St Mary and St Peter's Church windows

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Harry Clarke window in St Mary and St Peter's Church

This article by Helen Thornton was first published in the 1988 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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'Irish window'

The 'Irish' window is well known and much admired amongst the Roman Catholic community in the island. It is remembered by the older members for the glowing brilliance of colour lit by the early morning sun as it shone through the east window into the sanctuary of the old church. It is one of the most treasured possessions of Saint Mary and Saint Peter's Church and perhaps also of the Island of Jersey, although it is a fairly recent acquisition.

Installed in the original church in 1925, it was made in the Clarke Studios in Dublin, undoubtedly by Harry Clarke (1887-1931) who worked through his father's church decorating business. He trained in the family firm and at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he was taught by A E Childe, a pupil of William Morris. Harry Clarke's work soon developed a very personal style which can be seen in his book illustrations. From a very early age he made small stained glass panels for private collectors, usually illustrating scenes from literature.

During his short working life he made many windows for churches, and in 1913 he won a gold medal for his panel, Judas, exhibited at South Kensington. His fame spread quickly and by 1916 he had achieved an international reputation for his pure glowing colour and daring originality. His work was sent all over the world and there are a few examples in Scotland and Wales and a number in England. We are lucky to have one of these masterpieces in Jersey.

During the mid-1920s he did some outstanding work. His most important commission was of the Last Judgement for the Roman Catholic church of Newport, County Mayo. This was completed only a short time before his death. Tradition has it that he carried out all stages of the work himself, from designing through cutting to leading, a mammoth task which may have contributed to his early death in 1931 at the age of 42. For a time his tradition was carried on by his nephew and his son both trained in his studio which is no longer in existence.

Techniques

Harry Clarke helped to bring back to stained glass the brilliant colour and sparkling transparency so characteristic of the 13th-century 'golden age' of glass. After the 16th century the quality of stained glass deteriorated and then, in the 19th century, new colours were discovered to add to the yellow stain used since the 14th century. Thus the glass was painted over to a large extent and lost its transparency and clarity of colour. Harry Clarke used small pieces of brilliantly coloured glass in a mosaic-like fashion beside larger pieces giving a jewel-like effect which offset the main design.

Also he developed further the technique of 'flashed' glass, which in recent years has been made in more colours than the original red or ruby and blue. A plain glass is surmounted by a thin layer of coloured glass and, where colour is to be retained, a coating of beeswax or bitumen is laid on it and the glass is put in a tray of acid until the remaining colour has been eaten away. This technique has been used a great deal in heraldry and other areas where heavy leading would look clumsy and fine detail would be lost.

Harry Clarke used it, along with plating, a process of superimposing one layer of colour upon another, which brought great delicacy and a lyrical quality to his work. In the original window in the Church of Saint Mary and Saint Peter there were four lights, each pair surmounted by a quatrefoil with a large cinquefoil above and between the two quatrefoils thus completing the tracery to fill the gothic arch. Now, in the new church in Wellington Road, the window has been divided into two sections; a pair of lights in each with a round window placed centrally above each section in which the quatrefoils are set in a surround of pale tinted glass. This solves the problem of balance with one section at each side of the church and achieves one of the aims of the artist in that the windows suit the architectural style of the building. There remains the large cinquefoil which will be put into a round window high up in the church, when funds for this purpose can be found.

Irish saints with their emblems form the subjects of the lights: Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, patron and patroness of Ireland; Saint Columba who converted Scotland; and Saint Brendan. Although the 'Irish' window is less spectacular now than in its original form, it retains all the qualities which make it an exceptionally fine work of art and is well worth a visit.

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