Letting in the light divine

A view of the interior of St Fin Barre's in Cork showing some of its stained glass.

IT’S one of the most iconic features on the Cork skyline. First established as a monastic site in 606 AD, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral now houses a French neo-gothic cathedral designed in 1862 by William Burges of London.

Searching For A New Jerusalem is an exhibition of stained glass cartoons and maquettes used in the realisation of Burges’s architectural scheme for the cathedral. The exhibition at the Glucksman in UCC is curated by Richard Wood, a fine arts and heritage enthusiast with an encyclopaedic knowledge of St Fin Barre’s. “You can view this exhibition on two levels,” he says. “One is just to see the process of how the artwork on the cathedral was created, the other is to find out what lies behind it.”

Burges’s design scheme for St Fin Barre’s included the architecture, stained glass, statuary, mosaics and furniture. While the commission stated that costs should not exceed £15,000, Burges ignored this and submitted plans that would eventually cost in excess of £100,000. Fully aware that the work could not be finished within his lifetime, Burges presented a book of his designs to Bishop John Gregg.

“Burges was quite a control freak,” says Wood. “He was insistent that his design would be used throughout and that no other artists would be employed. Not because he was mean about it, but because there is this wonderful story which is told through the artwork and he didn’t want that to be interrupted, quite rightly. And aesthetically it would have damaged the cathedral if the work of another artist was intruding on Burges’s designs.”

Letting in the light divine

While the overall vision was led by Burges, the cartoons themselves were mostly made by artist Horatio Lonsdale, appointed by Burges. Burges was interested in gothic revival architecture and was deeply concerned that the stained glass should adhere to the fundamentals set out in medieval stained glass practice.

“Stained glass had become a very debased art form,” says Wood. “It ended up by being more or less painting on glass. The windows that you see from the 17th and 18th centuries seem to be landscapes with events taking place in them, with a vanishing point on the canvas. As a sort of courtesy to the stained glass tradition they would put in the odd lead line here and there, but it was intrusive and meaningless. Those windows are pretty awful.

“So Burges, along with others, went to Canterbury Cathedral and various other places where you could find medieval glass and they found three things about the glass that were essential. Firstly, the leading lines were an essential part of the whole composition. Secondly, the picture was two-dimensional, not three dimensional, there was no or little vanishing point; and thirdly, they found that areas of one single colour varied in intensity considerably in medieval glass.”

Burges insisted that Lonsdale went the extra mile and that each cartoon was properly drawn out and finished with heavy watercolour rather than the charcoal sketches normally used. The background was never neglected; a block of colour was made up of different intensities, the colour inserted in the making of the glass rather than painted on afterwards.

“Lonsdale did a stunningly good job,” says Wood. “In fact every picture that we see in this exhibition, every cartoon is well worthy of a public exhibition on its own, even though it was designed as part of a process to create a stained glass window. We have this wonderful collection which is a by-product of the creation of the cathedral.”

Letting in the light divine

The drawings on display are the actual working drawings of the day, with little directive notes scribbled alongside the images and the odd tea stain. They were initially brought to public attention in 2005 for Conserving the Dream – Treasures of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, an exhibition in Cork Public Museum. Since then the entire collection of cartoons have been restored by conservation specialist Paul Curtis and have a new permanent home, in the storage wing of UCC’s Boole Library. Jason Ellis is responsible for the restoration of the plaster maquettes that accompany the exhibition of cartoons. The maquette of Christ Enthroned in Glory was intended for use by Burges in the cathedral, but did not get used. This is one of the few points on which Burges failed to win over the congregation. Protestant sentiment at the time forbade the use of images of Christ but Burges managed to feature several images in his scheme of stained glass panels illustrating the Passion of Christ and the Resurrection.

The cartoons depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Read from the bottom up, as with medieval glass, the story unfolds as one walks through the cathedral. Burges had a flair for the dramatic, sometimes embellishing animals with wings and fire to add excitement to the drawings. “It’s so simple and yet it’s hugely sophisticated and exciting,” says Wood.

* Searching For A New Jerusalem continues at Lewis Glucksman Gallery, UCC, until Mar 23. Richard Wood leads a free tour of the exhibition at 1pm on Friday, Jan 10


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