15 August 2014
Last weekend, for the first time I can remember, I visited the Church of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Francis Street, in inner-city Dublin.
I have often seen this church from the outside, and I have referred to it a few times when writing about Saint Nicholas and the real Santa Claus. But each time I passed by in recent weeks, the gates leading into the small courtyard off Francis Street were locked and the church was closed.
My interest in visiting the church was heightened recently weeks when I realised that my great-grand-mother, Anne Doyle, from nearby Cross Kevin Street, was baptised in this church in 1834, the year the church was completed.
But I had also discovered a unearthed a number of Comerford family baptisms in the church, where some children in one branch of the family were baptised both there and in a neighbouring Church of Ireland parish church, indicating complex layers of Protestant/Catholic identities in 19th century Dublin, even in one family.
With all this at the back of my mind, I was delighted to find the church building open last Saturday morning and stepped into an architectural and decorative delight.
In mediaeval times, a Franciscan friary stood on this site, giving its name to Francis Street, but it came to an end with the dissolution of the monasteries at the Tudor Reformation.
Archbishop Patrick Russell (1683-1692) designated an earlier church on this site as the Metropolitan Church for the Roman Catholic Archbishops of Dublin.
The last archbishop to use the Francis Street Chapel as his Pro-Cathedral was John Thomas Troy (1787-1797), who was solemnly enthroned here on 15 February 1788 in a public ceremony attended by leading representatives of politics, society and the life of the city. But when Archbishop Troy moved from his residence from Francis Street to North King Street, the Pro-Cathedral status of the chapel in Francis Street came to an end.
The present church was designed by John Leeson, who also worked on the Pro-Cathedral in Marlborough Street, and briefly on the plans for Saint Andrew’s in Westland Row. Building work began in the late Georgian period in 1829 and the church was opened in 1834 and dedicated in 1835.
The portico and tower, designed by John Bourke, were added in 1856-1860.
And it is this Ionic portico and Italianate tower, in granite and Portland stone, that are probably the most striking features of the church.
At one time, the pediment was topped by statues of the Virgin Mary with Saint Nicholas and Saint Patrick on either side, but these have been removed, and although they are supposed to be in the porch, I missed them on my visit last Saturday.
Inside, the church is neoclassical in style and is strikingly beautiful, brightly painted and decorated.
The layout is a traditional T-style church, with the altar at the centre of the east wall, a baptistery at the north end, a marriage chapel (which I did not gain entry to) at the south end, and a gallery with an organ at the west end. The church has a five-bay nave, with shallow, three-bay transepts.
Above the crossing is a circled, coffered ceiling designed to look like a dome. This is decorated with images of the Twelve Disciples, and on the four corners are images of the four Fathers of the Church: Saint Gregory, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine.
But for most visitors, the focal point on entering the church must be the Pieta and the two angels above and beside the original main altar. The altar was imported from Rome, but the white marble Pieta is the work of John Hogan and the angels on either side are the work of Francesco Pozzi of Florence.
Above the altar is a triangular representation of the all-seeing eye of God, which I have often seen on the ceilings in Greek churches.
The side altar on the north side is surmounted by a frieze-like plaster relief of the Last Supper after Leonardo da Vinci. Above the side altar on the south side is a similar work depicting the Marriage of the Virgin Mary, following a painting by Pietro Perugino ca 1500 and originally in the cathedral in Perugia before being seized by Napoleon and taken to France.
A similar style is used in the decoration of the Baptistery, with a stucco depiction of the Baptism of Christ.
The parish priest who was instrumental in the design, building and decoration of the church, Father Mathew Flanagan, brought in Hogan and some of the great sculptors, painters and craftsmen in early and mid-19th century Dublin to work on the interior of his new church.
But he also left reminders of his own family tree around the church. In the west wall of the north transept there is a monument to his mother, Mary Flanagan, who died in 1830, and his brother, Stephen Flanagan, as well as a white marble sarcophagus on the east wall of the south transept.
In the west wall of the south transept, there is a stele and a mourning figure and draped urn commemorating John Delaney of Air Park, Rathfarnham, while on the south wall there is a draped urn and sarcophagus remembering James Lawlor.
Father Flanagan attracted some of the finest and best of stuccodores, tilers, artists and artisans from early 19th century Dublin to work with Leeson and Hogan on his new church.
Some of the stained glass dates from the 1850s, including a crucifixion with the coat-of-arms of the Murphy family, and there are windows from the Earley workshops and other examples of Victorian and early 20th century arts and crafts work that link this church with later tastes in church design and decoration.
In the north nave wall, Saint Nicholas is depicted in an Earley stained-glass window with three golden balls or bags and an anchor lie at his feet.
On my way out, I missed a panel in the nave ceiling depicting the Manx coat-of-arms with three conjoined legs. It is supposed to be reminder of a link between this parish and the Isle of Man. I suppose I shall just have to go back and look for that and the statues that once graced the pediment.