A Medieval High Cross – Out of Place

I was intrigued by this advertisement in the current edition of the Irish Arts Review (March – May 2020). Morgan O’Driscoll is based in Skibbereen, West Cork and specialises in Irish art. Paul Henry (1876 – 1958) fought an uphill battle in his own lifetime to get his work recognised. In 1911 Paul Henry and his wife Grace exhibited in Leinster Hall, Dublin. One critic commented that the Henrys: ‘ . . . seldom rise above the dead level of mediocrity and too often fall below it . . . ‘  In that exhibition was a work, The Potato Diggers: it didn’t sell until the 1930s. In 2013 it was included in a sale by James Adams & Sons, Dublin – and fetched €400,000! Just a decade ago, a Paul Henry might have been expected to sell for a few thousand – now, 40 years after his death, he’s a star!

Paul Henry painted by his wife Grace in 1899

So why am I intrigued by the O’Driscoll advertisement? Take another look – the title of the painting is given as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg. I have taken an interest in Irish medieval High Crosses, and published a few articles on them in this Journal. In particular, this one – The Wonders of Monasterboice. Here’s a couple of photos from that post: the left one is an image of the west face of Muiredach’s Cross taken in the early years of the twentieth century – when the carving appears to be more clearly defined than it is today – and on the right is Finola, giving scale to the same cross just a couple of years ago. This cross – named after Abbot Muiredach mac Domhnaill, who died in 923AD – is one of the finest in the country, standing 5.5 metres tall.

Looking at a detail from the Paul Henry painting (above), there is a remarkable similarity between the ‘Lough Derg’ cross and Muiredach’s Cross at Monasterboice. So – I hear you suggest – are they twins? Not exactly: in fact, through the medium of painting, one cross can be in two places at once! There is no ‘Celtic Cross’ at Lough Derg, so our artist has taken Muiredach’s Cross and placed it in his picture. Why?

At this point I can’t resist showing you this antiquarian drawing of Muiredach’s Cross (above), probably dating from the eighteenth century, although I haven’t been able to find the author of it. It’s fascinating that all the elements of the cross are portrayed: the central figure in the roundel – presumably Christ – the various figures on the  panels above and below and on either side, and the two cats on the base looking very much like comfortable fireside moggies. But look how all the images have become stylised: medieval has been transported to Georgian neo-classical!

Baccanale – an example of a 1782 copperplate engraving by Marco Carloni, Rome

Before we explain Paul Henry’s stretching of the truth, let’s consider something else: there are a few Lough Dergs in the country, but the most famous – and the one most likely to be depicted by an artist who is showing off Ireland might be Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, which I covered in this post, also from two years ago.

Lough Derg, showing the pilgrimage site of Station island, and the surrounding landscape

It’s a bit of a stretch of the imagination to see the setting of Lough Derg, with its fairly low-lying hills, in the background of Paul Henry’s painting. And where is that little tower house on the spit of land behind the ‘Celtic Cross’? Well – maybe it’s here:

This painting by Paul Henry is known as Grace O’Malley’s Castle: it is picturesquely situated at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, County Mayo, which Paul and Grace first visited in 1910. So inspired were they by the landscape and the apparently idyllic simple way of life that they remained on Achill for a decade. Here’s another view of the O’Malley castle by Paul Henry:

So the ‘Celtic Cross at Lough Derg’ is, in fact, a medieval high cross from Monasterboice, County Louth, and it is set against the stunning scenery of Achill, County Mayo. We can’t blame Morgan O’Driscoll (or anyone else who can be identified) for giving the painting a misleading name. It seems that originally the work was just titled ‘Celtic Cross’: here are some insights from Paul Henry’s biographer, Brian Kennedy, in the Irish Arts Review Yearbook 1989 / 1990 –

. . . Henry was egocentric and occasionally used artistic licence with historical facts in the same way he might have done in a painted composition . . .

. . . In 1917 the Irish Times thought he was developing a decorative treatment of the landscape whereby his imagery was not realistic but was symbolically Irish . . .

And the following is from Paul Henry: With a Catalogue of the Paintings, Drawings, Illustrations, by S B Kennedy, Paul HenryYale University Press, 2007: it tells us that the painting was clearly known as ‘Celtic Cross’ in 1924, and was in the collection of Seán T O’Kelly, Ireland’s second President (between  June 1945 and June 1959). When sold by Adams in 1984 the painting had acquired the additional wording . . . at Lough Derg . . .

. . . 611 Celtic Cross 1924. Oil on board 24 x 22 (61 x 56). Signed ‘PAUL HENRY’ . . .

Private collection. Prov: Sean T O’Kelly; sale, Adams, Dublin 19 July 1984. Lot 86, as Celtic Cross at Lough Derg, repr. Irish Travel, vol 7, no 10, June 1937 repr. on front cover. Almost certainly a composite composition . . .

As with most artists – who need to earn a living – Paul Henry willingly accepted commissions. He was successful in selling ‘popular’ work to railway companies and the Irish Tourist Association (above – 1920s and 30s).

A “Lough Derg” design is mentioned in the Railway Company’s letter (above). Below is another – for British Railways: this is more likely to be the Lough Derg on the Shannon.

Has this helped to unravel the enigma of Paul Henry’s Celtic Cross at Lough Derg? Whether or not you are convinced, I’m sure you would like to have the painting hanging on your wall – me too! Although it would be so much better if it could go permanently into a public collection The sale is coming up in April . . .

 

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 3

Our final two Cork churches are a small private chapel and a large public church. Then I will provide some suggestions for where else to go to see Murphy Devitt windows. If you haven’t read them already, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

The private chapel first. It’s in Rochestown, attached to a Cappuchin Franciscan school and Friary* and it dates from 1961. It’s all about St Francis – his life and his famous Canticle. Scenes from St Francis’s life make up the large windows on the right side of the aisle. We see him receiving his stigmata, preaching to the birds, setting up the first Christmas crib scene in Greccia.

The Canticle references occupy smaller clerestory windows. They are a sensitive response to the well-known lines:

Praised be You my Lord through Brother Fire,

Through whom You light the night

and he is beautiful and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars,

In the heavens you have made them bright, precious and fair.

Praised be You my Lord through our Sister, Mother Earth

Who sustains and governs us, producing varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

The Church at Mallow is a large and impressive modern edifice opened in 1967. The windows occupy both side walls, with many abstract panes filling in other spaces.

By 1967 Johnny was teaching full time at the National College of Art and  routinely invited his best students to work for the Studios in the summer. In this case, the student was Terry Corcoran, who, while he did some more stained glass windows on his own subsequently, went on to a career mainly as a painter. His website is here

The design was all Johnny’s, and both Johnny and Róisín provided direction to Terry. As a result, it is hard to distinguish a different hand in these windows – as with all MD windows they are a collaboration, but with the powerful and distinctive look and feel we’ve come to expect from their style.

Compare with this window in Mayfield – the figures have become slightly more stylised

The Last supper – a masterpiece of window design

The Crucifixion window with its sombre blues and greens

The Resurrection window (above in glorious hues of red and orange) was originally immediately to the right of the altar, but in the late 1980s the Parish Priest had it moved to behind the altar, where it had to be back-lit. This left an opening with no stained glass and the priest turned to Murphy Devitt once more. By then, the Studios had been dissolved, but Johnny and Róisín continued to work with Des under a loose arrangement covered by ‘Des Devitt and Associates.’

Róisín Dowd-Murphy’s Assumptions window in full

This window is pure Róisín and is quite at odds with all the other windows in the church. To me, it is a delight, as it showcases Róisín’s style in all its Boticelli-inspired emphasis on costume, hair, flowers and musical instruments. Contrast it with the Assumption window in Mayfield (click here for the image). Although she drew the cartoon for both windows, the Mayfield Assumption had to fit with the overall design for that church, whereas in Mallow she simply followed her own inclinations and what we get is unfiltered Róisín.

Assumption, a closer look

Not everyone is lucky enough to live in Cork, so I want to include a few non-Cork Murphy Devitt windows before I end this series – windows that are open to visit and which are every bit as spectacular as the best of the Cork examples.

Cahir Catholic Church has MD abstract/symbolic windows, including this little window where Johhny’s love of the wobbly and wavy line is clear – also note the unusual glass

The Church of Our Lady and St Brendan in Tralee has two huge representations of its patrons, as well as extensive and beautiful abstract windows.

All the glass in St Michael’s, Dunlaoghaire, is Murphy Devitt, done in the early 70s. Soaring panels of abstract colour punctuate the severe interior and bathe the interior in a warm glow. No photograph – you’ll have to see this one for yourselves. In Limerick, the Dominican Church has a floor to ceiling wall of glass (below) that, among other things, depicts the history of Limerick.

The chapel attached to Newbridge College contains a set of windows based on the Book Of Revelations, an unusual theme for a Catholic Church. My friend and colleague, David Caron, has written a piece on these windows for the Summer 2019 edition of The Irish Arts Review, with brilliant photographs  by Jozef Vrtiel. I recommend that article to you, not least for the erudite and highly readable commentary on the iconography, including the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom is below.

That concludes our exploration of this extraordinary Studio, its artists and craftspeople. It’s been a rare pleasure for me to discover them all, and their brilliant windows. Please take a look at the Murphy Devitt website – it’s a work in progress, but it will give you a list of churches and you may find one near you. Let me know!

Brendan, in the Church of Our Lady and St Brendan, Tralee

*Thank you to Fr Sylvester of the Rochestown Cappuchin Franciscan Friary for facilitating my photographing the windows. The chapel is private so these windows are not normally available to view.