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.