Burne-Jones in Lismore Cathedral

Edward Coley Burne-Jones is perhaps best known as a painter, but he also designed stained glass. While he was a prolific designer, not many of his windows found their way to Ireland. Hence, it is a joy to see and appreciate his beautiful two-light window in Lismore Cathedral.

Burne-Jones was one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood whose aim was to recreate a style of painting that they saw as most representative of the period before the Renaissance (which spoiled everything, apparently). Their paintings are distinguished by being highly romantic and emphasising beauty (male and female), the natural world (or at least the most benign aspects of it) and attention to detail.  The portrait of him below is used with gratitude and under license from the National Portrait Gallery.

Burne-Jones met William Morris when he left university to study art and they began a life-long partnership. Known as one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris united a genius for business with a commitment to honouring both art and craft. One of the ‘crafts’ he recognised as needing a genuine artistic approach was stained glass. While Burne-Jones did some designing for the stained glass firm of Powell of Whitefriars, from 1861 on he designed exclusively for Morris. The two friends are shown below, once again, under license from the National Portrait Gallery. It’s not the wildly romantic and handsome image I had of them – perhaps it’s true that you should never meet your heroes.

It’s important to emphasise here that Burne-Jones was an artist and designer: he did not execute the windows he designed, although he often included notes about colour preference or the form of a figure or detail on his cartoons – the full-size drawings upon which the glass was laid to guide the artists who painted and cut the glass. The cartoons below were recently offered for sale at Sothebys for 40,000 – 60,000USD!

Ironically, this was a contradiction of the true philosophy of the arts and crafts movement, which held that a single artist/craftsperson should execute all aspects of the final artwork. This was the rule inculcated by AE Child when he inducted all his eager students into the processes of designing and making stained glass in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. It was the underlying ideology of An Túr Gloine and it was how Harry Clarke started out – both designing and actually painting his own windows. (That’s Lismore Cathedral below, where the window is located – you can read more about this historic and fascinating church in Robert’s post Off the M8 – Lismore Quest.)

But once you start a company, that company has to make money to survive, and Morris was canny enough to see that the artist-maker was not the business model he needed. Morris specialised in wonderful pattern-making, especially foliage of all kinds (his name is synonymous with certain kinds of wallpaper and fabric). Burne-Jones’ figures, along with Morris’s highly-patterned backgrounds, were handed over to the craftsmen (yes, all men, I think, although I stand to be corrected here) to take them from a cartoon to a finished window. Like Harry Clarke’s windows, Burne-Jones’ were instantly recognisable and popular and the demand for them was enormous. You can see why. The figures are languorous and romantic. The faces are intensely beautiful; the details of the robes, armour, helmets, musical instruments etc are exquisite; the colours are soft and harmonious. 

By the time Burne-Jones died in 1898 and Morris in 1896, there was a huge catalogue of gorgeous designs. Morris and Co continued under the leadership of John Dearle (himself a talented designer) and the firm continued to produce Burn-Jones windows, adapted as necessary to fit the size and position of windows. In fact, there is an almost-identical window in another C of I church, in Coolock.

This brings us to the Lismore window – Justice and Humility – installed in honour of Francis Edmund Currey upon Currey’s death in 1896. Who was Francis Edmund Currey? He was the Duke of Devonshire’s agent and a keen, and early, photographer. He, or his wife, was related to the Somervilles of Castletownshend, although I am not sure how. His photographs are in several archives (just Google).

That’s him, above*. A plaque refers to his ‘compassionate work during the famine.’ I have been unable to find much corroboration of this (and remember, as the largely-absent Duke’s agent, he got to write his own version of events for ‘his’ cathedral) – but I have found some accounts that say his emphasis was on keeping the tenantry contented and he was certainly not one of the cruel agents that proliferated at this time. If anyone out there knows more, please comment below!

The windows are beautifully and expertly done – Morris and Co had many very talented and able craftsmen, although we don’t know which of them was responsible for executing this one. Justice is represented by the figure of St Michael, although curiously there are no wings, despite the fact that Michael is an Archangel. He carries a sword in his right hand – he vanquished Satan with a sword – and in his left had he holds the scales he uses to weigh souls on Judgement Day. He wears chain mail and complicated robes and his steady gaze seems to size up the viewer with a mix of compassion and insight.

The figure of Humility is suitably, well, humble, with a downcast gaze and carrying a lamb. Like Michael, she has much drapery, all finely-worked (take a close look).

The predella (bottom panel) is the familiar Morris wallpaper, a complex intertwining of leaves and flowers, pleasingly repeated.  

The very top section of the tracery (which I didn’t capture in my photographs) is a sweet angel blowing two pipes – below is the exact same design from an English window.

This post was inspired by a book loaned from a friend – thank you, Richard,  for all the information on Wilden church, and the stories that went along with the book.

*Francis Edmund Currey by Kilburn, William Edward (1818-1891) – Sean Sexton, United Kingdom, Europe – Public Domain https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/2058401/_providedCHO_28d8210e_c8d5_0623_21cc_25bd9db12ede