Mosaics and Maharajas Revisited – Part 1

We have a particular reason for re-publishing this 2016 post, one of our personal favourites, this week. The church urgently needs conservation and this West Cork gem is in danger. The group trying to save it is looking for help. If you feel like donating, here’s the link: https://www.gofundme.com/f/west-cork-hidden-gem

But no matter if you donate or not, you will love this little church and its amazing features and we encourage you to visit it when you can.

What follows is a substantially re-written version of a post originally published in Feb 2016

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This week when we were passing though Timoleague I had a fancy to see inside the Church of the Ascension as I had heard it was ‘worth a look’.  Understatement of the century! What we saw was astonishing, beautiful, and overflowing with history and stories.

The key is kept at the Post Office on the main street – just ask

This Church of Ireland building is typical of the simple gothic revival style favoured by the funders – the Board of First Fruits. (Read more about this almost-forgotten organisation in a post from the always excellent Irish Aesthete.) Built from the ruins of an earlier (probably medieval) church it was consecrated in 1811 but enlarged later in the 19th century. The pointed-arch windows and the square tower with louvre vents are unremarkable features on the exterior, but open the door and step inside and you enter another world.

The mosaics are the most obvious (although by no means the only) glory of this church. Designed to commemorate members of the Travers family (yes, the same Travers whose memorials dot the walls of St Fin Barre’s) they cover the entire interior of the church, apart from the hammer-beam ceiling in the nave. They incorporate motifs in several traditions – Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

Above the west doorway is the Ascension scene – the apostles are rather conventional but I love their colourful robes and the flower borders. Below them is an angel font, similar to a pair in St John’s Catholic Church in Tralee, made of Carrera marble, with yet more mosaic detail.

Members of the Travers family are named in mosaic around the walls – Robert Valentine Travers of the Munster Fusiliers was only 22 when he fell at Gallipoli.

The mosaic tiles were made by Minton, as were the encaustic tiles on the floor (below). Minton is known for its bone china but in fact it was also was the leading producer of British ceramic tiles during the 19th century.

In the chancel, above the marble altar, the ceiling is covered in mosaic, as are the walls, some of which have been gold-leafed. The richness of the detail and the vision that dictated such a glorious conjunction of imagery and colour is jaw-dropping, and mark this little provincial church as part of the influential Oxford Movement of the Victorian era that aimed to return ornamentation and beauty to spaces of worship.

This is the great High Church and Low Church debate. A group called the Cambridge Camden Society promoted a return to gothic architecture: the classical style was seen as pagan, while the great gothic cathedrals of Europe represented the apex of Christian architecture. (More about this in Part 2, which will concentrate on the stained glass and the architecture of the church.)

Installing mosaic is a time-consuming and expensive process – this one involved importing artisans from Italy and the parishioners eventually received help from an unexpected quarter. The final series of installations was paid for by an Indian Maharaja!

The Pelican is a Christian symbol of sacrifice – the pelican was believed to provide her own blood to her young when no other food was available

Madhav Rao Scindia was the Maharaja of Gwalior. He was wealthy and looking for places to  spend his money. What, you don’t believe that? Just read this story about the fabulous and secret treasure chambers of Gwalior. No, I jest – in fact, he was a highly-educated ruler who did much to modernise his state but he was only 9 years old when he inherited the title from his father, pictured below leaving his palace in state.

The Maharaja of Gwalior Before His Palace, C 1887 by Edward Lord Weeks

The British appointed as his surgeon and tutor an Irish doctor from Timoleague – Dr Martin Crofts. A long friendship grew, based on mutual respect (and shared tiger-hunting expeditions) and it is said that Crofts saved the life of the Maharaja’s son. 

The Maharaja in his prime

When Crofts died suddenly in 1915, after only a year of retirement, and was buried in Timoleague the Maharaja funded the completion of the mosaics as a memorial to his friend and mentor.

Thus, a tiny and obscure church in Timoleague invokes not only a great architectural movement but, like the memorials last week, echoes of the Empire and an unlikely international friendship. But this is not the last of the story – in the next post we will explore the other glory of this little church, the stained glass windows. In their own way they also link Timoleague to the great artistic trends of their age.

A detail from one of the windows

Part 2 is here.

Leaving for the Hunt at Gwalior by Edwin Lord Weeks

Mosaics and Maharajas, Part 1

This week when we were passing though Timoleague I had a fancy to see inside the Church of the Ascension as I had heard it was ‘worth a look’.  Understatement of the century! What we saw was astonishing, beautiful, and overflowing with history and stories.

The key is kept at the Post Office on the main street – just ask

This Church of Ireland building is typical of the simple gothic revival style favoured by the funders – the Board of First Fruits. (Read more about this almost-forgotten organisation in a post from the always excellent Irish Aesthete.) Built from the ruins of an earlier (probably medieval) church it was consecrated in 1811 but enlarged later in the 19th century. The pointed-arch windows and the square tower with louvre vents are unremarkable features on the exterior, but open the door and step inside and you enter another world.

The mosaics are the most obvious (although by no means the only) glory of this church. Designed to commemorate members of the Travers family (yes, the same Travers whose memorials dot the walls of St Fin Barre’s) they cover the entire interior of the church, apart from the hammer-beam ceiling in the nave. They incorporate motifs in several traditions – Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

Above the west doorway is the Ascension scene – the apostles are rather conventional but I love their colourful robes and the flower borders. Below them is an angel font, similar to a pair in Tralee Cathedral, made of Carrera marble, with yet more mosaic detail.

Members of the Travers family are named in mosaic around the walls – Robert Valentine Travers of the Munster Fusiliers was only 22 when he fell at Gallipoli.

In the chancel, above the marble altar, the ceiling is covered in mosaic, as are the walls, some of which have been gold-leafed. The richness of the detail and the vision that dictated such a glorious conjunction of imagery and colour is jaw-dropping, and mark this little provincial church as part of the influential Oxford Movement of the Victorian era that aimed to return ornamentation and beauty to spaces of worship.

This is the great High Church and Low Church debate. A group called the Cambridge Camden Society promoted a return to gothic architecture: the classical style was seen as pagan, while the great gothic cathedrals of Europe represented the apex of Christian architecture. (More about this in the next post, which will concentrate on the stained glass.)

Installing mosaic is a time-consuming and expensive process – this one involved importing artisans from Italy and the parishioners eventually received help from an unexpected quarter. The final series of installations was paid for by an Indian Maharaja!

Madhav Rao Scindia was the Maharaja of Gwalior. He was wealthy and looking for places to  spend his money. What, you don’t believe that? Just read this story about the fabulous and secret treasure chambers of Gwalior. No – in fact, he was highly-educated ruler who did much to modernise his state but he was only 9 years old when he inherited the title.

The Maharaja in his prime

The British appointed as his surgeon and tutor an Irish doctor from Timoleague – Dr Martin Crofts. A long friendship grew, based on mutual respect (and shared tiger-hunting expeditions) and it is said that Crofts saved the life of the Maharaja’s son. 

Leaving for the Hunt at Gwalior by Edwin Lord Weeks

When Crofts died suddenly in 1915, after only a year of retirement, and was buried in Timoleague the Maharaja funded the completion of the mosaics as a memorial to his friend and mentor.

Thus, a tiny and obscure church in Timoleague invokes not only a great architectural movement but, like the memorials last week, echoes of the Empire and an unlikely international friendship. But this is not the last of the story – next week we will explore the other glory of this little church, the stained glass windows. In their own way they also link Timoleague to the great artistic trends of their age.

A detail from one of the windows

Part 2 can be seen here.

Cork Menagerie

tiger

Cork does have a wildlife park – over in Fota, to the east of the city. But I think Cork’s real menagerie is on the University campus – The Honan Chapel, built almost a hundred years ago, and opening its doors to Catholic students in November 1916.

Ireland’s universities have a fascinating history: Pope Clement V authorised the first one in 1311, and this was based in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This institution ‘came to an abrupt end’ with the Protestant Reformation of the 1530s, and Trinity College Dublin was founded as the ‘University of the Protestant Ascendancy’. At this time, England had the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, while Scotland had Universities at St Andrews, Glasgow and Aberdeen.

In 1908, the Irish Universities Act was passed, by which the National University, consisting of the Constituent Colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway was founded. Part of this act decreed that of the finance provided for the new University, none should be applied ‘… for the provision or maintenance of any church, chapel or other place of religious observance …’ It was left to a Cork merchant family – the Honans (who made their wealth through butter) to provide a hostel and chapel for Catholic students. 

‘…The chapel, itself, is in perfect accord not only with its immediate surroundings, but also with the wide heritage of art handed down to us by the early native church building. It is one of the best reproductions of the ancient style of building and it exemplifies, in a striking manner, all that is best in the Hiberno Romanesque architecture of the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries…’ The Honan Chapel, M J O’Reilly, Cork Univeristy Press, 1966

legilium

Lectern decoration

The interior of the building abounds in exquisite artworks. It’s a feast for the eyes wherever you look: stained glass windows by Harry Clarke stand out (including St Gobnait) – but, for me, the real treat is the mosaic work on the floors, designed by Ludwig Oppenheimer of Manchester. A River of Life runs the length of the nave from the entrance door to the sanctuary where, amidst a riot of pattern and colour, the menagerie unfolds: there are birds and beasts, fish and fowl all contained in decorated borders with Celtic knots and patterns. The only analogy I can think of is a medieval illuminated manuscript such as the Book of Kells, where the pages and margins are extravagantly ornamented with figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts in vibrant colours imbued with Christian symbolism.

The Chapel is dedicated to St Finbarr, Patron Saint of Cork. The foundation stone, laid on the 18th May 1915, records ‘… built by the Charity of Isabella Honan for the scholars and students of Munster…’ The architect was James F McMullen.

swans