Catholics need not labour under the illusion that excellence in the arts is a quality in the sole preserve of the secular world, as this quotation from the Apostle, and patron of writers, in Philippians 4:8 will disabuse them.
“Finally, brethren, let your minds be filled with everything that is true, honourable, upright and pure, everything that we love and admire – with whatever is good and praiseworthy.”
Christchurch Church of Ireland, Gorey, contains several stained-glass windows by An Túr Gloine artists, such as Harry Clarke, Catherine O’Brien and Ethel Rhind.
Like many Church of Ireland buildings in Ireland, it tells in microcosm, the history of stained-glass production in Ireland, seen in the transition from traditional windows manufactured in foundries in England and Germany to Irish modernist individualised production.
ATG was organised in response to the upsurge in the building of Catholic Churches following Catholic Emancipation, and in particular, the stained glass windows of Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea. Supported by Edward Martyn and WB Yeats of the Celtic Revival, painter Sarah Purser financed and administered An Túr Gloine from its foundation in Upper Pembroke Street, Dublin, in 1903 to 1940; arranging for London tutor AE Child to travel and instruct in stained-glass at the Dublin School of Art.
The co-operative aimed to produce stained-glass for churches and buildings in Ireland created by artists in Ireland. Exploring Celtic subject matter, they were guided by the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement in which, “each window is the work of one artist who makes the sketch and … selects and paints every morsel of glass.”
ATG and the St. Brendan’s decorative scheme are intricately linked, to the extent that, according to Wikipedia, the Cathedral “houses the most extensive collection of Arts and Crafts and Celtic Revival artefacts of any single building in Ireland”, representing the works of nearly all the artists associated with ATG over four decades: Michael Healy, Alfred Child, Sarah Purser, Beatrice Elvery, Ethel Rhind, Hubert McGoldrick, Catherine O’Brien and Evie Hone.
As a result, Ireland became world famous as a centre for stained-glass production at this time and several of its members achieved global prominence.
It’s easy to access art located in churches by entering off the street as is the case with Christchurch in Gorey, although the more remote Church of Ireland buildings may require prior arrangement and Covid has seen temporary closures. In the meanwhile, the Church of Ireland has an excellent online archive of stained-glass researched by Dr. David Lawrence at www.gloine.ie.
In Christchurch, you can view the work of Harry Clarke, who designed the ‘Geneva Window’ (1930) for the International Labour Organisation in Geneva (now in the Wolfsonian Museum, Miami, Florida), the windows of Bewley’s café on Grafton Street, Dublin, as well as the ‘Baptism of Jesus’ (1924) at the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, Dingle, County Kerry.
This success happened as a result of the deliberate organisation of stained-glass production in Ireland into a centre of excellence run by native practitioners under tuition of overseas experts in the early days.
What lessons can we apply from An Túr Gloine today? It’s possible to organise a centre of excellence in any art form as a group and also to apply the principles of excellence to individual artistic endeavour.
Excellence in any area refers to the idea of distinction, quality, brilliance and greatness all coming from integrity, passion, creativity, innovation and commitment.
The exhortation from Saint Paul marks a useful starting point for the idea that when we focus on what is excellent and virtuous in life and art, we can replicate these standards in Christian art by our own efforts, with God’s help, following the example of earlier Irish artists such as those of An Túr Gloine.