Irish Artists and Stations of the Cross

Every Catholic Church in Ireland has a set of Stations of the Cross on the wall – fourteen focus points for devotion and reflection on the Way of the Cross. The Stations, as they are universally known in Ireland, come from a long tradition within the Catholic Church, often associated with St Francis, but also with the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, and the custom that Pilgrims had of retracing Jesus’ footsteps on the way to Calvary.

Most Stations appear to have been ordered from a catalogue and all look similar, painted in an Italianate Renaissance style and framed in wood. The image above, of one of the stations in a rural church in Cork, is typical.

However, architects, priests, and parish committees sometimes took the bolder step of commissioning Stations from a contemporary artist. The lead image and the one above are both from sets of Stations by Richard King. The lead image is the Deposition (Christ taken down from the Cross) and is in a small church in Foilmore in Kerry, while that immediately above is from Swinford, Co Mayo, as is the one below – a painting that focuses ferociously on the suffering of the crucified Jesus.

This was an important source of income for artists from the beginning of the new Irish State. While we don’t often think of the Catholic Church as a patron of the arts, in practical terms it functioned as such for many painters and sculptors. In fact it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the church was the largest commissioner of contemporary art in Ireland during most of the twentieth century. 

Galway Cathedral is a showcase for twentieth-century artists and all fourteen Stations were carved in portland stone by Gabriel Hayes. It took her eighteen years to complete them and she called them ‘the main work of my life.’

Certain architects – Liam McCormack, for example, or Richard Hurley – considered each aspect of their design and included specification for contemporary art. Some indeed, like Eamon Hedderman, worked closely with artists to plan a church holistically, incorporating the art into the integral fabric of the building. A magnificent example of this can be seen in the Church of the Irish Martyrs in Ballycane (Naas) where large-scale graphic stations designed by Michael Burke are surrounded by contemporary glass by George Walsh.

Many of the Irish artists familiar to us from the 20th century catalogues have contributed Stations to churches around the country – sometimes to the large cathedrals but often too to obscure country parishes where the priest (it was usually the priest) wanted something more than a standard imported set. Sean Keating‘s Stations for St John’s Church in Tralee (both images below) are arresting in their drama and strong character studies.

Stations come in many media and I have tried to show a variety in this post by well-known Irish artists. Bath stone was the medium of choice for Ken Thompson – the image below is of one of his stations for St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. Below that is a Station from Ballywaltrim Church in Bray by the Breton/Irish Sculptor Yann Renard Goulet, although I am not sure what the material is.

Patrick Pye is more commonly associated with his stained glass windows for Irish churches, but his painted Stations for the Church of the Resurrection in Killarney (below) bring a quietly beautiful reflective focus to a contemporary interior.

Sean O’Sullivan was known primarily as a portrait painter, but he also designed Stations, such as the ones below for the church in Newquay in Clare. Using only pencil and colour washes, he has produced powerfully emotive scenes (below).

Stations, however, are often unsigned and so our old friend Anon is responsible for many. A future post will include some of his or hers. The enamel Station below, for example, may be by Nell Murphy, but I can’t confirm this, so Anon it is, for the moment.

I am also planning a post on Stations done in stained glass – they are some really beautiful example, starting of course with Harry Clarke’s Lough Derg windows. But this post will start us off with some of the examples I have seen in churches around the country – let’s call it an Introduction to Irish Contemporary Stations. I’d love to hear from readers who have their own favourite set. And if anyone knows the artist responsible for the Stations in the Franciscan Church in Wexford (example below), do let me know!

Cloyne Connections

sir edward fanshawe 1856

During our anniversary trip to Ballymaloe (over the other side of Cork) we couldn’t resist a diversion to Cloyne, where Finola remembered having visited a round tower in her youth, just a few years ago. At that time it was possible to climb up inside the tower, after calling in at the local post office to collect the key. Round towers are a significant archaeological feature of Ireland and I like the enigma of them: no-one knows quite when they were built or why (a bit like Rock Art), but there are 65 of them still standing in the Republic in various states of repair. We proceeded to the post office to be told that it had been possible to climb up the tower up until ‘just a few years ago’ – now, health and safety regulations prevented it. Later, I read an account of someone who went to see this tower in 2004, 10 years before, and was told that it had been possible to climb up the tower ‘just a few years ago’… which shows that time and memory are relative.

tower

Although we were disappointed in our aspirations to climb the tower, our visit to the post office turned up a very friendly lady who said that she held the key to the adjacent cathedral, and would be pleased to let us go in there instead.St Colman's Cathedral at Cloyne - a print from 1853St Colman’s Cathedral at Cloyne – a print from 1853

Cloyne Cathedral: the worship area, a small part of the large building

Cloyne Cathedral: the worship area, a small part of the large building

An 11th century gilt bronze cross was found in the Cathedral grounds

An 11th century gilt bronze ‘pilgrims cross’ was found in the Cathedral grounds

The Cathedral of St Colman in Cloyne is well worth a visit. To this Englishman the term ‘cathedral’ conjures up images of Gothic magnificence with soaring spires, arches and intricate buttressing – and set picturesquely within a medieval city centre; this, however, is a humbler structure – although grand in size – constructed in 1250 and located in a somewhat overgrown graveyard in the back streets of a small East Cork town. For more detailed information on the cathedral, have a look at the excellent blog Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

blue flowers

Every day you should learn something new, and until then I had heard nothing of St Colman: St Colman mac Lenene lived in the sixth century and was a friend of St Finbarr, who we have encountered previously. He founded his monastery in Cloyne in 560 here and the cathedral is built over a network of caves, now inaccessible but used in the penal days by priests as a secret underground link from Cloyne House to the Catholic graveyard in order to say mass for the people.

pye window

A window by artist Patrick Pye

Nor did I know anything about the Bishop of Cloyne whose alabaster effigy rests in the north transept of the cathedral, watchfully guarded by a wonderfully personable Lion: it all made me think about how I would like the world to remember me after I’m gone…

bishop b

George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne – with Guardian

You may know – or you may not – that it was Bishop Berkeley who gave his name to the University of California, Berkeley, although he gets a very scant mention on the University’s website. George Berkeley (correctly pronounced bark-lee) was born on 12 March 1685 in Kilkenny and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he later became a lecturer in Greek. He was a radical thinker and philosopher whose best known achievement was the advancement of a theory he called Immaterialism, also known as Subjective Idealism. This theory denies the existence of material substance and contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived.

 

He left the British Isles for the American Colonies in 1729, settling in Rhode Island but determined to found a Utopian city in Bermuda based in principles which he set out. One was: …for the better supplying of churches in our foreign plantations and for converting the savage Americans to Christianity… while …being in Bermuda would prevent the Native American youngsters from “returning to their brutal customs, before they were thoroughly imbued with good principles and habits.”

The 'Bermuda Group' - George Berkeley with his family on Rhode Island

The ‘Bermuda Group’ – George Berkeley with his family and friends on Rhode Island (John Smibert)

Berkeley’s social experiments didn’t get off the ground, mainly due to lack of funding, and he returned to London in 1732 and then to Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in 1734, a post which he retained until his death in 1752.

It's a long way to Indian Rock: Berkeley, California - named after the Bishop of Cloyne

It’s a long way to Indian Rock: Berkeley, California – named after the Bishop of Cloyne

George Berkeley wrote Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America – inspired by the colonisation of the New World: …Westward the course of empire takes its way; The first four Acts already past, A fifth shall close the Drama with the day; Time’s noblest offspring is the last…  and it was these lines that were remembered when the city and University of Berkeley were founded in 1866. This Californian institution ‘…became a catalyst of economic growth and social innovation — the place where vitamin E was discovered, a lost Scarlatti opera found, the flu virus identified, and the nation’s first no-fault divorce law drafted…’

graves

From the time of Colman and Finnbarr Cloyne was a great centre of ecclesiastical power. Today the cathedral is a Church of Ireland (Protestant) house and in need of maintenance and repair – a problem for a small population of worshippers. The churchyard is overgrown, and a sanctuary for wild flowers; the ancient gravestones are leaning and barely decipherable. All in all, a place – like so many in Ireland – imbued with a fascinating history which embraces the world.

St Colman

St Colman