St Michael’s Dun Laoghaire

Irish artists of the mid-20th century had one patron who sustained them above all others – the Catholic Church. Actually, this was probably due to the discerning taste of modernist architects, who wanted the best for their new churches. Nevertheless, the art was commissioned and paid for by churches and their congregations, and the great advantage of this is that this artistic output is in public spaces for all of us still to enjoy. A superb example (there are many) is St Michael’s church in Dun Laoghaire. I remember when St Michael’s burned down, in 1965 – a huge shock to the people of Dun Laoghaire who lost a magnificent neo-Gothic example of the work of J J McCarthy. Take a look at what it looked like.

The architect Pierce McKenna was immediately commissioned to build a temporary church – I can find no illustration of this church, but in Irish Church Architecture, Peter Hurley describes it as very advanced for its time…a single story structure 84 feet square with a centre  raised clerestory lantern…and the sanctuary completely surrounded by the congregation. All that was possible to save from the old church was the tower and spire, which still dominates the skyline of Dun Laoghaire (above).

By 1973 this had been replaced by the new church, designed by McKenna, with Sean Rothery and Naois O’Dowd. Responding to changes in the liturgy dictated by Vatican II, the sanctuary of the new church was also in the centre of the church, surrounded by the congregation. The design was strikingly modern for its day – Hurley calls it a strong uncompromising statement. The image above is courtesy of RTE.

Constructed entirely of concrete, the interior is lit by tall slender windows and a glazed clerestory that separates the walls from the ceiling, as well as by long triangular roof lights. Earlier this year I visited Coventry Cathedral (also dedicated to St Michael), and I was immediately struck by similarities.

Like Coventry, the stained glass is in soaring, floor-to-ceiling windows between slender columns; there is a large tapestry behind the altar (above, in this case non-figurative); and a bronze casting of St Michael defeating the dragon is mounted outside, above the man entrance. Immediately below is the Coventry St Michael, and below that, the DunLaoghaire version.

The sculpture, doors and handles are the work of Imogen Stuart. They combine a completely modern aesthetic with images influenced by the Book of Kells. 

Inside, all the large glass is by the Murphy Devitt Studios. For more on this group, see my posts Murphy Devitt in Cork (links to Parts 2 and 3 are at the end of the post). As I said then about Johnny Murphy, Rosin Dowd Murphy and Des Devitt, Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

You can see all this in St Michael’s – their ability to design and execute on a grand scale, their use of symbolic colour and shape to lead the eye upwards, their contrasting of warm and cool colours to vary the light in the church. 

Michael Biggs was the leading stone sculptor of the time and the church furnishings are a testament to his skills and vision. Sinuous (Hurley uses the word sensuous) and monumental granite blocks are shaped as a baptismal font, altar, lectern and tabernacle column.

The extraordinary tabernacle is (I think) bronze and enamel and is the work of Richard Enda King, who also made the crucifix.

Patrick Pye has contributed several stained glass windows, while Yvonne Jammet carved the wooden stations.

This church is a triumph of modernist Irish architecture: austere but filled with light, reverential yet a feast for the senses, liturgically correct yet daringly innovative. It’s also an accessible gallery of important Irish art. Go visit if you can.

Murphy Devitt in Cork, Part 2

In Murphy Devitt in Cork Part 1 I introduced you to the main players in the Studio – Johnny Murphy, Róisín Dowd-Murphy and Des Devitt. Together they set about doing something entirely new and different in stained glass in Ireland, bringing with them their art training, their modern aesthetic sensibilities, and their deep knowledge of and commitment to their craft.

Both photographs above are from the Church of St Michael, Blackrock, Cork. The windows comprise large areas of breakouts with small images placed in the top half. A close up of the pictures chosen for this window reveal Noah’s Ark and Christ Calming the Waters (Contrast this with our final photograph in this post, which is in Caheragh)

Although the Studio was dissolved as a business in 1985, the three continued to work together in a loose arrangement, often under the heading of Des Devitt and Associates. This creative partnership went on for over 50 years: it was so finely attuned that Johnny could describe his vision over the phone and Des knew how to actualise it.

Johnny, Réiltín and Róisín – Réiltín was already a fixture in the Studio at this age

Everyone was pulled into the slipstream – Réiltín Murphy had to stand on a box to reach the drawing table when she started out first. Anthony Devitt* was just a kid when Des warned him not to fall off the scaffolding or his mother would kill him. They all loved it, as did the endless stream of students from the National College of Art, where Johnny was now teaching, who came to help in the summer or to learn how to paint on glass or assemble windows. Other artists came to help when the pressure of work got too much – Terry Corcoran, Rosaline Murphy (not related) Celia Harriss, Paul Britton, Ann Fitzgibbon, Michael Biggs, Michael Timlin to name some.

The only different window at Blackrock is this one, and it’s pure Roisín. There was a fire in the church and this window was rescued and re-installed in a side room once all the new windows were installed by Murphy Devitt Studios. We don’t know what the original ones were like, apart from this one

Johnny was the main designer, hugely respected by Róisín, Des and everyone in his orbit. His was the overall vision for a whole scheme for a church or for a one-off window. Róisín was happiest left to paint, either from Johnny’s designs or from her own – she was a painter at heart and exhibited into her 70s.

This window is a whole family project. It dates from 1974: Róisín painted the figure, Johnny did the little scene of Gougane Barra and Réiltín did the lettering. It’s in a convent chapel in Crosshaven, now closed and inaccessible. The photograph is published with the permission of the Presentation Order. 

Des had a couple of years of art college under his belt too but his genius lay in management and in translating Johnny’s designs (or sometimes just thoughts) into finished windows. He pitched for business, kept the budget under control, delivered work on time and ran the Studio in a completely non-hierarchical way that would be the envy of many a modern management guru. All of them read voraciously, educated themselves in progressive art theories and in how the spiritual could be expressed in glass. Perhaps this isn’t so difficult when the subject is the Passion, or the Life of Christ, or a particular saint like Francis. But many churches requested non-figurative windows, whether for budgetary reason or out of preference. Here the challenge became creating a space that suggested the transcendent, without the aid of obvious imagery.

In the same chapel are many windows that are either entirely non-figurative or with small hints of symbolism. This one looks like the lilies often carried by St Joseph

These mostly or entirely non-figurative windows became one of the hallmarks of Murphy Devitt Studios, instantly recognisable, and capable all by themselves of creating an atmosphere of drama or tranquility. An oval becomes the window to the soul, a series of them leads the eye upwards, thus capturing the notion of the elevation of thoughts and prayers. A sunburst denotes the glory of creation, light falling from heaven.

Ballyhooly Church has all non-figurative windows. This photograph is courtesy C Cashman and R Gem

Some have small elements within them that are complete pictures, mostly Christian symbols, sometimes mere hints. There were favourites – I’ve seen similar ones crop up here and there, although their context leads to fresh treatments. Some churches are a mixture of figurative and non-figurative. Although it’s not in my remit for these posts, if you are near Dun Laoghaire visit St Michael’s church and marvel that expanses of ‘coloured glass’ can create such a calm and devotional atmosphere.

Caheragh Church has a mixture of figurative, non-figurative and non-figurative-with-symbols. This window is one of the latter

Anyone who visits Irish churches knows that what we want in them are our own saints – Patrick and Brigid certainly, but after that they must be local. So along with every other stained glass artist who ever worked in Ireland, Johnny had to study the hagiographies of our obscure legendary saints and satisfy a demanding congregation familiar with the stories.

St Kieran of Cape Clear is one of our treasured West Cork saints

At Caheragh (north of Skibbereen) and Rath (just outside Baltimore) in West Cork two small rural churches demonstrate how well he succeeded. The windows in each are quite different, although both were completed in 1963. In Caheragh the figures are situated in the lovely wavy-lined breakouts that we saw Murphy Devitt use to such effect in Mayfield, in tones of red and yellow.

And here is St Facthna of Rosscarbery

In Rath we see the introduction of a new breakout design, the square or rectangle with grey shadow around the edge, seeming like a solid glass brick. It’s another Murphy Devitt innovation, used to great effect in many of their windows. They used it again the following year in Blackrock (see above).

The Sacrament of Confession gets the Murphy Devitt treatment in Rath

A stained glass technique that was introduced to Ireland in the 60s was that of Dal de Verre. Blocks of coloured glass were faceted to increase their reflectivity (this was done by knocking spalls of glass from the edges and surface of the blocks) and then cemented together with resin, and sometimes concrete. Dal de Verre enabled actual walls of glass to take the place of masonry and to create dramatic expanses of colour as an integral part of construction, rather than as windows.

Chunks of coloured glass, faceted for additional refraction, float in a bed of resin. This is a detail from the Lowertown window below

Murphy Devitt were early adopters and we have one of their examples in Cork, at Lowertown, just outside Schull. It’s a dove of peace/Holy Spirit creating a glowing corner in the baptistry.

I still have two churches to tell you about, in Rochestown and in Mallow. They deserve their own post, and that will conclude this series. See you next week.

From Caheragh, across a two-light window, an image of Christ calming the storm. Traditionally, Christ is shown in one boat with the 12 apostles. However, Rembrandt famously included himself in his depiction of this scene, so I am tempted to think that Johnny is in there somewhere, since there are thirteen apostles in the boats

Part 3 is here.

*This post benefitted greatly from information generously shared by Anthony Devitt.