell.

Patrick blesses St Mainchin of Limerick. Detail from the Mainchin window in the Honan Chapel, by Catherine O’Brien for An Túr Gloinne

The place which has the most significant associations with Patrick, perhaps, is Croagh Patrick – the Holy Mountain in County Mayo, on the summit of which the saint spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting and praying, before casting all the snakes out of Ireland from the top of the hill – an impressive feat. To this day, of course, there are no snakes in Ireland – or are there? See my post Snakes Alive for musings on this topic (it includes a most impressive window from Glastonbury!)

Like many Patrick windows, this one, By Harry Clarke in Tullamore, shows Patrick banishing the snakes. This one has all the gorgeous detailing we expect from Clarke, including bejewelled snakes

When Patrick considered that he’d finished his task, and the people of Ireland were successfully and completely converted, he returned to Britain and spent his retirement in the Abbey of Glastonbury – there’s a beautiful little chapel there dedicated to him.

This depiction of Patrick on the wall of his Glastonbury chapel shows him with familiar symbols but also several unusual symbols – an Irish wolfhound, high crosses, and Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain

It’s logical he should have chosen that spot to end his days as it must be the most blessed piece of ground in these islands, having been walked upon by Jesus himself who was taken there as a boy by his tin-trading uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. St Bridget joined Patrick there in retirement and they are both buried in the Abbey grounds, along with the BVM who had preceded them to that place a few centuries earlier.

From the George Walsh window in Eyeries, Patrick returns to convert the Irish

A depiction of Patrick below comes from St Barrahane’s Church of Ireland in Castletownsend where he is shown alongside St George. The window dates from before Irish independence and is an attempt to show the unity of Britain and Ireland through their respective patron saints. Perhaps meant to represent friendship between the countries, nevertheless nowadays it seems to display a colonial overtone that is an uncomfortable echo of past mores.

The window is by Powells of London and dates to 1906

So let’s leave Patrick doing what he came back to do – a last panel from the Richard King window in Athlone shows him performing his saintly task of converting the Irish – one chieftain at a time.

The First Viral Sensation: How a Pre-Raphaelite Painting Inspired a Generation

william_holman_hunt_-_selfportrait

Holman Hunt, one of the three founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

In preparing for an upcoming talk of stained glass in West Cork, I was struck by a single image that seemed to crop up again and again. The image was described as The Light of the World, or occasionally as Christ Knocking at the Door.

St Matthias Light of the World by Clokey of Belfast 1945

Christ as the Light of the World. This window, by Clokey of Belfast is in St Matthias Church of Ireland in Ballydehob

Curious, I searched online to find out more about the window and discovered to my astonishment that the painting upon which the window was based was The Light of the World by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Holman Hunt and, in the words of Robert Fulford, although…Hardly anyone today admires The Light of the World as art…it remains a historic moment in mass culture, the beginning of the great age of reproduction, the first image that millions of people knew intimately, and often loved.

hunt-light-of-the-world1

Holman Hunt’s Light of the World. It was based on Revelation 3:20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

Hunt’s first version light-of-the-world-engraving(he eventually painted three) was begun in 1851 and was widely admired. But it was two other media that carried it to the status of international icon. The first was engraving (left) – the photography of its age in its ability to convey images to a mass audience – and the second was stained glass, just coming into its heyday as a result of recent innovations in church architecture and decoration.

The painting toured the world and attracted enormous crowds wherever it went. It is estimated that four fifths of the population of Australia viewed it, for example. Fulford describes it thus: In Melbourne in 1906 visitors stampeded, anxious to see it the moment it was open to the public. But if the crowd was rowdy at first, Maas writes, soon “an air of reverential awe descended on the gathering.” Men removed their hats, voices fell to a whisper. Some people stood or sat gazing at it for hours. A few visitors fainted. Later it toured South Africa and in 1907 returned in triumph to Britain and its final destination, St. Paul’s.

Rosscartbery Light of the World Mayer 1934

This window in Rosscarbery Cathedral is by Mayer of Munich. Christ as The Light of the World was often paired in a two-light window with Christ as the Good Shepherd

How to explain the appeal of this image? Holman Hunt himself gives us a clue. Writing in The Victorian Web, George Landow states that Hunt …believed that The Light of the World created its symbolic language in precisely the same way that men had formed language to express abstract and spiritual ideas. The important point is that, since the symbolism derives from what he takes to be essential habits of mind, it would be immediately comprehensible to any audience, because such “natural” symbolism does not require any knowledge of iconographic traditions. It appears he was correct, since the symbolism employed in the painting spoke directly to masses of people who took its message to heart and hung engravings and reproductions in their homes.

Rosscarbery Cathedral Light of the World detail

Detail from the Mayer window

And in their churches. In its listing of the glass in Church of Ireland churches, the website Gloine* lists 70 examples of Light of the World windows and a few others labelled Christ Knocking at the Door. Of these, about 65 are modelled directly on the Holman Hunt painting. Most of the stained glass studios are represented in the list – it was such a popular request that every studio had to have it in its catalogue. While there are more windows devoted to, for example, the Resurrection, or the Four Evangelists, they are all quite diverse representations, rather than being based upon a single original source. A similar list does not exist for Catholic churches, but it is unlikely that the Light of the World would be as prominent in them, mainly because most stained glass windows in Irish Catholic churches are later than the high point of popularity for Hunt’s painting.

Timoleague Good Shephard and Light of the World, 1890 Clayton and Bell

This window by Clayton and Bell dates from 1890 and is in the Church of the Ascension (C of I) in Timoleague

So here’s a challenge for you, Dear Reader. Have you seen this image in stained glass, or elsewhere? Were you familiar with the painting and aware of its impact? Do you have photos, stories or memories to share? Or is this an image that had its moment, particular to its day and time, and then disappeared from our consciousness like so many others have, before and since?

Timoleague Good Shephard and Light of the World, 1890 Clayton and Bell Detail

Detail from the Clayton and Bell window in Timoleague

*My grateful appreciation goes to Dr David Lawrence and the website Gloine – Stained glass in the Church of Ireland. This is a magnificent resource that contains information on almost every stained glass window in almost every Church of Ireland building in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is awe-inspiring in its scope and erudition. The site lists two more examples from West Cork, Durrus and Caharagh.