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 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

Discovering Richard King

Patrick Vox Hib

Here is a typical Harry Clarke piece of stained glass – note the large expressive eyes and long tapering fingers, the gorgeous raiment of the angel and that headdress, the additional tiny angelic figure hiding in the blue glass, the border filled with non-repeating decorative elements. All classic Clarke elements, right? But this is not the work of Harry Clarke. He died in 1931 and this window was designed, executed and installed in 1937, by the studio that he founded and which carried on after his death under the name Harry Clarke Studios.

Patrick Preaching

The first image in this post is from the Patrick window and shows Vox Hibernicæum – the people of Ireland calling Patrick back to convert them. The image above is from the same window – Patrick preaching to the chieftains **

This window, it turns out, along with several others in the same church, was the work of Harry Clarke’s apprentice, the man who stepped into the breach caused by his death and took over as the main stained glass artist of the Studio. That man was Richard King.

Joseph all

The Joseph window: each frame tells a story from the life of Joseph or references other biblical Josephs.

I had never heard of Richard King until I stepped into Sts Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church in Athlone during our Midlands trip. That’s not all that surprising, because after Harry Clarke died windows from his workshop were generally signed simply by the Studio and individual artists were not identified. Mostly, it seems, this was to capitalise on the Harry Clarke brand, which by the time of his death was justly celebrated, and thereby to keep orders coming in.

Joseph scenes

Close up of the lowest frames in the Joseph windows. Clockwise from top right: the marriage of Mary and Joseph; the death of Joseph; Genesis 41:55 When all Egypt began to feel the famine, the people cried to Pharaoh for food. Then Pharaoh told all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.”; Four rivers and two deer: the four rivers of Paradise; This is a reference to another biblical Joseph mentioned in Psalm 104, ‘constituit eum dominum domus suae et principem omnis possessionis suae’ – He made him master of his house, and ruler of all his possession **

Richard King had been trained by Harry: he had executed windows designed by Harry under Harry’s close supervision. A promising artist when he joined, he probably did more than set glass etched and drawn by Harry, but may have been responsible for background elements, borders, details. Harry was away in Davos, gravely ill, for the last year of his life and Richard may well have translated his cartoons (window designs on paper) into glass. But I am speculating here, and I hope to learn and write more about Richard King in the future. He went on to have a long and distinguished career as an illustrator.

Purgatory all

The Purgatory window: prayer fragments in Greek, Latin and Irish; the righteous ascend to heaven; Christ descends to purgatory with a banner to lead those who have done their penance up to heaven; in the lower left St Monica is on her deathbed while St Augustin looks on; lower right, the mass is celebrated; upper right, Jonah (whose purgatory was to be in a whale) and upper right Job, who was robbed of everything he held dear by the devil, thus testing his faith **

The King windows I photographed are enormous. (There are other Harry Clarke Studio windows by Richard King in the church as well as windows by other companies, but I will concentrate on these ones for the purpose of this post.) They represent St Joseph, St Patrick, Jesus, Mary and Purgatory. All follow the same convention of placing the main figure centrally, surrounded by smaller panels which tell stories or illustrate events from the life of the central character.

Purgatory Jesus and the Saints

Close up: Christ descends to purgatory

HC Studio, Athlone

Close up: the Job panel

The sheer size of the windows has allowed ample scope for this approach, but size alone cannot account for the myriad details that King inserts into every possible space in the window. Words abound, in several languages and scripts. References to the ancient and the modern, the mythological, the hagiographical, and the historical jostle for space with abstract designs, tiny figures both realistic and imaginative, symbols, animals, buildings – everywhere the eye lingers new elements are discovered. In its essence, this is very Harry Clarke; in the sheer exuberance of its execution, this is Richard King having fun, cramming in as much as his own fertile imagination can offer up.

Mary Rosary Angelus and Scapular

This is the Mary window and these sections concentrate on images of Marian veneration. Clockwise from top left: workers pause to pray the Angelus; a family says the rosary together; St Simon Stock receives the scapular from Mary (more on this here);  Mary; St Dominic receives the rosary **

The Harry Clarke Studios closed down in the 70s. For many years after Harry’s death in 1931 it carried on his tradition of highly stylised and beautiful works of art in stained glass, although over time works became more conventional and quality suffered as orders were harder to get, costs rose and corners were cut. Look, for example at the Studio windows in my post Time Warp, about the Drimoleague church, done in the 50s. But that’s in the future – what we can see, under Richard King’s assured hand, are windows that proudly carry on the Clarke preoccupations with designing windows that dazzle and inspire.

Juses details bottom

Details from the Jesus window from left to right: Pope Pius x; Manna from heaven; Tobia walking with the Angel Raphael, with Michael and Gabriel; eating the paschal lamb; Matt Talbot, a Dublin man who died in 1925 and who was considered on the path to sainthood because of his extreme practice of asceticism **

Perhaps, though, there is another element that creeps in now that Harry is gone – the religious fervour of the early years of the state is now in full swing. Government and Church Hierarchy work hand in glove to develop and promote a vision of Ireland that is devout, Catholic, monocultural, conforming and repressive. A high point in this relationship occurs in 1932 with the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin – an event explicitly referenced in the Patrick window. Richard King will never, as Harry did, fall afoul of puritanical state censorship – he will go on, in fact, to become the chief illustrator for a Catholic magazine.

Patrick top

The top of the Patrick window explicitly references the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and the crossed flags of Ireland and the Vatican. Try to enlarge this image and see how many different elements you can identify. Good luck!

But in 1937 he is at the height of his powers as a stained glass artist. I hope to find and illustrate more of his work in that medium in future posts.

Patrick details and cathedrals

From the bottom of the Patrick window: Patrick lights the paschal fire on the Hill of Slane; he is flanked by images of two St Patrick Cathedrals, New York and Melbourne; Beneath, the swans represent the ancient myth of the Children of Lir (although there were four swans in the myth, not three) – the spell they are under is broken when they hear St Patrick’s bell

** The photographs in this post are my own, but for the explanations that I use in the captions, I am indebted to Niall McAuley, who has mounted a Flikr Album of all the stained glass in this church and has researched and annotated each image. I don’t know you, Niall, but I salute your wonderful images and your exhaustive notes on each of the windows. Please go to Niall’s album for more on all the King windows (especially if you are stumped by the Patrick window) and also windows by other stained glass suppliers and artists in this amazing collection.

Harry Clarke’s Supporting Cast

Honan St Ita

For any student of Harry Clarke stained glass there are delights to be discovered far beyond the main depiction. A host of subordinate or secondary figures reveal themselves to close examination, sometimes only after repeated viewings.

Brendan the Navigator

Brendan of Kerry – AKA Brendan the Navigator. Note the borders with their exotic birds

The tall windows I describe in this post  typically have three parts – the main section containing a large image of the saint, and an upper and lower section (sometimes called a predella) each of which may contain a separate image/story. In addition, the border around the outside of a Clarke window is always highly decorated in endless imaginative patterns.

Honan Mary Mother of Sorrow
The Mary Mother of Sorrows window was executed slightly later than the other windows and shows some stylistic changes. But it illustrates well the three parts to the window and the use of all available space for supporting and secondary characters to tell the story

Clarke was obsessed with detail: there are few white spaces or plain glass in his work. Every inch is filled with richly figured and never-repeated decoration or with additional figures that fill out the story and the symbolism of the central character. These figures tend to fall into a group we can call saintly and a group we can call macabre. Whichever they are, they reflect his vivid imagination and his gift for portraiture.

Honan Chapel

The Honan Chapel is the Catholic church at University College, Cork. It is a masterpiece of Celtic-Revival Hiberno-Romanesque design and a wonderful place to visit

Designing windows for the Honan Chapel at University College, Cork, was Harry Clarke’s first major commission and launched his career. The windows, finished and installed between 1916 and 1917 contain all the hallmarks of the intricate style he made uniquely his own. I will use four of his Honan windows to look at the cast of supporting characters he employed in his quest to incorporate as much as possible of the saint’s story.

Gobnait

St Gobnait is, famously, depicted in profile, allowing her red hair to take centre stage. She is the patron saint of beekeepers and her bees surround her. Above the main image she is shown spreading her arm (note the honeycomb design of her robe) and extending her staff to prevent a plague descending on her people. She is attended by two maidens and to the right you can see the faces of three men who have not been spared the plague. (There’s another little detail you might spot in this picture!)

Gobnait Plague Victims

To quote Nicola Gordon Bowe, in her magisterial The Life and Work of Harry Clarke:

Harry here shows the delight he took in depicting deformity, disease and the macabre. This fascination with the poles of the beautiful and of the ugly and grotesque is a propensity he shared with many medieval artists.

Gobnait Robbers

On either side of St Gobnait another fearful scene unfolds. According to legend, robbers attempted to break into St Gobnait’s abbey but she set her bees upon them and here they are fleeing in terror.

Gobnait and handmaiden

At the very bottom of the panel she is depicted directing the bees and attended by a novice, while on the left a fourth robber runs in panic.

Honan Brendan border detail

St Brendan the Navigator, with his red beard, gazes serenely out, holding an oar. By his shoulder, his tiny curragh sails westward into the setting sun. In this window pay special attention to the border. Because he was a voyager, discovering the Americas, Clarke decorate it with exotic birds. He intersperses these with tiny roundels of other Irish saints.

Honan Brendan and Judas

Judas suffering on his rock – a medieval vision of misery. Note also the roundels: on the left is St Brigid and on the right is “the poor monk with the iron in his head.” Amazing that Clarke managed to get all that information on to the border of the roundel

In one episode on his seven year journey, Brendan encountered Judas, suffering eternal torture because of his betrayal of Jesus. The bottom panel depicts the scene of the wasted and agonised Judas, while the monks look on in horror. Only Brendan is able to look stoically forward.

Honan St Ita Detail

Detail from the St Ita window

St Ita (the first photograph in this post) was the daughter of a chieftain but renounced all worldly things to live a life of poverty and to teach. Once again, Clarke uses tiny roundels to depict other saints associated with Ita: Brendan, Colman, Finbar and Carthage.

St Ita predella

Below her feet is another tableau, depicting a prayerful scene in which she is attended by two holy women and St Colman and St Brendan. The portraiture of the the two saints is exquisite.

Honan Albert of Cashel

St Albert of Cashel – a little known saint who journeyed to Ratisbon in Germany on a conversion mission

A last window from the Honan Chapel – this time St Albert of Cashel, depicted as a seated bishop. In the top portion he is depicted converting the people of Ratisbon in Germany. Once again the individuals are beautifully drawn and sumptuously dressed. I particularly love the red hair – always a feature of a Harry Clarke window.

Citizens of Ratisbon listening to St Albert preaching

I highly recommend a visit to the Honan Chapel if you’re in Cork. See Robert’s post, Cork Menagerie, for an in-depth look at the mosaics. And take your time – the windows (there are several more than the ones I’ve used in this post) reward patient and detailed study. For more on Harry Clarke’s stained glass, see my post The Gift of Harry Clarke, which will walk you through an analysis of his style and his influences.

Honan St Albert converting Germans