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

The Nativity – by Harry Clarke

Castletownshend East Window

Church of St Barrahane, Castletownshend, East Window

Images of the nativity are a special part of Christmas in Ireland – as witness the proliferation of Christmas cribs in every town and in half the shopfronts. In West Cork (and not too far away in Dingle) we are particularly fortunate to have several examples of nativity images in stained glass by the famous Harry Clarke.

St Barrahanes detail Mary and Joseph

St Barrahane detail Mary and Joseph

We have mentioned Harry Clarke, Ireland’s most renowned stained glass artist, in several posts before, and no doubt will come back to him again – his gorgeous windows repay multiple visits. In going through the many photographs I have taken I realised that Harry Clarke, at least in the windows I have visited here in the south west, concentrated on only two representations of the Christmas story – the visit of the Magi, and the flight into Egypt.

His focus on the the visitation of the Three Kings, traditionally celebrated on January 6th, is poignant, for it was on that day that Harry Clarke died in 1931, after a long battle with tuberculosis. He was, like the Magi, travelling at the time, in a vain attempt to get home from a sanatorium in Switzerland. He was only 41.

Dingle - the Visit of the Magi

Dingle – the Visit of the Magi

On a recent visit to Dingle we were lucky to find the Díseart Centre of Irish Spirituality and Culture open and to be able to view the magnificent windows in a tiny church previously only open to the nuns of the enclosed Presentation order. One of the windows was devoted to the nativity – once again, the Magi scene.

Clarke scholars will only assign a window as a true ‘Harry Clarke’ if it was designed and the construction supervised closely by him. His studios carried on after his death and windows made at that time are labelled ‘Harry Clarke Studio’ windows. While the Castletownshend and Dingle windows are undisputedly Harry Clarkes, there seem to be differences of opinion about the ones in Timoleague. When the Timoleague church celebrated its centenary, the Southern Star ran a story with this entry:

Pride of place in the church must go to the beautiful Harry Clarke windows at the back of the church as you exit. Harry Clarke achieved fame for his unique style, his incredible use of colour, his decorative designs and the beautiful medieval-styled figures that have rarely found an equal in the medium of stained glass. These windows were put in place in 1929/’30 and were among the last to be made by Clarke who died in 1931. The windows were in memory of Rev Fr Timothy O’Hea PP (1912-1929) by the parishioners and by his successor as parish priest, Rev Fr  Jeremiah O’Driscoll (1929-’49).

Timoleague, Flight into Egypt

Timoleague, Flight into Egypt

However, these windows are not listed on the authoritative site http://harryclarke.net/, implying that these are Harry Clarke Studio windows. They are certainly in the Clarke style, and very striking.

The Kilcoe Church of the Most Holy Rosary has a stained glass rose window over the entrance. A sign states that it was made by Harry Clarke Stained Glass Ltd (the Studios), designed by T Clarke and installed in 1943. It is in the Clarke style, and although beautiful and expertly done, perhaps lacks the level of detail one expects from a window given Harry’s personal attention. One of the small windows of the rose depicts the flight into Egypt.

Aughadown church, flight into Egypt

Aughadown church, flight into Egypt

The range of images in the Harry Clarke windows in West Cork is broad and fascinating. We will no doubt write future posts about this luminous body of work.