A view into the monastic soul

Monasteries are, in most imaginations, places of mystery and secrecy. Within their forbidden walls are contained arcane knowledge and esoteric texts, such as the lost work of Aristotle sought by Friar William in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose . The mystery surrounding monasteries was played on by Gothic novelists and Protestant polemicists in the 19th century to create a world of the bizarre, the terrible and the indecent, as in Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk .

More recently, the walls of the enclosure have been breached if not torn down. The brethren of Glenstal have shared their insights on cookery and the detection of murder as well as more obvious Benedictine concerns such as prayer and icons. Now it is the turn of their monastic cousins, the Cistercians, to lighten the dark corners of the monastery. Appropriately enough, it is a magnificent book on the stained glass windows of the abbey of Mount St Joseph in Roscrea that does this. For more than 20 years, the biannual Roscrea conferences on medieval Ireland have opened the dramatic, if rather chilly, monastic church, to a world greater than the community and the people of Roscrea and this book now reveals its treasures to a wider audience.

For those who are not enthusiasts for 19th-century ecclesiastical architecture, Mount St Joseph might seem an unpromising place. Founded in 1879, the church was formally opened in 1881, and contained 11 stained-glass windows. Under the shadow of the later work of Harry Clarke these years were not a golden age of stained glass but the Dublin firm of Earley and Powell acquitted themselves well, helped by the fact that Earley was trained by the master of Gothic revival, A.N.W. Pugin.

The Irish Times