Mayer Stained Glass in Ireland: Craft or Commerce?

Among Irish stained glass aficionados nothing divides opinion like the windows of Mayer of Munich.

From about the 1860s to the 1940s Mayer was the foremost supplier of stained glass to Irish churches, both Catholic and Protestant. The first two images above, for example, are of a Nativity scene in St Eugene’s Catholic Cathedral in Derry. Catholics were probably spurred on to order Mayer windows when Pope Leo XIII named the company a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art in 1892. However, there is no doubt that the windows appealed enormously to the priests and vicars in charge of ordering them and that Mayer was adept in providing the kind of art that was widely attractive  to parishioners. So – Mayer stained glass was ubiquitous, but it was also controversial and derided. Let’s look at why this was, and whether it was deserved.

During the stained glass renaissance in nineteenth century Britain, the ideal became to replicate the style of stained glass from the High Gothic period of the 12th to 15th centuries – lots of small pieces of coloured glass leaded together, with saintly images set inside elaborate canopies. The example above is from York Minster and the windows below, clearly based on that model, are from the Pugin-designed St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy.

Mayer moved away from this kind of glass towards what became known as the Pictorial Style. As a concession to the Gothic, they kept the canopies for the most part (it was a long time before stained glass studios dispensed with canopies) but they used larger sheets of glass (necessitating fewer cames of lead) and they took their artistic inspiration not from medieval windows but from Renaissance paintings.   The purists huffed and puffed, but the people flocked to this new style of glass.

From the beginning this was a business, not an artists’ studio. The purpose was to make money and therefore a factory model was employed, with workers engaged in repetitive production of their own specialities – the apprentices did nothing but canopies, the painters might spend years decorating robes with brocade or embroidery motifs, only the most talented got to do faces. Designers produced sketches that were infinitely adaptable, with slight tweaking. In the large window above, in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, the central image is of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. An almost identical design can be seen in the Catholic Church in Bantry, Co Cork, below (and indeed all over the place).

The results were appealing – highly competent windows full of beautiful images. 

High Renaissance figures swathed in copious draperies which amplify their forms and define their movements. Here the painter was freer to incorporate the sharp drapery folds which were inherited from the German Renaissance painting tradition. Colours are vibrant and rich, and the window glows with a deep resonance because the amount of white glass was kept to a minimum. . . It was easy for a congregation to relate to the pictorialism and to recognise the narratives, so that the windows were regarded not only as aesthetic objects but as an effective catalyst to meditation and piety. Pictorialism spoke more directly to the. . . public than did the more correct visual medievalism of the stricter British ecclesiologists. 

shirley ann brown*

Above is the Annunciation window in Charleville, Co Cork – one of my personal favourite windows by any studio. Although the firm was German and the windows made in Munich, they had offices in London, and an agent in Dublin (in fact, Joshua Clarke, Harry’s father, started out as their Irish agent). They became adept at fulfilling the request of Irish clergy for specific iconography – that is, Irish saints, and panels illustrating stories from Irish hagiographies.

St Patrick, above, is shown with his shamrock, paschal fire and snake, although the towers in the backdrop could be from a castle on the Rhine rather than resembling an Irish round tower. At their most basic, Irish saints were simply chosen from a pattern-book of saintly images and supplied with a name-caption. They all looked the same – St Aidan in one window is identical to St Columba in another, balding, bearded, dressed in a monk’s habit or a bishop’s splendid robes and mitre, but often with an attribute to distinguish them one from the other. St Patrick always has his shamrock, St Brigid her flame or her church, St Joseph carries lilies. Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Introduction to the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass reported on Edward Martyn’s outrage at the lack of discernment among clergy and architects who seemed not to be able to distinguish between the work of an artist and the trade salesman with an oily tongue and an ever-ready kiln.

But you get what you pay for, and if you wanted something other than the pattern-book, Mayer could rise to the occasion, with splendid depictions of the mythology associated with Irish saints, all done in the same Italianate style and full of movement and vitality. One of my favourites is the story of St Dympna from Armagh Cathedral. (See Harry Clarke’s version of St Dympna in this post  – the story is the same but the images are vastly different.)

David Lawrence, the mastermind behind the website Gloine.ie, is a defender of Mayer, saying about the prejudice to which Mayer was subjected, Feelings against German glass were whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy at the time of the setting up, in 1903, of the Irish Arts-and-Crafts stained-glass studio An Túr Gloine and continued as that studio flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century. This prejudice has been well documented and was partly based on the factory model of glass production, since the new ethos of Arts and Crafts prioritised the artist’s vision and craft and abhorred mass production. However, Lawrence insists that, at their best, Mayer produced outstanding stained glass to equal any studio.

The year 1894 marked the start of a particularly successful new era at Mayer — this was the year that they were joined by the English artist William Francis Dixon (1848-1928). He had trained at the London studio, Clayton & Bell and then set up his own studio, Dixon & Vesey, before moving to Germany to work at Mayer. Dixon‘s arrangement with Mayer was a happy one. His skilful designing and drawing in a romantic manner influenced by the late Pre-Raphaelites and Mayer‘s attention to detail, masterly glass-painting and faultless craftsmanship formed an ideal marriage. Mayer-Dixon windows are in a romantic style, with a sweetness of drawing, softness of painting and beautiful, tapestry-like details. The heads are especially sensitively drawn. It is readily apparent that Dixon was able to dictate his own choice of colours to Mayer. 


 David Lawrence,
Stained Glass Windows, Six Roman Catholic Churches, County Offaly November 2010

One of Dixon’s windows is this fine war memorial in St Canice’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Kilkenny. However, in the end, it can be argued that Mayer became a victim of their own success. Despite occasional triumphs of design and execution, too many of their windows lacked originality and freshness, starting to look hackneyed and same-y. Public taste for sentimentalised depictions (however gorgeous and expertly painted) gave way, under the influence of European art movements, to a search for a more authentic and modern form of religious expression. Irish artists responded by developing a vibrant, often experimental, stained glass industry dominated by small studios producing artist-led work. 

I will leave you with The Raising of Lazarus from Baltinglass Catholic Church for two reasons – firstly because it is perfectly illustrates the Mayer pictorial style at its best. I have provided three details close up, so you can see how competently the artist has rendered the subject matter.

The sentimentality critics complained of is in full flight in the image below – but also, look at the size of the eyes. Creating over-sized eyes to enhance and beautify a face didn’t start with Harry Clarke!

But secondly I use The Raising of Lazarus tongue in cheek as a nod to the fact that in fact Mayer is still around – and they have finally caught up with the century they live in. Take a look at this story in the New York Times to see how Mayer of Munich is embracing the twenty-first century.

*The Influence of German Religious Stained Glass in Canada 1880-1941 by Shirley Ann Brown, RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, Vol. 21, No. 1/2, Représentation et identités culturelles / Representation and Cultural Identity (1994), pp. 21-31 (11 pages)