When Harry Met Edith: Part 3: “A Charming Little Nativity”

The Nativity that Harry designed for St Barrahane’s is, according to Nicola Gordon Bowe*, technically remarkable, but let’s look at the design, starting from the top. Here I am relying on Gordon Bowe’s extraordinary design vocabulary – all the quotes in italics are hers. (If you haven’t yet read them, Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.)

Harry’s re-designed and very Gothic tracery is filled with clear quarries – pieces of glass, leaded together in a diamond pattern, joined here and there with tiny coloured ovals. The use of clear glass was necessitated by the lack of light filtering from behind the east window, as there is a bank with tall trees immediately outside. However, this is not clear, or plain, transparent glass as we know it. Each quarry has been worked in some way. Those that started out life as clear glass have been chosen for their irregularities and have been treated with matt washes, stipples and semi-abstract lacework sequences so that each differs from its neighbour. Some of the quarries were not clear to begin with, but were flashed in pinks, blues or green, and these have been acided to the barest shimmer of colour. The result is that each individual quarry is intrinsically interesting without detracting from the overall effect of a subtly embroidered patchwork quilt in which the light lingers. These quarries occupy most areas of the window except for the main nativity scene and provide the backdrop for the top two sections – the saints and the angels. The signature panel at the bottom of the window is a good place to observe the quarries up close.

Edith was very much in tune with the Arts and Crafts Movement in Ireland but also with the Celtic Revival (see my posts on the work of Watson of Youghal for a thorough discussion on this style and the term). Within the literary tradition of the Revival there was a focus on the study of our ancient saints and a scholarly emphasis on translating various Lives and Martyrologies, many of whom were alive in the folklore and memory of the countryside. Of the three saints depicted here, Brigid is considered one of our three National or Founding Saints (see this post for more on Brigid), while Fachtna and Barrahane (or Béarchán) are local to West Cork. 

Harry used Revivalist interlacing as a supporting device for Brigid and Béarchán. Interlacing – so popular in Ireland at the time – was in fact quite rare in his work, although it had appeared in a couple of the Honan windows, such as the Joseph window, above, in a similar position. Harry was much more influenced by Continental art movements than by the conventions of Revivalist decoration, but Edith was still keen on it, as witness her later design for a mosaic floor in the chancel of the church, so this element may have been at her suggestion, or at least responding to what he saw as her preferences.

For her turn, Edith had done her homework and knew what saints she wanted, discarding Finbarr (Patron Saint of Cork) after an initial dalliance with him. Barrahane had given his name to the area around Castletownshend, Glenn Barrahane, as well as a medieval church (now ruined) and a popular Holy Well pilgrimage (in which I participated in December). Edith’s informant was James Bourke – I have laid out all that information in my post Honouring St Barrahane, so I won’t repeat it here, but do take a look at the detailed photos of the St Barrahane window in that post, including the little surprise that Harry inserted in this window. Interestingly, while Brigid and Fachtna are underpinned by revivalist interlacing, Barrahane is floating on a cloud.

Fachtna was the saint who had founded Rosscarbery and was patron of the diocese of Ross; Harry depicts him holding a church and with his bishop’s crozier. He is gazing contemplatively downwards as if on the Nativity. Notice how the interlacing below him ends in a bird’s head finial.

Brigid is clad in blue (perhaps that same blue that Edith had said ‘hits your eye like a living flame or a blast of wind’. She looks directly out, calm and wise. In her right hand she holds a golden lamp (looking suspiciously like an illustration from the Arabian Nights) and between the fingers of her left hand is entwined the stem of a twig of oak leaves, another of her attributes, tying her to Kildare (or Cill Dara, the Church of the Oaks).

Beneath the three saints are three angels, floating above the Nativity. Although they form a wonderful trio, each is remarkably individual. The middle angel (with a fashionable bob) incorporates the star which is a traditional element in Nativity scenes. 

The left and right angels have elaborate, flowing or pleated robes and complicated coiffures. One holds a dove while the other has hands held in prayer. Gordon Bowe, in trying to analyse the decorative element at the centre of these angels says in her thesis Both seem to be manipulating jewelled levers, similar to the studded gun holsters favoured by cowboys.

I love this sentence but perhaps understandably it didn’t make it into her book, where she merely remarks that the saints and angels abound in intriguing decorative detail.

The central scene, of the Nativity, is beautifully constructed. Besides the angels above it, the framing devices consist of three elements. The first is an arc of silver chain upon which everything rests, most importantly the manger. You can see a close up of it in the signature panel above. The second is the rock face which stretches above and behind the Magi and the Shepherds. The third is one of Harry’s typical expanses of ‘floral ornamentation’ – one of his future hallmarks. Of this fantastical conglomeration of flowers, leaves, mosses, jewels, geometric shapes Gordon Bowe says always inventive and subtle in his pen and ink and watercolour illustrations, ingenious when painted or acided onto his glass by himself, but too often repetitive and lifeless . . . when imitated by his followers.

The robes of the lowest Magi and the lowest shepherd extend beyond the supporting chain-like arc, bringing a slight sense of perspective to the composition. Gordon Bowe likens the rich treatment of the fabric to the work of 

Gustav Klimt here and his flat treatment of interlocking decorative patterned, often symbolic planes, in which he would sometimes use coral, gold, mosaic, turquoise and semi-precious stones with casein paint to make up his richly mantled figures . . .Both men rely on the faces and hands of their figures to convey a human expressiveness and only here does any attempt at modelling occur. The eyes of their figures transport the spectator into a world of opulent trance. Both artists are equally unconcerned with perspective, reality or a third dimension. In the tradition of the best purely decorative work, background and foreground, figure and setting are equally important and integral. Any light is reflected from within the fabric of the design. Movement is created by how the light affects the surface of the picture and by the sinuous symbolic fluidity of the line. This is what W Hoffman has called Synaesthesia – a stylised ornamented style, where people are statues, backgrounds are wallpaper and interchangeable linear formulate are used as arrangements for figures and settings in different colour relationships, so that obstruction and symbol interrelate.

The Life and Work of Harry Clarke
Ph D Thesis by Nicola Gordon Bowe, 1981, P 249

As Gordon Bowe shows us, Harry was totally tuned in to the modern movements of his day – decorative and symbolist traditions that envisioned an idealised, stylised and imagined-medievalist form of representation that was the opposite of realistic depiction. She notes – there is no attempt whatsoever to suggest that the kneeling shepherd has ever set hands on the earth or worked as a shepherd.

Three gorgeously apparelled Kings are balanced by equally splendorous shepherds, each holding gifts. Almost hidden to the right of the upper shepherds is the head of a cow – it is hard to see as it is done in a dark purple glass. Local lore is adamant that this is an homage to Edith who apparently pioneered the introduction of Friesian Cattle into Ireland. 

Joseph stands guard over Mary and the Baby, holding a chain with a lantern and gazing out directly at the viewer. Mary’s expression is gentle, her hair is a golden blond, surrounded by a halo of pearls, her robe, in traditional blue, studded with star-like flowers. 

The baby, looking more like a wise elder than a newborn, lies in the manger, his hands up to embrace the world, his halo a delicate filigree. The coats of arms lie at the bottom of the panel – they were done and installed after the rest of the window was finished and Harry came down to supervise their insertion. That probably explains why this window has two signatures (did you go back and check the St Barrahane post?). Unfortunately, the wooden screen that stands behind the altar obscures the base of the window and makes it impossible to photograph the Townsend coat of arms (below) except from the side, but it’s another good opportunity to view the quarries.

Let us remember that Edith had misgivings about the choice of Harry to do this window. She was concerned about the “hellish splendour” of his Honan windows, the “burning and furious brilliance” of his glass, which she found “perfectly amazing but not quite pleasant.” In a letter referred to by Rauchbauer she “insists again that something a little less intense is required than the Bertie windows.” She may well have been concerned about the effect of full-on Harry on elderly parishioners, who had to be onside for the windows to go ahead. In any event, it looks like she managed to communicate well with Harry, and that he understood the brief – to “adapt his work to the church & to realise how to get harmony into it.” 

It is, indeed, charming and harmonious. No macabre beings peer out from behind the figures (as they do in the Honan and in the St Louis window down the aisle in St Barrahane’s), there are no Aubrey Beardsley stern and “horrible” faces and no predella scenes of sacrifice or death (see St Dympna, for example). All is gentleness and serenity, compassion and contemplation. One wonders if Harry would have been so biddable a few years later.

A final special photograph to finish this series. Here I am in front of the window, with Harry’s two granddaughters, Etain and Veronique, during a recent visit to Castletownshend

In this post I am relying both on Gordon Bowe’s Life and Work of Harry Clarke and on her Doctoral Thesis, lodged at NIVAL. I am deeply grateful to David Caron for facilitating my viewing of this material.

When Harry Met Edith: Part 2 – “Getting Some Good Tracery”

At this stage in his career, as we saw in the last letter in Part 1, Harry was making his own windows – that is, he was designing, cartooning (making the life-size drawings and laying out the cutlines) and choosing and painting the glass. He worked in his father’s studio, Joshua Clarke and Sons, where he used the assistants and glaziers to cut and lead the glass, and to fire it in the kilns. A few years later, he was so busy that many of his designs were mostly executed by talented apprentices, under his close supervision. He was also teaching in the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art – here he is with colleagues Sean Keating, James Golden and James Sinton Sleator about this time.*

That’s one of the reasons the Castletownshend Nativity window is so special – it is Harry’s vision and Harry’s work, and only Harry’s. It’s also the reason he had to come to new terms with his father. Harry was a perfectionist who demanded only the best quality glass and worked on each tiny piece of it to make it unique and exactly how he wanted it. His father (above) was a businessman who despaired of making even a tiny profit from this laborious way of work, especially when the war had made everything scarce and expensive. Harry had quoted a price of £315 for the window as it was currently sized, or £252 if it was shortened. Gordon-Bowe** says that Joshua had worked that it would actually cost £2,300 for the time and materials involved. He was probably factoring in the cost of all the changes to the frame, discussed below, but even so, this was a huge amount for a window at that time. His father suggested that Nagle (below, with Harry and Joshua) should do some or most of the work, but as Gordon Bowe says, Harry would never have accepted [this suggestion] at this point in his career. Given the huge disparity between what it would cost and what Harry proposed charging, this window was a significant loss to the Studio, but they must have felt that it was worth it, and that it would lead to other commissions.

The arrangement Harry and Joshua came to was that Harry would pay his father for the glass, the facilities and the glazier’s time, but that he would work on his own windows, and charge his clients, independently. But it was complicated, because at the same time, Harry was, by this time, effectively running the stained glass side of his father’s business, as Joshua’s health was declining (he died in 1921). Harry’s hand and eye can be discerned occasionally in some of the other glass being produced from Joshua Clarke and Sons at this time, but mostly his role was to manage the work of others.

Here’s an example of Harry’s influence, perhaps, in a window for Charleville Catholic Church – the windows are all from Joshua Clarke and Sons, but this one in particular bears some Harry hallmarks in the sensitive drawing of the features and the elaborate decoration of every piece of glass.

15 April 1917

Dear Miss Somerville

Thank you for your letter & enclosure of cheques value 15/. – I have been knocked up with a cold since Wednesday and have not been able to work – which will I know postpone my sending you my proposals for the Castlehaven window for a few days – the Nativity would be a jolly subject for the three lights – However this is a matter you can discuss among yourselves –

 But – – you as an artist can understand that these three tall narrow windows would not suit any subject – for example an Ascension or Crucifixion would be most suitable, tho’ I think a charming little nativity might be done.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House***

The design that Edith and Harry eventually settled on was an unusual one for a Church of Ireland church. The main scene is that of the Nativity, also sometimes knows as the Adoration of the Magi. While this is certainly part of the iconography of Protestant churches at this time, it is a tiny proportion, representing fewer than 3% of all Church of Ireland windows and often as a small scene within larger windows, or as part of a Life of Christ assemblage. 

Interior of St Barrahane’s Church. In this photo you can see that the windows along the nave are longer – that is, the bottom of the windows are closer to the ground than in the east window

Edith was still determined to shorten the window, and some of the correspondence between her and Harry is taken up with details of measurements and proposals for how to get the work done – Harry will not embark on the window until he has a completely accurate set of measurements from the final shape of the changed windows. 

24 April 1917

Dear Miss Somerville

I send you herewith a drawing of the alterations I suggest in the tracery of the East window of Castlehaven church – I have worked with the idea of getting some good tracery with the very least amount of carpentry work. You will see marked in red on the drawing the parts which will have to be made in new wood and these should present no real difficulties to a carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence. 

This tracery will need to be made and fixed in the position before I start the actual making of the glass as I will work from templates taken from the real openings

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

So – Harry not only designed the stained glass, but also re-designed the window itself. A casual visitor to St Barrahane’s would look at the window and assume that it was carved in stone and was entirely original. However, a closer examination reveals that the east window is different from all the other windows in the church in two important ways – it is shorter (foreshortened from the bottom up) and the tracery is more elaborate. In fact, it is made of wood, as are all the windows in the church, although this is more apparent from the outside than the inside, since the wood has been painted and sanded to look like stone.

From the outside, it can be discerned that the window has been shortened from the bottom up. The wooden window frame was re-built to include Harry’s elaborate tracery design, painted white outside, and inside (below) sanded to look like stone.

I am glad the proposed window has been sanctioned and bearing in mind your views and those of your brother expressed in your last letter, I hope to send you the design in September or early October. The coats of arms will do any time between this and then.

Re – re making of window frames; I suggest that it would be better if it were made in Cork and I understand that Messrs Sisk and Son of that city – who built the Honan Chapel are excellent builders and must employ efficient carpenters.

Sisk’s man could measure the job and could make it either in Skibbereen or Cork – I propose this as you would be sure of a good job if the man who measures the window either makes it or has opportunity of personally explaining the alterations and measurements to another – this would rule out any chance of miscalculation – Also – It could I think be made cheaper in Cork – and the cost of carriage from Dublin to Skibbereen for the finished wood would be considerable – If it suits you and would save you any bother I will write Sisk and explain matters – there is no hurry I suppose if you remember that the new tracery will have to be finalised before I start my window early in 1918.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE, June 10, 1917
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

By this time (June 1917) the elements of the window have also been agreed – that is, that the main scene will be a Nativity, and that Irish saints will have a place in the window. The price has also been negotiated and even though that sum seems paltry now, it was enough to give some members of the family heartburn. Hildegard was apparently ‘scandalised at the family’s extravagance’ and Edith says she is probably right “but such fears have never yet curbed my extravagance & as I have often said, I have only regretted my economies” (Rauchbauer, p179). A woman after my own heart.

One more drama ensued before the work could start – Cameron lost the sketch design! He may have left it on a train. Desperate searches (even at Scotland Yard) turned up nothing, so Edith was in the embarrassing position of having to ask Harry to produce a new one. Harry, ever the gentleman, responded on Dec 7th.

Dear Miss Somerville

Thank you for your letter. I will do the new Nativity sketch the first time I can put my mind to it to the exclusion of my other work – I am behind time with everything now, but at any rate I will undertake to give it to you at latest on the 7 January next. – possibly I will finish sooner – I will ask you to understand the delay is not entirely my own fault – the publisher of Poe’s Tales is persecuting me for the drawings – I would have been glad long ago to have taken up your happier work but business men always nail me to a date.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House
This image was captured from the book on loan at the marvellous Internet Archive

He offered further clarification on Dec 10th. 

It will be better in every way if I do the sketch for the 7 January – I hardly think I can do a replica of the missing drawing but if I work to this date at any rate I will and do remember the scheme, drawing, and general colour.

LETTER FROM HARRY CLARKE TO EDITH SOMERVILLE
Somerville Archives, Drishane House

This second drawing is, or was, extant, although I cannot now trace where it might be. However, Nicola Gordon-Bowe must have seen it, as she describes it as being done in charcoal only and drawn surprisingly loosely and sketchily . . . in comparison with those for the Honan Chapel. However, it is perhaps not so surprising that Harry, under pressure to produce a duplicate of work he had already done in detail, should produce only a charcoal drawing. He was relying on his memory for all the details and the colour.

In this photo you can see the size, shape and relatively simple tracery of the other windows in St Barrahane’s Church. The two windows on the left are by Powells of London and pre-date the Harry Clarke windows in the church. The window on the right is Harry’s Kendall Coghill window, about which I have written here. My supposition is that the east window, although three-lights instead of two, had very similar tracery to these windows, before the changes I describe above and was of course the same length. Such elongated dimensions are well suited, as Harry pointed out, to a crucifixion or a resurrection, where the movement of the eye is upwards to the heavens. Below is Harry’s Crucifixion in Terenure as an example of what he meant. It was dedicated in 1920 but he had already won the commission when he was working on the St Barrahane Nativity.

The shortening of the window, the inclusion of the Irish saints, the addition of three angels above the scene and of coats of arms below it – all these design devices resulted in Harry giving Edith what she really wanted – a painterly canvas for the main scene, rather than a composition constrained by tall, narrow dimensions. 

What Edith got, in fact was a cleverly constructed division of space in the window. The main Nativity scene is located within a square, while her saints and Harry’s angels occupy the elaborate new tracery that Harry designed to be constructed by Sisk’s ‘carpenter of ordinary skill and intelligence.’

In the end the carpentry work did not get underway until the following spring, and once it was done Harry was able to start on the glass painting in April. By the end of July, the window was finished and exhibited in his studio at North Frederick Street to great acclaim.

Gordon Bowe quotes the review by Bodkin in the Dublin Evening Mail.

It has not the sumptuousness of colour which we are accustomed to associate with [Clarke], for it is especially designed to hang in the comparative dimness of an eastern light. But it has an appropriate beauty of colour second to none of this earlier works and a suavity of design and strength of drawing that shows, if that be possible, an advance in the artist’s power.

The Freemans Journal also had a review of the window by Bodkin (he signed it A.C. for “A Critic”), under the title Genius in Stained Glass

In part 3 we will look in detail at the Nativity. I’m sorry – I know this is taking forever and perhaps few will find talk of tracery and window dimensions as fascinating as I do. All I can say is that it wasn’t until I read the real-time correspondence that I realised all the changes that had been made to the windows, and the corresponding effect that this had had on Harry’s final design. But we have finally arrived at the point where we can talk about the window itself. I think it will be worth the wait.

*My thanks to Patrick Hawe and David Britton for assistance with the first three photographs.
**Anything I write about Harry Clarke is informed by Nicola Gordon Bowe’s authoritative text The Life and Work of Harry Clarke. All of us who write about Harry owe debts of gratitude to her keen insights, formidable scholarship and her command of descriptive language.
***Once again, huge thanks to Tom Somerville and the Somerville Archives for permission to read and quote from the letters.

Mayer Stained Glass in Ireland: Craft or Commerce?

Among Irish stained glass aficionados nothing divides opinion like the windows of Mayer of Munich.

From about the 1860s to the 1940s Mayer was the foremost supplier of stained glass to Irish churches, both Catholic and Protestant. The first two images above, for example, are of a Nativity scene in St Eugene’s Catholic Cathedral in Derry. Catholics were probably spurred on to order Mayer windows when Pope Leo XIII named the company a Pontifical Institute of Christian Art in 1892. However, there is no doubt that the windows appealed enormously to the priests and vicars in charge of ordering them and that Mayer was adept in providing the kind of art that was widely attractive  to parishioners. So – Mayer stained glass was ubiquitous, but it was also controversial and derided. Let’s look at why this was, and whether it was deserved.

During the stained glass renaissance in nineteenth century Britain, the ideal became to replicate the style of stained glass from the High Gothic period of the 12th to 15th centuries – lots of small pieces of coloured glass leaded together, with saintly images set inside elaborate canopies. The example above is from York Minster and the windows below, clearly based on that model, are from the Pugin-designed St Aidan’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy.

Mayer moved away from this kind of glass towards what became known as the Pictorial Style. As a concession to the Gothic, they kept the canopies for the most part (it was a long time before stained glass studios dispensed with canopies) but they used larger sheets of glass (necessitating fewer cames of lead) and they took their artistic inspiration not from medieval windows but from Renaissance paintings.   The purists huffed and puffed, but the people flocked to this new style of glass.

From the beginning this was a business, not an artists’ studio. The purpose was to make money and therefore a factory model was employed, with workers engaged in repetitive production of their own specialities – the apprentices did nothing but canopies, the painters might spend years decorating robes with brocade or embroidery motifs, only the most talented got to do faces. Designers produced sketches that were infinitely adaptable, with slight tweaking. In the large window above, in Baltinglass, Co Wicklow, the central image is of the Assumption of Mary into heaven. An almost identical design can be seen in the Catholic Church in Bantry, Co Cork, below (and indeed all over the place).

The results were appealing – highly competent windows full of beautiful images. 

High Renaissance figures swathed in copious draperies which amplify their forms and define their movements. Here the painter was freer to incorporate the sharp drapery folds which were inherited from the German Renaissance painting tradition. Colours are vibrant and rich, and the window glows with a deep resonance because the amount of white glass was kept to a minimum. . . It was easy for a congregation to relate to the pictorialism and to recognise the narratives, so that the windows were regarded not only as aesthetic objects but as an effective catalyst to meditation and piety. Pictorialism spoke more directly to the. . . public than did the more correct visual medievalism of the stricter British ecclesiologists. 

shirley ann brown*

Above is the Annunciation window in Charleville, Co Cork – one of my personal favourite windows by any studio. Although the firm was German and the windows made in Munich, they had offices in London, and an agent in Dublin (in fact, Joshua Clarke, Harry’s father, started out as their Irish agent). They became adept at fulfilling the request of Irish clergy for specific iconography – that is, Irish saints, and panels illustrating stories from Irish hagiographies.

St Patrick, above, is shown with his shamrock, paschal fire and snake, although the towers in the backdrop could be from a castle on the Rhine rather than resembling an Irish round tower. At their most basic, Irish saints were simply chosen from a pattern-book of saintly images and supplied with a name-caption. They all looked the same – St Aidan in one window is identical to St Columba in another, balding, bearded, dressed in a monk’s habit or a bishop’s splendid robes and mitre, but often with an attribute to distinguish them one from the other. St Patrick always has his shamrock, St Brigid her flame or her church, St Joseph carries lilies. Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Introduction to the Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass reported on Edward Martyn’s outrage at the lack of discernment among clergy and architects who seemed not to be able to distinguish between the work of an artist and the trade salesman with an oily tongue and an ever-ready kiln.

But you get what you pay for, and if you wanted something other than the pattern-book, Mayer could rise to the occasion, with splendid depictions of the mythology associated with Irish saints, all done in the same Italianate style and full of movement and vitality. One of my favourites is the story of St Dympna from Armagh Cathedral. (See Harry Clarke’s version of St Dympna in this post  – the story is the same but the images are vastly different.)

David Lawrence, the mastermind behind the website Gloine.ie, is a defender of Mayer, saying about the prejudice to which Mayer was subjected, Feelings against German glass were whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy at the time of the setting up, in 1903, of the Irish Arts-and-Crafts stained-glass studio An Túr Gloine and continued as that studio flourished in the early decades of the twentieth century. This prejudice has been well documented and was partly based on the factory model of glass production, since the new ethos of Arts and Crafts prioritised the artist’s vision and craft and abhorred mass production. However, Lawrence insists that, at their best, Mayer produced outstanding stained glass to equal any studio.

The year 1894 marked the start of a particularly successful new era at Mayer — this was the year that they were joined by the English artist William Francis Dixon (1848-1928). He had trained at the London studio, Clayton & Bell and then set up his own studio, Dixon & Vesey, before moving to Germany to work at Mayer. Dixon‘s arrangement with Mayer was a happy one. His skilful designing and drawing in a romantic manner influenced by the late Pre-Raphaelites and Mayer‘s attention to detail, masterly glass-painting and faultless craftsmanship formed an ideal marriage. Mayer-Dixon windows are in a romantic style, with a sweetness of drawing, softness of painting and beautiful, tapestry-like details. The heads are especially sensitively drawn. It is readily apparent that Dixon was able to dictate his own choice of colours to Mayer. 


 David Lawrence,
Stained Glass Windows, Six Roman Catholic Churches, County Offaly November 2010

One of Dixon’s windows is this fine war memorial in St Canice’s Church of Ireland Cathedral in Kilkenny. However, in the end, it can be argued that Mayer became a victim of their own success. Despite occasional triumphs of design and execution, too many of their windows lacked originality and freshness, starting to look hackneyed and same-y. Public taste for sentimentalised depictions (however gorgeous and expertly painted) gave way, under the influence of European art movements, to a search for a more authentic and modern form of religious expression. Irish artists responded by developing a vibrant, often experimental, stained glass industry dominated by small studios producing artist-led work. 

I will leave you with The Raising of Lazarus from Baltinglass Catholic Church for two reasons – firstly because it is perfectly illustrates the Mayer pictorial style at its best. I have provided three details close up, so you can see how competently the artist has rendered the subject matter.

The sentimentality critics complained of is in full flight in the image below – but also, look at the size of the eyes. Creating over-sized eyes to enhance and beautify a face didn’t start with Harry Clarke!

But secondly I use The Raising of Lazarus tongue in cheek as a nod to the fact that in fact Mayer is still around – and they have finally caught up with the century they live in. Take a look at this story in the New York Times to see how Mayer of Munich is embracing the twenty-first century.

*The Influence of German Religious Stained Glass in Canada 1880-1941 by Shirley Ann Brown, RACAR: revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review, Vol. 21, No. 1/2, Représentation et identités culturelles / Representation and Cultural Identity (1994), pp. 21-31 (11 pages)

The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass

It’s finally here, and it’s stunning!

The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass was first published in 1988 and has been out of print almost since then. It was the work of Nicola Gordon Bowe, David Caron and Michael Wynne. It documented all the known windows of Harry Clarke and the artists of An Túr Gloine and was snapped up by anyone interested in looking at stained glass.

Click through to see sample pages!

Of the three editors, David Caron, who was a newly-minted PhD at the time, lecturing at the National College of Art, is the only surviving member. He has forged a long-time collaboration with the photographer Jozef Vrtiel, a specialist in the difficult art of capturing stained glass, and together they determined that it was time for an updated edition. Not only updated, but expanded – their vision was for a book that would include all the best stained glass designed and/or made by Irish artists, or by artists working in Ireland. Harry Clarke is here, of course – that’s his St Louis and St Martin window, below, in Castletownshend. But there is so much more to Irish stained glass than Harry Clarke, even though he’s the one that most people know (or think they know).

Note I said ‘artists’ – this is not a book that records all Irish stained glass, such as the mass-produced windows that came from the large studios. The criteria for inclusion were “Artistic merit, individual voice and excellence in the craft.” There were nine artists included in the first book – there are over 90 artists represented in this one!

Some artists love to tell stories in their windows – this window is about the trials and tribulations of Oliver Plunkett and is by Kevin Kelly of the Abbey Stained Glass Studio

To do this, besides drawing on his own considerable store of knowledge (and indeed doing the vast majority of the work in this book), David assembled a team of fellow enthusiasts and experts each of whom concentrated on the work of a single artist or studio. For example, Réiltín Murphy has long been compiling the work of her parents, Johhny Murphy and Roisín Dowd Murphy, who together with Dessie Devitt, founded and ran the Murphy-Devitt Studios. You can take a look at my posts, Murphy Devitt in Cork, to see how brilliantly they pioneered a whole new approach to stained glass in mid-century Ireland. The image below is one of their windows from Newbridge College Chapel.

Another contributor is Ruth Sheehy, whose wonderful new book on Richard King occupies pride of place on my desk. I’ve learned so much from it, and bring this new appreciation now to my sightings of a Richard King – always a big thrill. The panel below is a detail from one of his enormous windows (The Sacred Heart) in St Peter and Paul’s Church in Athlone.

My own part revolved around my project to record all of George Walsh’s windows in Ireland. This has been a joyful journey for me, and I have written about George and his windows for the Irish Arts Review and for my own blog. There are over 100 of George’s windows in the Gazetteer, including the scheme he executed for the Holy Family Church in Belfast.

This is a book you will want to have with you in your car. And you know what? There is a lot more wonderful stained glass out there to discover – I’ve been amazed at what I have found in little country towns and in 1960s modernist churches. I have no doubt a third edition will have to be produced eventually as more of us tune in to the treasures under our noses. Look at the picture below, for example – you would swear it was a Harry Clarke! It was certainly made in his studio by a highly talented artist and bears a lot of his characteristic flourishes, just not his signature.

The best part of working on this book? The collegiality of everyone involved – we all helped each other out with queries and photographs. I feel like I have made new friends, even though I have yet to meet many of them. You can buy the book now in all good bookshops (buy local!) or order from the publisher.

Harry Clarke’s Terenure Masterpiece

A controversial word, masterpiece, and in this case I am using it to denote that this a Harry Clarke masterpieces rather than the masterpiece. There are several contenders for that title, although the Geneva Window may take the crown. In any ranking of Harry’s windows, however, these two side-by side windows, in St Joseph’s Church in Terenure in Dublin*, must be close to the top. 

The left window, The Annunciation, was finished in 1922 and the right window, The Virgin in Glory, in 1923. What is perhaps extraordinary is that these windows were completed at a time when Ireland, and Dublin in particular, was in turmoil and the country was riven by civil war. Life in the artistic world was precarious, with the National Gallery and the School of Art closed and the destruction of many of Dublin’s finest buildings. Harry was in the midst of moving house and re-organising and staffing the studio, while also very busy with illustration commissions. But stained glass was still his main business and he was pleased to receive the order for the two-light window from Fr Healy, for whom he had previously completed the enormous three-light Crucifixion window over the main altar. Having been completed several months apart, each window in this set has a different mood and character. Let’s look at the Annunciation first. Before it was installed, Harry entered it in the art competition that was part of the Aonach Tailteann, or Tailteann Games – a Festival of all-things-Irish with a strong Celtic Revival influence. The window won the Gold Medal for stained glass. 

Gabriel hovers above Mary, held in suspense by long scarlet wings. Depicted as female, she wears a complex headdress and long multi-layered garment tied at the waist with a broad blue sash. Her feet are suspended over a scene of a hill town. The Holy Spirit in its dove form is to her right, shedding silver rays down on Mary.

Mary is depicted as young, with huge innocent eyes and a gentle expression. Her colour has traditionally been blue and Harry uses a deep royal blue for her gown. Across her shoulders is a large shawl. Nicole Gordon Bowe in Harry Clarke: The Life and Work describes the window in terms which could be applied to this shawl “. . . a subtle work with shimmering pale colours, gossamer lines and finely laid on tones. . .” Harry’s typical ‘floral ornamentation’ (known to his assistants as F Os or even as Fried Onions) occupy much of the rest of the lower half of the window, an endlessly various and imaginative garden of blooms.

The composition is balanced and harmonious. The scarlet wings are mirrored by green fronds cascading from the right border. Mary’s outstretched hand provides a counterpoint to Gabriel’s, while both have large and complex haloes. The eye is drawn to two pairs of dainty slippers. The angel’s predominant red hues are laced and leavened with blues, while Mary’s blues are warmed by the reds and pinks of the shawl. Despite the inclusion of the floral elements and highly-figured details on the garments, the impression is of a serene and uncluttered scene.

The right hand window exudes a different energy – forceful, complex, and peopled with the kind of supporting cast that Harry delighted in. The emphasis on Marian iconography, very much part of the popular emphasis of Catholicism pre-Vatican II, supported this kind of depiction of Mary, triumphant and queenly, holding sceptre and orb, with the moon and snake under her feet (a mixed metaphor inspired by the Woman clothed in the sun with the moon under her feet from Revelations 12, and the Genesis verse in which God tells the serpent that the woman shall ‘crush thy head’). God is shown above her, hands raised in the sign of blessing, and both have fiery aureoles. Mary carries a scroll with the invocation in Latin, Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of the womb.

While these are the two main figures, much of the interest in this window comes from the host of other women characters whose stories are illustrated in the side panels and the predella. Unusually for a Catholic window of the time, these are women from the Old Testament, not the Bridgets and Itas and Dympnas which populate so many of Harry’s saintly stained glass. I will start at the top and go through the stories as our eyes descend.

The border is patterned in deep blue, punctuated by tiny scenes from the life of Mary. God is surrounded by four female saints although the effect is of ghostly, insubstantial figures. The flowing clothing of the lower two provide a triangular link to Mary’s crown, an effective technique that divides the space and provides a frame for the first two Old Testament women, Ruth and Deborah. They are both rendered in green glass above and blue below, and both images protrude beyond the border, a technique Harry used to give depth. Ruth is known for her goodness and kindness, and Deborah for her wisdom and gift of prophecy, symbolised by the owl on her hand.

To the left of Mary’s Crown is Rachel and to the right, Rebecca. Rachel, beloved of Isaac, mother of Joseph, was watching her sheep when Isaac first sees her. Hers is a complicated story, full of trickery and disappointment. ‘Rebecca at the Well’ is a familiar motif of Renaissance painting – Rebecca comes to draw water at the well and gives it to a weary traveller and his camels, little knowing that by doing this she fulfils a prophecy and becomes the wife of Isaac (different Isaac) and mother of Jacob from whom descends the nation of Israel. 

Next (above and below) are scenes from two stories. To the left is the story of Esther. King Xerxes, having banished his wife for disobedience, identifies her as his favourite (lower down the panel) from the harem and (higher image) makes her his queen. She goes on to become a saviour of her people. To the right is the story of Judith, the courageous widow who inveigles her way into Holofernes tent, lies with him, and cuts off his head when he sinks into an inebriated sleep. In the higher images she is pictured in scarlet robes, with her hand tangled in Holofernes bright red hair. In the lower, she and her maid escape carrying the head of Holofernes in a basket. The maid has a comical, grimacing expression – understandable given her burden. 

Finally, in the predella, we have Adam and Eve cowering in fear and shame in the Garden of Eden, while the golden apples hang from a purple tree. Gordon Bowe, whose knowledge of art history was prodigious, sees this as an homage to Paul Klee, whose Two Men Meeting, Each Presuming the Other to be of Higher Rank, the source she posits for this depiction, can be seen here.

By any standards these two windows belong to the highest order of artistic endeavour. They are also, especially The Blessed Virgin in Glory, an insight into Harry Clarke’s unique imagination, with its selection of tiny figures whose stories are worked out in intricate detail despite the constraints of space, and many of whom are far from the gentle virgins idealised by Catholic clergy of the day. Thomas Bodkin, the eminent art critic and later Director of the National Gallery referred to them as a multitude of little foreshadowing figures and says, They are drawn with such amazing delicacy of detail that they demand inspection at the closest quarter; and yet when seen from a distance they sink into a background swirl of lovely hues enhancing the majestic figure of their queen (Quoted in Gordon Bowe’s The Life and Work of Harry Clarke).

*If and when you can, go visit St Joseph’s in Terenure. Take with you the Marvellous book Harry Clarke and His Legacy by Patricia Curtin-Kelly. It’s a well-researched and very readable account of all the windows in this church by Harry Clarke and by those who carried on his legacy, Richard King and William Dowling and I highly recommend it. 

Brendan, Judas, Harry Clarke – and Matthew Arnold

St Brendan was a favourite subject for Harry Clarke. Four of his windows depict the saint: a prizewinning student piece from 1911; his Honan Chapel commission of 1916; the Ballinrobe windows from 1924-25 (pictured above); and the windows designed for the Rathfarnham Jesuit Retreat in 1928 and subsequently relocated to Tullamore (pictured below).

The Tullamore Brendan (above) is recognisably based on that from Ballinrobe, but in this window a youthful Brendan, as described by Paul Donnelly, ‘engages the viewer directly with a penetrating look’  

Harry researched his subjects extensively and ensured that anyone working on his windows did too. Paul Donnelly, in his fascinating essay Legacy and Identity: Harry Clarke, William Dowling and the Harry Clarke Studios (in Harry Clarke and Artistic Visions of the New Irish State) tells how he sent his apprentice, William Dowling, off to the National Library to read all that was available on his subject when he was working on the Rathfarnham window (above and below).

Nicola Gordon Bowe, in the Life and Work of Harry Clarke, felt that Harry was influenced by Matthew Arnold’s poem, St Brandon, when he set about designing his student piece, now in the Crawford Art Gallery. Based on the Medieval best-seller (there are over 100 versions still extant and many translations) Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Arnold’s poem tells of an incident on the voyage in which the Saint meets with Judas, tied to an iceberg in the ocean. There are several slightly different accounts of this part of the voyage, but Arnold’s poem is compelling, and beautifully told.

From the Ballinrobe window, a detail showing what Brendan was seeking – the Land of Promise

Both in his poetry and criticism, Arnold explored issues of morality versus religion, and themes of alienation and redemption. Clarke was constrained to work on religious subjects since most of his stained glass commissions came from churches, but revelled in the chance to introduce details from mythology and ancient hagiographies (such as O’Hanlons Lives of the Irish Saints which he consulted exhaustively) and to use those details as a springboard for his own imagination.

Also from the Ballinrobe window, the bottom panel shows Brendan praying  at the bow of the boat and an angel appearing

We can see the progression of his art, and his growing interest in the macabre, in the two depictions of Judas. Both are emotive and powerful, but in the first, from 1911, Judas is shown as a fully human, tortured man. In the Honan window, from 1916, he has turned into a monster with scales, feathers, fur and claws. One constant is that Brendan’s companions look on in shock and horror in both pieces, while the saint remains unmoved, gazing thoughtfully and perhaps compassionately on the scene.

From the Honan window, according to Gordon Bowe: ‘The upper panel which perhaps represents Brendan’s vision of Paradise, is spanned by a golden hemisphere and depicts the saint at sea in his coracle, preaching to his companions as they approach the skull-ridden coastline of America in their search for the Islands of the Blessed’

Harry went on to design two more Brendan windows, but chose different details for them. In fact, he wrote to Monsignor D’Alton at Ballinrobe, ‘The meeting with Judas I have done too often to do again with enthusiasm.’  Arnold’s poem was first published in 1860. He died in 1888 and Harry was born in 1889, so their lives did not overlap. But Harry was very well read and Arnold, at the turn of the century, was still considered one of the major poets of the Victorian era. I think you will find that the poem and the windows are a successful collaboration between two iconic figures of art and literature. I give the poem now in its entirety, illustrated by Harry Clarke. [The first image is from a panel in Tullamore, originally part of the St Brendan window but separated from it when the windows were relocated. The second and third image are from the 1911 student piece; the next three from the Honan Chapel 1916 window.]

Saint Brandan sails the northern main;

The brotherhood of saints are glad.

He greets them once, he sails again;

So late!—such storms!—The Saint is mad!

He heard, across the howling seas,

Chime convent-bells on wintry nights;

He saw, on spray-swept Hebrides,

Twinkle the monastery-lights;

But north, still north, Saint Brandan steer’d—

And now no bells, no convents more!

The hurtling Polar lights are near’d,

The sea without a human shore.

At last—(it was the Christmas night;

Stars shone after a day of storm)—

He sees float past an iceberg white,

And on it—Christ!—a living form.

That furtive mien, that scowling eye,

Of hair that red and tufted fell—

It is—Oh, where shall Brandan fly?—

The traitor Judas, out of hell!

Palsied with terror, Brandan sate;

The moon was bright, the iceberg near.

He hears a voice sigh humbly: ‘Wait!

By high permission I am here.

‘One moment wait, thou holy man

On earth my crime, my death, they knew;

My name is under all men’s ban—

Ah, tell them of my respite too!

‘Tell them, one blessed Christmas-night—

(It was the first after I came,

Breathing self-murder, frenzy, spite,

To rue my guilt in endless flame)—

‘I felt, as I in torment lay

‘Mid the souls plagued by heavenly power,

An angel touch my arm, and say:

Go hence, and cool thyself an hour!

”Ah, whence this mercy, Lord?’ I said.

The Leper recollect, said he,

Who ask’d the passers-by for aid,

In Joppa, and thy charity.

‘Then I remember’d how I went,

In Joppa, through the public street,

One morn when the sirocco spent

Its storms of dust with burning heat;

‘And in the street a leper sate,

Shivering with fever, naked, old;

Sand raked his sores from heel to pate,

The hot wind fever’d him five-fold.

‘He gazed upon me as I pass’d

And murmur’d: Help me, or I die!—

To the poor wretch my cloak I cast,

Saw him look eased, and hurried by.

‘Oh, Brandan, think what grace divine,

What blessing must full goodness shower,

When fragment of it small, like mine,

Hath such inestimable power!

‘Well-fed, well-clothed, well-friended, I

Did that chance act of good, that one!

Then went my way to kill and lie—

Forgot my good as soon as done.

‘That germ of kindness, in the womb

Of mercy caught, did not expire;

Outlives my guilt, outlives my doom,

And friends me in the pit of fire.

‘Once every year, when carols wake,

On earth, the Christmas-night’s repose,

Arising from the sinner’s lake,

I journey to these healing snows.

‘I stanch with ice my burning breast,

With silence balm my whirling brain.

Oh, Brandan! to this hour of rest

That Joppan leper’s ease was pain.’—

Tears started to Saint Brandan’s eyes;

He bow’d his head, he breathed a prayer—

Then look’d, and lo, the frosty skies!

The iceberg, and no Judas there!