Re: Re: reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches

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Roger Rosewell

Discovering Irish Glass
Despite its importance in the history of Early Christian art, Ireland retains not a single panel of medieval stained glass in situ. Scarcity of evidence has inevitably hampered the study of painted glass in the country. Recently however, using a combination of historical sources and archaeological discoveries and reconstruction, some important preliminary conclusions about pre-Reformation glazing in Ireland have been published in a new volume about Irish art in the Middle Ages: Art and Devotion in Late Medieval Ireland. The author of the chapter on stained glass, archaeologist Jo Moran, spoke to Vidimus about some of her findings and the need for continuing research.

‘Ireland was originally well stocked with medieval glass. Documents from the thirteenth century onwards record the use of painted glass in cathedrals such as St Patrick’s, Armagh, and in numerous parish churches. Among records of local patronage, for example, it is recorded that the Mayor of Galway “put up all the painted glass in the Church of St Nicholas” in 1493. At the time of the Dissolution, glass was also listed among the assets of monasteries, including a Dominican friary in Dublin, Franciscan houses in Kildare and Castledermot, and the Cistercian monastery at Inishlounaght, Co. Tipperary.

‘Similarly, documentary records show that glaziers, possibly of English abstraction, were resident in Dublin from at least 1258. There is also a suggestion of craftsmen moving in the other direction. In 1352, for example, a ‘Johannes de Irland, verreour’ was made a freeman of York. Although no evidence of workshops has yet been excavated, there are some tantalising hints of an indigenous craft. In February 1490, a shipment of coloured glass was part of a mixed cargo of goods sent to Limerick and Galway by a consortium of three merchants from La Rochelle and two from Dieppe.

‘Archaeological evidence has also thrown useful light on the scale and type of medieval glazing in Ireland. Fragments of plain, grisaille and coloured glass, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, have been recovered from a number of sites, primarily monastic. Although we cannot be sure whether it was painted in Ireland or imported from England, documentary sources suggest that at least some of this work was of extremely high standard. In 1648, for example, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, who held both the post of nuncio to the Confederate Catholics of Ireland and the archbishopric of Fermo in Italy, offered the then-huge sum of £700 to buy the stained glass of St Canice’s Cathedral in Kilkenny and ship it to Rome. Similarities between the excavated grisaille patterns found at Kells Augustinian priory (Co. Kilkenny) and St Saviour’s Dominican priory (Limerick), and contemporary designs in English cathedrals, Lincoln and Salisbury in particular, raise in turn interesting questions about sources, design and the dissemination of ideas between the two countries. The study of medieval stained glass in Ireland hasn’t just been circumscribed by the lack of original glass in situ. Even when hoards of fragments have been excavated, such finds have been notable for two important omissions: a paucity of coloured glass and the absence of lead cames, the latter almost certainly having been stripped and melted down when the glass was smashed. We do not know why so little coloured glass has been found; one possibility is that it was used sparingly, another is that it was removed from the site for safekeeping or re-use elsewhere.

‘Little is known about figurative glass in Ireland, but there was some. Although we cannot be sure whether it was painted in Ireland or imported from England, documentary sources suggest that at least some of this work was of extremely high standard. The glass that Rinuccini offered to but appears to have shared the same iconographical traditions as elsewhere in western Christendom. Scenes of Christ’s life, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension filled the east window. The date of this glass is not, unfortunately, known. It was destroyed by Cromwell’s soldiers.

Bunratty Castle, The Gort Furniture Trust: a dragon supporter, English, perhaps from Hampton Court Palace, early 16th century.
Bunratty Castle, The Gort Furniture Trust: shields of arms, German, late 15th century. ‘Some Irish churches do contain medieval glass, though imported from the continent. Panels incorporated into a nineteenth-century window at St Mark’s Church, Newtonards (Co. Down), are said to be from the Dominican priory in the town, though their similarity to continental glass bought by the wealthy Londonderry family and installed in a chapel at their home, Mount Stewart, has also been noticed. More recent imports of Netherlandish and other medieval and enamel-painted glass can be seen in public collections, especially at Bunratty Castle (Co. Clare), home of the Gort Collection (figs 1 and 2). There is a small group of English medieval panels in the Hunt Museum, Limerick.

‘The study of Irish medieval glazing is in its infancy. There is still much more to do, and new information is always welcome. Fruitful areas for further research, both documentary and archaeological, include where the glass was made, relationships between English and Irish glaziers, and the role of donors.’

A full version of Jo Moran’s study appears in the recently published volume, available from booksellers and on line from Amazon books. The volume also includes chapters on medeival devotional practice, image and meaning in Irish wall painting, and the art and cult of the Virgin.

Roger Rosewell

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