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)

Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

Haven’t you always wanted to have one?

When the occasion arose for a celebration – the publication of The Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass – we knew exactly what we wanted. We don’t know yet when we can have a launch of the book in Dublin, but it might be the autumn before it can happen, so Robert and I decided that a little local jollification was in order.

We know what Tracy and Peter could do. They’re the Long Island Wild Camping couple who organised the Wildflower Walk and who will do picnics or catering for you on Long Island. Tracy’s eyes lit up when we were talking about her idea of doing ‘proper’ high teas on the island and my need for a celebration, and the plan was conceived.

Twelve of us were conveyed to the Island by Maurice and Helen of the Long Island Ferry, and Glory Be! – the sun shone all day for us. It’s a short walk along boreens fringed with blooming hedgebanks to the East House, and what a sight awaited us there*!

Tracy had created a Long Island version of a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! It looked magnificent, quirky, fantastical, sumptuous. Real china – her grandmother’s – lots of glass, a chandelier, old-fashioned cutlery (remember those bone handles?), lanterns, decanters, tiered cake stands – all ranged along a long table covered in vintage tablecloths. The table was set out in a hollow in their amazing garden and it looked like something out of Wonderland.

There were mojito mocktails to start with (yum!) and then it was down to the serious business of eating. Pretty well everything was homemade, including all the scones and buns, or from their garden (cucumbers, strawberries, jam) or locally sourced (smoked salmon).

And just when you thought you couldn’t fit in any more, out came two enormous bowls of trifle accompanied by their own strawberries.

I couldn’t have asked for a better, tastier, more unique or memorable way to celebrate. And here’s the thing – you can do this too! Tracy and Peter can organise this kind of tea party for you, or meet you with a picnic after your day of exploring Long Island, or feed you a cream tea in their garden. Just give them a shout.

A few final photos to convey the fun and fabulousness of it all.

*Thanks to Amanda Clarke and Robert for most of these photographs

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.