by Paula Murphy

A canopy for the purpose of displaying the blessed sacrament, designed by Irish architect and architectural historian William Scott, is the sole image used to illustrate a chapter ‘On Sculpture in Catholic Ireland’ in Robert Elliott’s book on religious art (1906). This suggests the need to define what ecclesiastical sculpture comprises and who were the practitioners: altars and pulpits; statuary and crucifixes; communion rails and tabernacles; architectural sculpture (qv) and tomb monuments (see ‘Church Monuments’), stations of the cross and ‘canopies’; designed/made by architects, sculptors, stone carvers, metal workers. Altar vessels – more decorative art than fine art – are rarely the work of sculptors, although there are a number of exceptions. Those sculptors whose practice particularly engages with metal, such as Niall O’Neill (qv), have been commissioned to employ their craft in the making of chalices, ciboria, altar plate and candelabra. Patrick McElroy (qv), who trained as a blacksmith and is known for his many metal crucifixes, modelled a chalice (copper and enamel, Adam’s Sale 2010) bearing an icon of Christ. McElroy was engaged to carry out work for Gill’s of Dublin, which sold liturgical art, most of which was ‘plaster junk’ known as repository art, and much of which was imported (IT, 6 December 1963). However, the firm was attempting to raise the aesthetic level of what was on offer by including work by McElroy, Oisín Kelly (qv) and Ray Carroll (1930–94).

Sculpture in church buildings in Ireland is predominantly work from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Early Irish Catholic church buildings, monasteries and abbeys, only some of which remain standing but mostly in ruined form, survive in the form of influences and source material for Celtic Revival detailing in the nineteenth-century structures. The medieval Protestant cathedrals, where one might expect to find early examples of ecclesiastical sculpture, mostly incorporate nineteenth-century furnishings. It is chiefly in the commemorative monuments that eighteenth-century sculpture is encountered. This is often the work of unidentified sculptors or stonemasons. However, there were many foreign sculptors (qv) who carved monuments for churches and cathedrals across the country at this time, among whom were Henry Cheere and Grinling Gibbons (English), Michael Rysbrack and Peter Scheemakers (Flemish), and Louis-François Roubiliac (French), all working in England in the eighteenth century.

Even the original pulpits appear not to have survived, with sometimes elaborate nineteenth-century structures in stone or wood replacing them, examples of which are the pulpit in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, which dates to 1864, and that in St Columb’s Cathedral, Derry, to 1878. The ostensibly medieval and exquisitely carved oak pulpit formerly in the Cathedral of the Assumption, Carlow, the work of Belgian sculptors, was in fact made in 1899 (illustrated in IT, 29 September 2012). The pulpit was removed from the cathedral in 1997, as a result of the refurbishments required by the new liturgy post-Vatican II, and is now in Carlow County Museum. Only occasionally, as in the case of St Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, in 1994, was the rejected pulpit subsequently restored to its original location. Pulpits, frequently a considerable decorative feature in a house of religion, offered scope not just to sculptors but also to architects and stonemasons – designed by the former to be carved by the latter. Among the mason sculptors particularly associated with the carving of pulpits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the Tomlins (qv), Edmund Sharp and James Pearse. In 1878 Pearse carved a pulpit to the design of architect J.J. McCarthy for St Mary’s Church, Athlone. When the richly ornamented stone pulpit was removed from the church, the carved panels, depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin, were saved and are displayed in the Pearse Museum, Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin. The form of the McCarthy/Pearse pulpit would not have found favour with Elliott, who was critical of the ‘stock octagonal form’ with relief panels. However, he might have admired the carving of the panels, executed in the ‘quiet, unpretentious, dignified’ manner that he approved of in pulpits (Elliott, p. 171).

The Catholic Church’s instructions on sacred art in the mid-twentieth century confirmed its traditional position with regard to what represented acceptable styles of art for devotional purposes. Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947, proposed that ‘Modern art should be given free scope’, before reining it in with the rejection of ‘extreme realism’ and ‘excessive “symbolism”’. ‘Distortion’ – particularly of the expressionist type – was deemed unacceptable. In Ireland, this position was reflected in the treatment of Andrew O’Connor’s (qv) Christ the King (bronze, Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin) [232], which was proposed to serve as a religious marker to those entering Ireland through the port at Dun Laoghaire. As a result of opposition to the unconventional nature of the statue, it failed to be erected as planned in the 1930s and was kept in storage until 1978. Among those who were opposed to the O’Connor sculpture were members of the Academy of Christian Art, which was founded in Dublin in 1929 and survived until 1946. One of the aims of the academy was to make people aware of the type of ‘art that should go to the service of God’ (report of the first meeting of the academy, IT, 23 April 1930). Acceptable religious imagery in Ireland at the time was still conservative, with the churches largely ‘furnished with cheap statuary and fussily designed Gothic altars’ (Bhreathnach Lynch, 2007, p. 124). Writing at the beginning of the century, Elliott had been critical of the lack of originality and the repetitive nature of these Gothic Revival altars with their pinnacles, panelled niches with canopies and figures of saints. Painted statuary did not find favour with Elliott either. It should be said that Pius XII, forty years later, was also opposed to ‘second-rate and stereotyped statues’, as was the Academy of Christian Art, which was particularly critical of the absence of native work in the churches.

Elliott despaired of ecclesiastical sculpture, much of which he thought was the work of ‘tradesmen’, rather than sculptors, and that it served its purpose as ‘religious utility’, but could not be considered ‘Catholic art’ (Elliott, p. 147). The proliferation of mason sculpture yards and of church furnishing retail outlets (or ‘shop art’ as Elliott referred to it), making available stock-designed and/or mass-produced devotional objects, played a substantial role in the presence in the churches of work of poor aesthetic quality. Elliott concentrated his discussion on art in the Catholic Church, and many of the mason yards and salesrooms for religious furnishings were similarly focused. Some examples are: the Glasnevin Marble Works, Farrell & Son, which established its premises near the entrance to the cemetery in Dublin shortly after it opened in 1832; M. and P. Harris, who, in 1835, opened their stone and marble works in Dublin’s Great Brunswick Street (later Pearse Street), which would become a popular area for sculpture yards; The Ecclesiastical Warehouse in Derry, which regularly advertised its ‘devotional works of all kinds – Statuary, Crucifixes’ and much more in the Donegal News early in the twentieth century; and John Arrigo & Sons Ltd., manufacturers of religious objects, who similarly announced its products in the Connacht Tribune.

In contrast to Elliott’s negative comments, the Irish Times in 1882 believed that Dublin excelled in ‘church decorations generally’, largely as a result of the presence in Upper Camden Street of the Earley and Powell (qv) workshop (IT, 21 January 1882), stone carvers who worked in Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant churches. An examination of ecclesiastical sculpture in Ireland in the modern period necessarily includes study of both main churches, with the Protestant Church in the ascendant until the nineteenth century, when, following the Relief Act of 1793 and Catholic Emancipation in 1829, there was extensive Catholic church-building across the country. This created a considerable amount of work for artists and artisans generally and sculptors and stonemasons in particular. The Farrell family is a noted example of a Catholic sculpture practice that was well resourced by their own, and indeed occasionally by the Protestant, Church. Thomas Farrell (qv) and his brothers worked out of their sculpture yard in Gloucester Street in the centre of Dublin, while periodically carrying out work for the Farrell and Son stone-yard in Glasnevin, probably established by their uncle. Altars, statues and monuments were carved on both premises, mostly for Dublin churches. In the course of their careers the Farrell brothers exhibited a range of religious statuary at RHA, both clerical portraits and religious subjects. Some of the latter was commissioned work, others were displayed in the hope of attracting patronage. The Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, Rathmines, Dublin [396], commissioned/purchased work from all five of the brothers.

396. Interior of Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners, Rathmines, Dublin, with statues by Thomas, William, Joseph and John Farrell. © Denis Mortell Photography.

Early in the 1860s Rathmines clerics and parishioners established a society to foster native Christian art in the decoration of Catholic churches, the result of which was evident in their newly completed church. The church proved to be an appropriate location, in October 1867, for a lecture on ‘The Use of the Beautiful in Catholic Worship’. The different features of the interior – including altar furniture, vestments, stained glass and sculpture – were deemed to be ‘all glories in art, blended in one exquisite entirety’ (FJ, 12 October 1867). Among the highlights, which added to the ‘internal magnificence of the church’, were the four colossal statues erected in the niches of the piers sustaining the dome: St Francis de Sales by Thomas Farrell, St Charles Borromeo by William Farrell, St Vincent de Paul by Joseph Farrell and St Philip Neri by John Farrell (qqv). The ‘dignified grace and ease’ of Thomas Farrell’s statue was particularly noted. The statue of Our Lady of Refuge above the pediment on the front façade is the work of James Farrell (qv). The Messrs. Farrell were also praised for their representation of the Last Supper on the main altar.

A general lack of originality in church sculpture is evident in the repeated use on altar frontals of images of the Last Supper, particularly the Leonardo da Vinci version, which was known in engraved variants. James Pearse owned a lithograph of the work from which he modelled a bas relief in clay [397] (Duffy, 1999, pp. 200–01). Clearly derived from the printed version, nonetheless, Pearse’s relief depicts the apostles with all the animation of the Leonardo fresco. However, the sculptor’s interpretation of the central figure of Christ lacks the subtlety of the Renaissance master’s work. Edmund Sharp in his small book Our Altars and How to Select Them (1896) advocated the use of the Last Supper for the frontals of main altars, but suggested the Supper at Emmaus, comprising fewer figures, as being more suitable for side altars (p. 210). Carved panels of the Last Supper, either commissioned or purchased ready-made, were found on altar frontals in churches all over the country, some of which are: the Church of St Alphonsus, Drumcondra, Dublin; SS Augustine and John, Thomas Street, Dublin; Church of the Assumption, Dalkey, Co. Dublin; SS Mary and Patrick, Avoca, Co. Wicklow; St Peter’s, Drogheda, Co. Louth; St Columb’s, Chapel Road, Derry; St Aidan’s, Glanmire, Co. Cork; St Eunan’s Cathedral, Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. In 1871 the Irish Times had special praise for a Carrara marble altar, on the front of which was ‘an admirably conceived and well-executed representation of the Lord’s Supper in alto relievo’ and which could be purchased from the premises of James O’Callaghan, Bachelors Walk, Dublin (24 March 1871). In spite of this confirmation of local excellence, the interpretation of Leonardo’s Last Supper on the altar frontal in St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, Armagh (later moved to St Patrick’s Church, Stonebridge, Co. Armagh), was carved by Roman sculptor Cesare Aureli.

397. James Pearse Last Supper after Leonardo Da Vinci clay Pearse Museum © Office of Public Works.

Protestant and Catholic Cathedrals erected in Longford, Belfast, Derry, Monaghan, Armagh, Cobh, Limerick, Dublin, Carlow and Tuam in the course of the nineteenth century have varying amounts of sculptural decoration – relief sculptures in tympana, 3D statues, altar decoration, pulpit, font and architectural sculpture (capitals and corbels). St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh, Co. Cork [398], is among the most lavish, with many depictions of the Virgin Mary; Irish and European saints; an extravagant pulpit; richly decorated capitals, corbels, figure work and carved quatrefoil wall panels [399] (1890s, J.A. O’Connell of Cork); an unrestrained high altar (1892, Earley & Powell), with twelve marble stations behind (1898, Angelo Ferretti of Carrara); stations of the cross (Smith of Dublin); ornamental brass and ironwork, including candelabra (McGloghlin & Sons, Dublin) (Cork Weekly Examiner, 20 August 1898; Ann Wilson, ‘The Gothic Revival in Ireland: St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh (1868– 1916)’, Antiphon, 11, 2 (2007), 14–42). Commenting on the designs for the building, the Cork Examiner noted how ‘it may be observed that nowhere that ornament can be judiciously employed will it be neglected’ (16 June 1879, quoted in Wilson, 23). C.W. Harrison’s (qv) central west tympanum, depicting Christ, the four evangelists and the apostles, is one of the more restrained aspects of the decoration. It is particularly in the sculptural work – images of early Irish saints, carved capitals depicting the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland and the ‘shamrocks [that] appear all over the building’ (Wilson, 25) – that the Celtic Revival ethos of the neo-gothic cathedral is confirmed. Early twentieth-century carvings in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast (Morris Harding and Rosamund Praeger (qqv)), and in St Brendan’s Cathedral, Loughrea, Co. Galway  (Michael Shortall (qv), [345]), reveal a similar commitment to the depiction of specifically Irish religious subject matter.

398. Interior St Colmans Cathedral Cobh Co. Cork. © National Library of Ireland
399. J. A. O Connell Daniel O Connell presenting Ireland with Catholic Emancipation 1895–96 carved wall panel St. Colmans Cathedral Co. Cork. Photo © Jim Wilson.

By contrast, Galway Cathedral (Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St Nicholas) built in the 1960s, while scarcely discreet in its decoration, is nonetheless less ostentatious than the gothic revival structures and does not concern itself with Irishness in its sculptures. The design of the cathedral afforded more attention to stained glass than to sculpture. Three carved lunettes over the entrance to the church are the work of Domhnall Ó Murchada (qv) – depictions of Baptism, Matrimony and Ordination. Above these is a bronze statue of the Madonna and Child by Imogen Stuart (qv). Figure groups, by Gabriel Hayes (qv), representing the Stations of the Cross, have a substantial presence on the interior walls. A seventeenth-century carved triptych representing the Coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Blessed Trinity (from the medieval church of St Nicholas, Galway) is in the cathedral’s chapel dedicated to St Nicholas.

Imogen Stuart, a convert to Catholicism, who has had a continuing commitment to the production of religious imagery, acknowledged the importance of church patronage for sculptors in Ireland at a time when there might have been little other available work (Brian Fallon, Imogen Stuart, Dublin, 2002, p. 28). She, along with several of her peers, exhibited religious sculptures at the ISI (qv) exhibitions in the 1950s. The ISI had a strong religious impetus. Recognizing the Catholic Church as one of the main patrons of sculpture, Peter Grant (qv), in the catalogue accompanying the second of these exhibitions, commented on the withering effect of ‘mass-produced repository work’ (Taispeántas Dealbadhóireachta/Sculpture Exhibition, Dublin 1954, p. 4). Many of these same artists participated in the exhibition Church Art, organized by the Benedictine monks at Glenstal Abbey, Murroe, Co. Limerick, in conjunction with the Third Liturgical Congress of 1956. Other exhibitors were Yvonne Jammet, Peter Grant, Richard King, Leo Broe, Angela Antrim, Oisín Kelly, Frank Morris, Séamus Murphy (qqv), Michael Biggs (1928–93), Ian Friers (1909–75) and Wicklow-born Brother Benedict Tutty (1924–96), who was a member of the Order. The first of such exhibitions of contemporary religious art in Ireland had been held under the auspices of the Academy of Christian Art in 1941. There followed, in the 1950s and 1960s, several similar exhibitions held in connection with the Salzburg International Biennale of Contemporary Christian Art, whereby local artists were selected to compete in the international forum. In 1962, 250 works of art were submitted for the Irish section. This included significant representation from sculptors, among whom, Oisín Kelly, a winner in Salzburg in 1956, Gerda Frömel (qv) and Nell Murphy (1927–2011, Nell Pollen) were selected – all three submitted depictions of the Last Supper: Frömel (a bronze and steel plaque); Murphy (a low-relief concrete sculpture); and Kelly (a plaster version) (IT, 10 February 1962).

Kelly would take the Last Supper to a larger and more commanding stage and reveal just how innovative its use could be in ecclesiastical sculpture, in methods of display and integrity of expression. Two large relief panels of the subject were carved by him, one, in teak in 1962, was exhibited in the Municipal Gallery (later HL) before being installed in the entrance porch of the Church of Corpus Christi, Knockanure, Co. Kerry (1964, designed by Michael Scott) [167], and another in slate for St Theresa’s at Sion Mills, Co. Tyrone (1965, designed by Patrick Haughey). A further Kelly Last Supper, shown at an exhibition of Irish Ecclesiastic Art in Cork in 1971, was deemed to create ‘an atmosphere of calm acceptance’. Other regular practitioners of religious art who appeared among the exhibitors in Cork were: Joseph Higgins (bronze bust of Blessed Oliver Plunkett); Séamus Murphy (two Madonnas, bronze and stone); John Haugh and Father Henry Flanagan (wood carvings); Patrick McElroy (silver altarware); Richard King (qqv) (The Risen Christ, enamelled copper); John O’Leary (Cross, silver and wood); Benedict Tutty. Brother Tutty’s ‘abstracts in enamelled copper’ were considered ‘among the most beautiful exhibits imaginatively compelling in concept and unobtrusively simple in execution’ (IT, 30 January 1971).

An exhibition of Tutty’s work was held in Glenstal Abbey in July 2009, in conjunction with the conference of the International Society of Christian Artists (SIAC: Société Internationale des Artistes Chrétiens), a body that had been in operation since 1951. As well as secular works by Tutty, the exhibition included a Crucifix, a relief of the Madonna and Child, a ciborium and a sanctuary lamp, examples of the range of modern religious work for which he was and remains better known. The extent of Tutty’s modern approach to religious imagery can be identified in the recognition of his work at the Exhibition of Visual Art Limerick (subsequently EV+A), which was (and continues to be) acknowledged as one of the foremost avant-garde shows taking place annually in Ireland, and where, in 1977, he received honourable mention for a Crucifixion. Tutty’s Stations of the Cross (terracotta, 1978) [400] for the Church of SS Brigid and Oliver on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands in Co. Galway, have a fractured character that is suitably primitive for their location on the Aran Islands.

400. Benedict Tutty, Stations of the Cross, 1978, terracotta, Church of SS Brigid and Oliver, Inishmore, Aran Islands, Co. Galway. Irish Press, 3 November 1978. With thanks to Irish Newspaper Archives and the Irish Press.

Tutty’s modernity, and that of others who had been making religious art since the late 1960s, was enabled by decisions made at the Second Vatican Council, which closed in 1965 and which acknowledged that ‘Artistic styles vary from one time to another. Modern art is the expression of our times; provided that it is in keeping with divine worship, a work of modern art may be used for sacred use’. The Renaissance of Catholic church-building in the eighteenth century and its more extensive development in the nineteenth century fostered revivals of classical and medieval styles – Greek and Gothic Revival, but also, Hiberno Romanesque, with surviving examples of artistic ornament found in pre-Reformation Catholic Church buildings serving as source material for Celtic Revival decoration. By contrast, the liberation associated with Vatican II motivated the development of radically different church buildings, which appeared in – if not always in harmony with – the Irish landscape. The new liturgical conditions, encouraging active participation of the faithful, required a rethinking of the layout of churches to facilitate better communication between the clergy and the congregation. The novel forms and different internal arrangements necessarily had an impact on the decoration. No longer ostentatious, the structures are spare, geometric and bright. With the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Pope Paul VI, 1963) forbidding ‘sumptuous display’, the decorative detailing in the churches reflects the ‘simplicity’ that was a requirement of Vatican II, but not always the accompanying ‘dignity’. The refurbishment of old churches in line with the new liturgical requirements, which involved the altar to be facing the congregation, often resulted in ‘the old one behind the new’, which Michael Biggs thought ‘absurd’ (letter to IT, 12 May 1984). Biggs designed impressive freestanding altars for both new and refurbished churches. When the Cistercian Holy Cross Abbey, Thurles, was transformed into a parish church in 1967, Biggs carved stark limestone forms, including an altar, a lectern and a chair, for the sanctuary. His altar in the new Convent Chapel, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, 1965 [401], is similarly box-like in form, commanding attention by way of the bold carving on the altar frontal. Collaborations were not unusual in these new churches and in this chapel the crucifix and tabernacle are the work of Patrick McElroy.

401. Sisters of Mercy Convent Chapel, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, with altar by Michael Biggs and crucifix and tabernacle by Patrick McElroy, 1965. Reproduced from R. Hurley and W. Cantwell, Contemporary Irish Church Architecture(Dublin, 1985), p. 56. Courtesy of the Estates of Michael Biggs and Patrick McElroy.

Architect Richard Hurley, who published widely on post Vatican II church architecture and decoration in Ireland, was a founding member of the Advisory Committee on Sacred Art and Architecture, established in 1965. Hurley was involved in both the design of new churches and the redesign of older ones in accordance with the new liturgy. The traditionally designed rectangular chapel of the diocesan seminary, St Patrick’s College, Carlow, was refurbished in 1970 by Tyndall Hogan Hurley. The pleasingly simple continuous space includes a wooden altar (designed by Hurley), a separately positioned tabernacle by Tutty on a robustly formed abstract stone support by Ray Carroll, and a freestanding cross also by Tutty – all nicely spaced through the centre of a long chapel. Hurley’s design for the Beaumont Hospital Chapel, Dublin, in 1980, includes further work by Tutty – a set of stations of the cross and a Madonna and Child.

In 1974 the Catholic hierarchy invited the Advisory Committee on Sacred Art and Architecture to redress the increasing absence of religious art in private houses, which resulted in an exhibition, Sacred Art for the Home, being held in Dublin in the same year. Many of the sculptors who had exhibited in the religious art exhibitions in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s, competing for a place at the Salzburg Biennale, and who have work in the modern churches, participated, notably Kelly, Tutty, Stuart, Carroll, Nell Murphy and Christopher Ryan (b. 1924). The basic requirements for work submitted were: popular religious subjects; it had to be clearly representational; in a medium suitable for reproduction; ‘popular in its concept, medium and realisation’; durable, packable, displayable; and economical (Furrow, 25, 7 (July 1974), 385). The work was mostly well reviewed, but the premise of producing small, accessible, popular work for replication seemed to be a retrogressive step, contraverting the newly gained freedom of expression. The Furrow, a religious journal founded in 1950 at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, like its counterparts the Capuchin Annual (1930–77) and the Father Mathew Record (1908–67) maintained a brief for promoting religious art in keeping with church teaching. In its reviews of contemporary exhibitions, without ignoring the wider range of work on display, writers for the The Furrow concentrated more attention on the depictions of religious subjects, revealing, in the case of sculptors, the extent to which this formed a considerable part of their output. The final exhibition of the ISI, which was an international show held in 1959, included images of Christ, madonnas, saints, Crucifixes, Stations of the Cross and narrative scenes (Angela Antrim (qv) showed a bronze Descent from the Cross). Seán Corkery in The Furrow commented on all these works, noting expressions of suffering, divinity and simplicity in different pieces, and comparing them favourably with the ‘chalky-gods’ in the Christmas crib which had been placed in the centre of Dublin (11, 1 (January 1960), 47–50). In the early twenty-first century, with reduced church congregations and less demand for church furnishings, the same journal would find a paucity of religious sculpture on display in the exhibitions of contemporary art, while the cribs continue to be erected.  

SELECTED READING   Robert Elliott, Art and Ireland, Dublin, 1906; Richard Hurley and Wilfred Cantwell, Contemporary Irish Church Architecture, Dublin, 1985; Síghle Bhreathnach Lynch, ‘The Church and the Artist 1922–1945’, IAR (1991/92), 130–34; Síghle Bhreathnach Lynch, ‘The Academy of Christian Art, 1929–46)’, Éire-Ireland, 31, 3 and 4 (Fall/Winter 1996), 102–16; Duffy, 1999; John Turpin, ‘Modernism, Tradition and Debates on Religious Art in Ireland 1920–1950’, Studies, 91, 363 (Autumn 2002), 252–66.

The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.