“We shouldn’t calculate the exchange rate.” It was the best advice my Dad and I could offer each other after paying 75 Euros each for a round-trip train ticket from Dublin to Cork. My father, ever patient, never hesitated. We both understood that the opportunity to see Harry Clarke’s stained glass windows at the Honan Chapel on the grounds of University College Cork while we were in Ireland could not be passed up. In the short time I’ve been working at the Rakow Research Library, Harry Clarke’s design drawing for the window of St. Gobnait, a distinctly Irish saint and patron saint of beekeepers, had captured my imagination. The drawing is a Rakow treasure, seeing the window was essential.
I was formally introduced to Harry Clarke’s work by Audrey Whitty, the Museum’s curator of European and Asian glass. While employed at the National Museum of Ireland, Audrey had collected some of Clarke’s early work, most notably “The Unhappy Judas” completed in 1913, two years before the start of his Honan Chapel commission. I had seen the design art for St. Gobnait, and it already held my fascination, but Audrey put the work in context. To me, the design drawing of St. Gobnait has a completeness of composition that makes it more than a design: from the delicate, yet powerful features of St. Gobnait to the intricate details of the bees surrounding her, to the way Clarke wove honeycomb patterns into the fabric of Gobnait’s cloak and throughout the rest of the design. Most of all, I loved Clarke’s attention to detail, reflected in his meticulous work on the background of the window. Clarke’s passion can be felt in each of the dots he carefully painted. His dots, more than any detail, attached me to the work.
The Honan Chapel, designed by architect Sir John O’Connell, opened on November 6, 1916. Built in the Celtic Revival style, O’Connell sought to create a chapel that was “truly and sincerely Irish,” but would still have a contemporary appeal. Harry Clarke designed 11 of the 17 stained glass windows. In keeping with the artistic intentions, the windows feature predominantly Irish saints. Upon entering, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the Chapel’s interior, the wonderful mosaics, metalworking, and masonry. Yet the chapel is warm and inviting, not overwhelming.
When I spotted St. Gobnait, I was both awestruck and surprised. The St. Gobnait of the Honan Chapel is quite different from the Rakow’s St. Gobnait. Clarke’s window uses a darker palette, with main colors of dark blues and reds. In glass, St. Gobnait is an even more powerful figure. Her expression is less serene. She is beautiful, yet there is a subtle fierceness in her aspect. The dots, still my favorite feature, are vivid reds and blues. The final work is challenging, and taking some extra time to study the patterns and the fabric of the glass is rewarding. Seeing St. Gobnait in the company of other Irish saints for the first time, I was struck by how Clarke’s windows are so well composed as a group.
My Dad and I took in the chapel: taking photos, pausing as a worshiper came in for midday prayers, taking a group photo for German tourists who were as excited about their World Cup victory as they were about being in the Honan Chapel. At that moment, I couldn’t help but reflect on how fortunate I was to have experienced Clarke’s St. Gobnait in both preliminary and final form. Not only could I appreciate the beauty in both works, but seeing Clarke’s artistic process was a valuable step towards appreciating his art. My experience reminded me of the value of the Museum’s and the Rakow Library’s work: preserving the story of glass, making it accessible to anyone. Finally, I thought about how special it is to be able to share works like this with colleagues, Museum visitors, and, on this day, my Father.
For more on Harry Clarke and the Honan Chapel, please see The Honan Chapel: a golden vision, edited by Virginia Teehan and Elizabeth Wincott Heckett and Harry Clarke: the life & work by Nicola Gordon Bowe.
The Rakow Research Library is open to the public 9am to 5pm every day. We encourage everyone to explore our collections in person or online. If you have questions or need help with your research, please use our Ask a Glass Question service.
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