Re: Re: reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches

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From Studies 91:363 (2002), 252-66.
Modernism, Tradition and Debates on Religious Art in Ireland – 1920 – 1950
John Turpin

The question can be asked: why are religious art and artefacts not more important in modern Ireland in view of the strong presence of Catholicism? Such a situation can easily be explained in the years before Catholic Emancipation of 1829 by political, social and economic factors. Post-emancipation Catholic churches have begun to receive critical attention – but their decoration and contents to a lesser extent. In the fine arts there was no strong tradition in the Irish Catholic church of commissioning or acquiring religious paintings, apart from Episcopal portraits as found in the corridors of Maynooth College. The Established Protestant Church of Ireland, with its evangelical bias, did not favour imagery as a general rule.
Twentieth century churches and their contents, as well as paintings and sculpture on religious themes, have received scant scholarly attention. There are some exceptions: the Honan Chapel, the stained glass of Harry Clarke and Evie Hone, the sculpture of Albert Power and Seamus Murphy, and after the Second Vatican Council, the Donegal churches of Liam McCormack. As a broad generalisation, it can be said that the connection between religion and its material realisation in architecture, art, and artefacts in the 19th and 20th centuries, has not been pursued critically. Since the 1960s a preoccupation with Modernist theory by commentators on modern art in Ireland has, by definition, excluded most of the religious art created. Painting on religious themes, both traditional and modern in style, could not be analysed critically from an exclusively Modernist prospective which emphasises form over subject and patronage. The Post-modern dispensation and a greater interest in social contextualisation have created a scholarly climate more favourable to a study of art and religion.
Up to the 1960s Irish Catholicism was a very powerful force in popular consciousness in Ireland. This was especially the case in the years of the newly independent Irish Free State. This central role of Catholicism was challenged by the socio-economic transformation of Ireland which began in the 1960s and continued for the remainder of the century. However, it would be a misconception to believe that the issue of religion and visual culture was not a live one in terms of material culture up to the 1960s. A substantial number of large new churches and religious buildings were designed, leading to a crescendo in the 1950s. Much Irish stained glass and other decorative work was incorporated. In the fine arts a number of artists received commissions from religious orders like the Jesuits and the Holy Ghost Fathers. Among Catholic intellectuals there was a lively debate on the problems of religious art in Ireland. It is with that debate that I am concerned here.
One of the most informed writers to promote a general theory of art and religion in Ireland was Mairin Allen, a graduate of University College Dublin and lecturer in the history of art at the National College of Art, Dublin. Her ideas, published in 1943, sprang from a well-educated Catholic and culturally nationalist background. She pointed, as did so many Irish scholars and critics, to the richness of early Christian art in Ireland, with its absorption of earlier abstract pre-Christian forms: ‘Is it not strange, then, that in a country still professedly Christian we have not, in this 20th century, a living native art expressive of the theocentric which should distinguish a people newly emerged from religious and political domination?’ .
She argued that a Renaissance-based Greco-Roman culture, imposed by the British colonisers over the centuries, and the economic depression of the Catholic majority were the causes. In post-emancipation Ireland, she located the source of the problem of religious art in a cluster of issues. She saw the prime cause in the lack of artistic taste and education among the emergent Catholic middle class. The clergy and other patrons, ‘turned when they had money to spend towards England and the Continent for craftsmen, artists and architects’. In contrast to this she praised in a neo-primitive way, the ‘simplest country churches’, and condemned ‘the imported plaster and marble statuary, oleographs, and even “standard” mass-produced coloured windows’.
In her idealistic analysis Allen ignored the powerful effect of international capitalism and the industrial revolution in the manufacture and supply of religious objects for an expanding market in Europe and the United States. She does not give credit to the teams of artisan sculptors in Dublin which provided the altars, decorated capitals, doorways and other stone carvings, working to the specifications of architects. Neither does she credit the quantity of fine decorative art provided by Victorian art industries linked to the Gothic Revival, such as Minton tiles and Hardman glass. In describing the revitalisation of religious art by the Irish Arts and Crafts Movement, Allen lays down the orthodox narrative, although omitting mention of its English origins, pointing to the key role of the patronage of Edward Martyn at Loughrea Cathedral, and the glass supplied by An Tur Gloine, founded by Sarah Purser. The Arts and Crafts Movement promoted the idea that religious art was best supplied by individual artists and craftspeople, working for a sympathetic architect or patron, rather than relying on industrially-manufactured products based on neo-Medieval designs. She praised the Romanesque architecture of William Scott, the religious sculpture of John Hughes, Michael Shortall and Albert Power, the stained glass of Harry Clarke and Michael Healy. She saw Shortall and Power stylistically as rejecting the 19th century romantic legacy in sculpture. Regarding patronage, she saw that there was still in the 1940s a major problem in contemporary religious art, since the ‘very austerity’ of the younger artists’ work ‘has rather tended to terrify church patrons accustomed to prettiness than character in church statuary’. In short, the problem was ultimately one of the taste and artistic judgement of patrons. Her analysis in outline is a just one.
In terms of producing artists able to cope with church commissions, Allen discussed the Royal Hibernian Academy ‘as being essentially an expansion of English 19th century culture into colonial Ireland’, yet she ignored the fact that, had the Academy exhibitions carried religious paintings, they would probably have been difficult to sell, due to the lack of interest by churchmen or lay Catholics. She considered the teaching of art to be in the ‘English academic tradition’ and she argued in a culturally nationalist way that ‘pictorial art as we know it had not native roots’. For her it was ‘too intimately involved in post-Renaissance secularism to break free and produce something at once native to the soil and of religious inspiration’.
The critique of post-Renaissance European religious art began with the German Nazarene painters in early 19th century Rome and later with A.W.N Pugin, the English Pre-Raphaelites and John Ruskin. This was part of a general critique by reformers of European religious art, not specifically an Irish.
Turning to the Irish diaspora, Allen lamented that while ‘Ireland has exported exiles and missionaries without number, her art has not reflected the tragedy of exile or the deep religious emotion that inspired our modern Colmcilles’. Presumably she attributes this to a lack of patronage. She went on to criticise contemporary patrons for not commissioning murals for their buildings. She noted that,

A cycle tour round Dublin reveals how very seldom is the artist allowed the privilege of serving religion with his gifts. His place has too often been taken by the catalogues of the best advertised French and Italian and German manufacturers of mass-produced “religious” objects.

Allen’s standpoint was that of the arts and crafts idealist and cultural nationalist. She looked to the Thomist philosophy of Jacques Maritain as her theological reference point when she wrote, ‘A religion which exalts the influence of beauty and majesty and wisdom and truth and love of God, deserves to be better served in the places of its public worship …’. Ultimately she believed that the root cause was the patrons’ grave distrust of the artist ‘as a person apart, an oddity, too individual, too dangerous to be entrusted with the making of objects connected with worship and church decoration’. She called for sympathy and understanding between artist and clerical patron. More generally, she identified the underlying cause of the problem as a lack of artistic discrimination. ‘Our natural taste has been ruined by a middle class vulgarity of intellect’, and the adding of superfluous ornament. This was the claim 19th century design reformers made of industrial mass-production and of popular taste.
In conclusion, Allen following Maritain, makes various prescriptions for religious art: it should be intelligible, well made and part of a ‘genuine theological culture’. In the 20th century she praised the arts and crafts churches in the Hiberno-Romanesque style, but was critical to some extent of the only Irish modernist church – at Turner’s Cross, Cork – as ‘far too simple’. She saw considerable value in the isolation of 1940s war-time Ireland as it cut off supplies of industrially-produced religious imports and thus stimulated home production. She prayed for ‘a new age in which Ireland will once again produce a religious art as personal and expressive in its way as that of the Early Christian period’. In her theoretical approach she does not tackle the key issue of Western Modernism and its impact on religious representation, which was central to the problem of religious art in general since the mid 19th century at least.
The nationalist and traditionalist perspective was also well characterised by the writing of Daniel Corkery, prominent nationalist cultural theorist of the period. Mairin Allen would have been ideologically close to Corkery. In addressing the issue of church statuary in 1939, Corkery began by speaking of church music. He criticised the romantic musical school and praised the restoration of ancient Gregorian plain chant. He equated 19th century church statuary with romantic religious music (which did no favours for Berlioz, Schubert or Gounod). For Corkery church sculpture was ‘actively wrong. It is too pretty for anything; it is too empty for anything … Tradition does not justify this commercial repository art, as they call it in America’ .
Alone among the writers, Corkery tackled the issue of church ‘art’ in a ruthlessly economic way, arguing that church statuary had ‘no intrinsic value as art’. To prove his point he suggested that it be offered for sale on the open market, ‘but we can confidently assert that it will fetch no price at all there … This repository sculpture is a thing in itself, not known to the world of secular art, and not deserving to be known to the world of religious art’. He noted that it was mass-produced and that the same figure cropped up everywhere. In its place he argued, that despite the considerably greater cost, the work of an artist be sought as it ‘may have something of the nature of art in it’. The reality was that the plaster statues were industrialised products for a religious mass-market.
In turning to the education of artists, Corkery saw a ‘clean cleavage between our schools and church art’. He even raised the possibility of the church instituting ‘a guild of church builders including all the various crafts that find employment in religious art’, and pointed to the Medieval models for this. He could have cited the Benedictines at Glenstal who had set up such a religious craft school. On the issue of modernity, Corkery was ambivalent: ‘Modern sculpture is, like many other modern things, to be avoided, not even to be inquired into by all who would live wisely’, yet he also admitted that modern sculpture ‘is marked by a spirit of genuine sincerity … it is severe, is contemptuous of ordinary simpering prettiness, is often rugged, may sometimes be coarse … In the light of it such statues as find place in our churches seem doubly exasperating’.
Corkery had a genuine sympathy for the stylised figurative stone carving which was considered modern in the 1930s, like the religious work of Seamus Murphy. However, neither Corkery nor Mairin Allen saw modern art as offering a liberation which could transform religious imagery.
This conservative cultural nationalism also characterised the principal organisation in Ireland devoted to the issue of art and religion – the Academy of Christian Art established in 1929. It was aimed at ‘all persons clergy and laity who are interested in such matters as Irish art, church architecture and decoration, stained glass, Church music, the great painters and sculptors’. Theoretically there was a reformist agenda as articulated by the president George Noble, Count Plunkett, in 1937: ‘We have the special incentive of restoring art to its place in architecture … and our hope is to draw out of the Irish mind the imaginative qualities, and use the gifts which release the soul from the bondage of material aims’ .
In fact Plunkett and other Academy members were more interested in religious art of the past than of forging a new religious art. The Academy was too traditionalist and too clericalist in its mentality and singularly failed to address issues of modern style, clerical patronage and artistic production, apart from architecture to a limited extent. Among the lecturers at the Academy who spoke in relation to the visual were Ernest Hayes on ‘Religious Art of the 19th century’; Sean Keating on ‘The Irish Position in Art’; T.J. Byrne on ‘Modern Architecture’; J. Robinson on ‘Modern Irish Romanesque Architecture’; Albert Power on his Work; ‘The Year’s Church Art’ (a foreign survey); Daniel Corkery, ‘A Plea for the New Architecture’; and J.J. O’Kelly, ‘A Plea for Recognition of Irish Art’. These lectures received only brief notices in the Academy’s journal.
The most relevant paper to the contemporary art situation was that of S. O Dochartaigh on ‘Industrial Aspects of Christian Art’ in 1937. Like so many other commentators he had a ‘feeling of revulsion’ against the side of ‘cheap statues, statuettes, holy-water fonts, oleographs, and such other objects of Catholic devotion, which were produced by cheap labour in foreign countries, often by the mass-production methods and sometimes by non-Catholics, or even by pagans’. While repelled by this he sought to justify their existence, ‘The religious feeling of the people was in some way satisfied by, or maybe dependent on, these objects. They seemed to be links between the conscious and the un-conscious. They were reminders or pointers along some path by which the devotee was travelling. They were finger-posts … and finger-posts do not require to be works of art’. He attacked ‘the soft-tinted gravure, the exquisitely-polished dainty fonts or the ornate crucifix’ .
Instead, in idealistic fashion typical of the Irish-Ireland ideology of the period, O Dochartaigh lauded the poor people of the West of Ireland, ‘whose tastes are yet unspoiled by a West-British education’. He praised the rush crosses of Saint Brigid and other simple home-made devotional objects. In contemporary art, he praised the school of the Benedictines at Glenstal Abbey ‘determined to pick up the threads of Irish Christian art’. He identified the main achievement of recent Irish church art. ‘Our artists in glass in modern times have blazed new trails for those who will come after them, and they have set up a standard that will not easily be attained, even by the cream of the world’s best.’
The Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere, provided the theoretical underpinning of the role of the artist and craftsman working in harmony with the architect on a religious commission. The movement in Ireland since the beginning of the 20th century had been particularly strong in stained glass, art metalwork and embroidered textiles. It provided a set of ideals based on individual hand craftsmanship by which to measure the mass-produced product. This is all part of a much larger debate on crafts and design for industry which goes far outside this present discussion .
The modern fine art movement, with its emphasis on the total autonomy of the artist was to be equally influential, especially through French religious examples. Thomas McGreevy, poet and art critic (and later Director of the National Gallery of Ireland) took a position in 1922 on religion and modern Ireland which exalted the personal voice of the artist, not the imitation of past models which had characterised the existing industrially-produced church statuary: ‘With Blake in England as with Rousseau in France, modern religious art begins. And religious art in Ireland was resurrected after it had been buried under international politics for a thousand years, mainly through the influence of Blake’s greatest disciple, Mr. W.B. Yeats’ . This emphasis on Blake and Yeats emphasised the symbolist and anti-naturalist current of thought. MacGreevy acknowledged the importance of the Gothic Revival in Ireland for the emergence of Irish stained glass and the work of Sarah Purser, but he criticised the lack of public appreciation of art, including contemporary Irish glass by artists like Wilhelmina Geddes. He was making the case for modern artists, true to their own vision not simply copying past styles. Whether such subjective independence would be acceptable to conservative clerical patrons was another matter.
The romantic Ruskinian idealisation of medieval work-practices, in reaction to the modern industrial division of labour, was a recurring theme among religious art commentators. Colm O Lochlann (who was to become a most distinguished printer of fine books at the Three Candles Press) argued in 1922 that one should aim to emulate the ‘conditions of labour under which the great architect-craftsmen of the middle ages worked’. He argued ‘Art is not like a Ford motor. Mass production has no place for art. The factory system will never produce beautiful work as we want it for the church’ . He deplored ‘stained glass from Germany; statuary and marble work from Italy; mosaic from Whitechapel; brasswork from Birmingham or London’. However, O Lochlann also warned against the slavish imitation of ancient Irish examples as ‘archetypes of excellence’’. Instead he advocated ‘the best possible designs, the most suitable material, and the honestest possible craftsmanship’ – all Arts and Crafts ideals. On the issue of patronage, O Lochlann identified the need for a lead from ‘a body of representative opinion amongst the clergy who were the guardians of the House of God’. O Lochlann had touched neatly on the twin issues of production and consumption of religious art.
Like O Lochlann, Mia Craniwell, an eminent metalworker and enameller of the Irish Arts and Crafts revival, attacked industrially produced religious manufactures: ‘All great craftsmen in the applied arts agree that the cause of the atrocious stuff one generally has to endure, is that in trade, design has been divorced from execution … To produce a real work of art, a thing of beauty, the one pair of hands should do each process from the first rough idea to the last polish. Modern little-mindedness with its paucity of ideas and materialism, wishes to reproduce work once designed, not to make each pair a new creation, and trade work is further limited to what the various machines can perform. A trade worker is generally employed all his time an one process only, and should not then be called a craftsman’ . Craniwell, like other Arts and Crafts devotees and commentators, does not appear to have realised just how much of the 19th and 20th century church architecture and furnishings was only possible economically by relying on industrial processes of design, manufacture, sales and distribution, whereby otherwise insuperable problems, like physical distance from site of manufacture, and above all cost, could be overcome. Her vision of work wholly-conceived and executed by one artist was a central tenet of the Arts and Crafts movement (in marked contrast to how churches were actually designed, built and furnished).
The issue of patronage and the taste of the clergy was the main focus of the critique of Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy, whose annual exhibitions were the main selling place for contemporary Irish art, rivalled only by the annual Irish Exhibition of Living Art from 1943. O’Brien saw the main problem in that the ‘priests educated at Maynooth are given no instruction in the church arts and for the most part never travel. Or if they do, they naturally go to Rome and suppose that St. Peter’s is the criterion of what a church should be’. He promoted an educated priesthood and also the education of artists to cope with church commissions .
Like other commentators, O’Brien praised the stained glass of Harry Clarke and An Tur Gloine, ‘where work the best in the world is produced’. Like others, he deplored the fact that in ‘any cathedral or chapel … the Stations of the Cross form no part of the architectural scheme, and are mean and vulgar. Think of the awful painted plaster saints’. Yet in the open market of public art exhibitions, O’Brien admitted ‘you won’t find a single religious picture’. He believed that artists lacked training for such work.
Twenty years later in 1942, O’Brien returned to the issue of lack of church patronage of art. ‘It might have been expected that the Catholic Church after her emancipation from the disabilities of so many centuries would have found expression for her freedom in an enthusiasm for the adornment of her churches … but such has not been the case’. He attributed this, not so much to ‘poverty’ and lack of rich endowments, but mainly to ‘the failure to appreciate the necessity for an education in ecclesiastical art’. He argued that the clergy as patrons were uninformed artistically. ‘From childhood to ordination the young priest has never lived in such surroundings and associations as would give him a standard of art culture.’ In this regard he argued for chairs of fine art at the seminaries. Equally, however, he identified the problem in the training of artists. He criticised the current state of church art. Excepting An Tur Gloine and the Harry Clarke studios ‘you will find hardly any good art work in the churches’. In particular he attacked the quality of the Stations of the Cross where ‘you have commonplace pictures in mean frames hung casually on pillar or wall’. He attacked the plaster statues and ‘badly lettered monumental brasses nailed to the plastered wall regardless of the ill effect they may produce in the internal decoration of the whole church’ .
Sir John O’Connell had been responsible as patron for the building of the Honan Chapel, Cork, (the finest Irish Arts and Crafts ecclesiastical building containing superb stained glass by An Tur Gloine). In 1923 he was acutely aware of the poor standard of church art which he described as ‘the hideous work which disgraces our Irish churches – of all denominations today – thereby incidentally degrading and lowering the standard of artistic taste in this country.’ He identified the cause as a misguided belief by patrons that ‘no good work could come out of Ireland’ . Undoubtedly there was an attitude of inverted snobbery whereby clergy believed that they had to look abroad, such as to Italy, for the best work. This is not wholly accurate historically since the architects and decorative sculptors of the 19th and early 20th centuries were all Irish-based, although many Victorian artisans had come from England, drawn by work opportunities. Nevertheless, 19th century stained glass was mainly supplied by Meyer of Munich, and the tiles and brasswork often came from Birmingham firms. Religious statuary in stone and plaster often came from Italian firms like Dinelli of Pietrosanta.
A nationalistic championing of Irish-made religious art on patriotic grounds was the main focus of the Irish Guild of the Church – an informal group which, in 1923, was trying to establish a ‘permanent exhibition of Irish art suitable for church purposes’ . Their theory was that ‘Native art, if properly used, can be made a powerful medium of regeneration’. The culturally nationalist argument was that ‘hitherto practically all church appurtenances have been imported, and being of foreign design and manufacture, failed in direct appeal to our people. Native art deriving inspiration from purely Celtic sources, constitutes a point of contact between people and church’. This was a promotional text for a conservative revivalist neo-Celticism which had been a major if retardaire strand in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and was still strong in the 1920s. Such work, the Guild argued, could be supplied to Irish missionaries and would be ‘indications of the spiritual inheritance peculiar to Ireland’. Thus Irish-made religious art with neo-Celtic designs would be a token of belonging in the Irish spiritual diaspora.
Irish-produced religious art was promoted in 1934 by J.J. O’Kelly, another traditionalist apologist. Like so many writers he exalted the early Christian religious metalwork and illumination. In contemporary Ireland somewhat uncritically, he lauded the availability of Catholic manufacturers able ‘to produce church requisites in whatever material may be desired: church bells, stained glass, altar plate, altar cloths, excellent printers, book-binders’ . He also put forward the achievements of contemporary Irish painters of religious subjects: Sean O’Sullivan, Sean Keating, Leo Whelan, and sculptors, Michael Shortall and Albert Power. ‘It is Ireland’s manifest duty to patronise these artists and enable them to extricate their art from the shackles of the semi-pagans still in high places.’ O’Kelly looked forward to the positioning of ‘the great statue of Christ the King’ by Andrew O’Connor at Dun Laoghaire. ‘It will in its lustre reflect for an awakening people, every beam of Heaven’s light.’ O’Kelly’s writing was mainly a culturally nationalist and traditionalist rallying cry for a realistic religious art by Irish artists.
A much more professional, but somewhat embittered analysis of the issue of religious art came in 1929 on the occasion of the centenary of Catholic Emancipation, by one of Ireland’s leading church architects, J.J. Robinson: ‘So far as church furniture and equipment in Ireland today is concerned … it is depressingly and almost uniformly hideous. Some of the exhibits … in some of the Dublin emporia which deal with such matters display a coarseness and a lack of even the first principle of proportion and design’ . Unlike Dermod O’Brien and others, he was not critical of the clergy, ‘whose job after all is not be connoisseurs in matters of art’. He believed the cause lay ‘in the indifference of the people; in the unwillingness or incompetence of architects to design church furniture and equipment in true keeping with their churches. He reserved his heaviest criticisms for the Catholic lay faithful: ‘Our people live so much in an atmosphere of religion and of faith … that they fail to take or to need any message, a building or a piece of ecclesiastical furniture may have to convey, and are as unresponsive to the ugly as they are to the beautiful … People in this country care very little for matters of an artistic nature … and this indifference is all the more regrettable in so far as it mitigates against the production of artists and architects … who may well feel that they may spare their efforts, because, however excellent the result may be, they will not be appreciated.’ Robinson, like Dermod O’Brien and Mairin Allen, identified the root of the problem of art and religion as the lack of visual culture in modern Catholic Ireland.
In 1949 Thomas McGreevy surveyed a half-century of Irish painting and gave due weight to religious subject matter, something that later 20th century commentators would not do. He praised ‘the murals of Francis O’Donoghue at Loughrea Cathedral and at the Church of the Three Patrons, Rathgar, and Sean Keating’s Stations of the Cross for Clongowes Wood College (c.1920). McGreevy described these as ‘very arresting. These probably mark the turning point in religious painting in Ireland, for, ever since, more and more of our painters have felt encouraged to give time or thought to the production of religious art’ . McGreevy also singled out Patrick Tuohy’s Baptism in the Jordan and Agony in the Garden, which ‘invite criticism of the highest standards’. Maurice McGonigal’s Crucifixion revealed great ‘powers of invention’. McGreevy was a Catholic from County Kerry, but educated at Trinity College with service in the British Army; he had a familiarity with modern art in Paris and possessed a breadth of artistic vision allied to a Catholic cultural nationalism. This placed him in an excellent position to evaluate contemporary religious art in Ireland and elsewhere. As a cultural witness of the period he saw that religious art was an important focus of visual expression of newly independent Ireland. He was able to embrace the traditional and the modern in his approach to religious work.
Modernism in Irish art is mainly associated with Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, who both studied Cubism in Paris in the 1920s, and were completely familiar with these formalist developments in modern art. Both created religious work – particularly Evie Hone who became Ireland’s most celebrated stained glass artist with an international reputation. James White, an emerging young art critic during the war years (and later Director of the National Gallery of Ireland), was well informed on contemporary art. In 1944 he criticised the quality of so much weak religious imagery: ‘Religious pictures most often fail to be religious because of some defect in the artist’s work. Many demand only an indication that “here now is a holy picture”. Such small response to their needs would never be enough to satisfy them in a profane representation’ .He called for a ‘sense of refinement which is surely the minimum to ask for in this branch of art’. White saw this in Maine Jellett and Father Jack Hanlon – painters who both belonged to the Irish Exhibition of Living Art, an assuredly Modernist group. Jellett’s ‘most recently shown religious pictures have contained a depth of feeling which is strangely moving, yet long contemplation of them does not exhaust their beauty because her sentiment comes slowly – peace and suffering are suggested and not painted on in tears and smiles as in the wearisome 19th century oleographs. Mainie Jellett is a painter for those who dislike the obvious.’
Jellett’s religious paintings were influenced by the flat patterning and formal purity of the paintings of Fra Angelico, as well as the procedures of the Cubists. She was a devout Anglican Protestant who took her Christianity and her religious subjects seriously. In 1949, after her death, Thomas McGreevy referred to her Madonna of Eire, which, ‘while owing its inspiration to religion and Irishness, avoided all suggestion of mere journalese of either’ . In short she avoided traditional sentimental realism and worked in a new language with abstract tendencies.
One of Jellett’s closest associates was Father Jack Hanlon, a priest of the Dublin archdiocese, who had studied art in Paris. He worked on commission and for himself. It was James White’s view in 1944 that ‘his Blessed Virgin studies are maternal, graceful, harmonious and dignified. Never at any time could he make a representation of Her which is suggested by the standards of Hollywood’ . Like Jellett, Hanlon sought to use the Cubist language for religious subjects, thus rejecting traditional representational modes. Equally, he avoided an expressionist language which characterised the graphic work of the contemporary Irish religious artist Richard King as in his illustrations for the Capuchin Annual in the 1940s.
The principal achievement in modern Irish religious art lay in stained glass. James White was not slow to promote this as the most modern religious art form. He traced the beginnings of the movement to Sarah Purser and Edward Martyn and to A.E. Child (teacher of stained glass at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art). He praised Harry Clarke, Michael Healy and Wilhelmina Geddes. He was critical of the earlier position of stained glass artists as tradesmen, copying Medieval styles, rather than being inventive. However, Evie Hone ‘has given us windows recently which are a complete break with tradition. Imbued with deep religious feeling and authentic as the Bible, her work is richly coloured and she likes to see the glass glowing with its own richness … She is a disciple of the 20th century French masters’. White admitted the problem of clerical patronage. ‘The desire of the clergy for standardised work should not be a deterrent to young students. They have many opportunities of obtaining commissions from those priests who show leadership in overcoming the prejudice against permitting the present generation to express itself in terms of its own age …’ . White looked for religious subjects which would embrace a Modernist artistic style. One enlightened clerical patron who believed in this too was Father Donal O’Sullivan S.J., who was instrumental in the Jesuits commissioning religious stained glass from Evie Hone. (O’Sullivan was later Director of the Arts Council.)
In seeking to define a religious art in Ireland that was also modern, the example of the French painter Georges Rouault was seminal. In 1942 his Christ and the Soldier was offered to the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin, by the Friends of the National Collections of Ireland (which had been founded by Sarah Purser in 1924). It was attacked by the conservative painter, Sean Keating, and by Kathleen Clarke, a former Lord Mayor and strong republican, who called it ‘offensive to Christian sentiment’. The Catholic hierarchy was more enlightened than its lay defenders and offered to house the painting at Maynooth College. It was again refused by the Municipal Gallery in 1952, although it eventually went there. This controversy of the moderns versus the academics on the nature of religious art, prompted Maine Jellett to champion the art of Rouault. She located him firmly in a tradition of French religious art, going back to the Romanesque. She said in 1942 that he had ‘turned completely away from the highly sentimental materialistic trend of so-called religious art in the 19th century – an art which to my mind is cut adrift from all true tradition. Rouault in his religious pictures, has brought European religious art in one great sweep back and at the same time forward in the true traditional line’ . In another article of 1942 Jellett attacked ‘the purveyors of mass produced so called religious art so greatly patronised, unfortunately by the churches –pseudo art based on weak sentimentality and vulgarity sprayed over Ireland like any cheap mass-produced object’. Compared to that, Rouault had ‘the same rugged integrity and dignity, the same restrained by terribly poignant pity and laceration’ . Rouault’s art was rooted in French symbolist painting and in French stained glass which made him particularly relevant for Ireland. He was at once both traditional and modern. The art criticisms of Jellett and White brought new modern voices to bear on the issue of religious art in Ireland, and Rouault was a test case.
The final chapter in the Rouault story was the exhibition of his Miserere prints in 1960 in Dublin supported by the Arts Council, and especially its chairman, Mgr. Padraig de Brun, who was a great admirer of the artist. The present writer can attest to the impact of the modernity of Rouault’s Miserere exhibition in the context of conventional religious art in the Ireland of the 1950s. The Rouault controversy prompted Dorothy Walker, the art critic, to make this retrospective judgement in 1997: ‘Religious art in Ireland in the twentieth century has reflected accurately the extreme conservatism of the Irish Roman Catholic Church, although one would rather not believe that devout churchmen knowingly condoned the sheer vulgarity of many of the images they commissioned for church buildings. Harry Clarke did more for religious art in his lifetime than any other artists, even if his achievement is less serious in artistic terms that Evie Hone’ .
Catholic intellectuals since the establishment of the Irish Free State had made a sustained critique of mass-produced religious objects and the general standard of religious art. The ultimate cause of the lack of quality was a lack of visual education among the clergy and lay parishioners which can be traced back to the depressed social, political and economic condition of Catholics in Ireland since the sixteenth century. The emergent Catholic middle class of the 19th and 20th centuries which took power in church and state, lacked an experience of visual high culture. Industrially-produced religious artefacts poured into the vacuum. More generally, there was a crisis in European religious art in the 19th century. Increasingly it was dominated by the Gothic Revival operating within an industrialised society with production methods profoundly different to those in the Middle Ages.
Religious art reformers in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, while well intentioned were often conservative in their artistic tastes and unable or unwilling to address the implications of the revolution of artistic Modernism for religious art, and often retired into a cloudy traditionalism and nationalism. In the 1930s Mainie Jellett and Evie Hone, with art critics such as James White and churchmen like Father Donal O’Sullivan, saw a way forward for Irish religious art informed by new artistic approaches of Modernism. Evie Hone’s work in particular exemplified this. Equally, however, patronage of such work sprang from the strong Catholic culture of the period and the existing Irish Arts and Crafts tradition of stained glass. The example of French religious art from the Middle Ages and of Georges Rouault, together with the freedom of Modernism was to find broader expression in Irish religious art of the 1960s. The coming of the Second Vatican Council was to usher in a very different approach to religious art which addressed many of the problems raised by earlier critics.
Professor John Turpin lectures at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.

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