03 February 2021
Did Harry Clarke make deliberate
errors in the O’Keefe window in
Bride Street Church, Wexford?
Sunday last (31 January) was the Feast of Saint Aidan, the patron saint of the Diocese of Ferns and Co Wexford. But he probably went unnoticed this year, because of the pandemic lockdown and because his day fell on a Sunday.
As I was scrolling through old photographs from Wexford last weekend, clearing up more space on my Google account, I came across photographs that depict Saint Aidan in a stained-glass window by Harry Clarke in the Church of the Assumption in Bride Street, Wexford.
Bride Street Church is one of Wexford’s great Gothic Revival churches and one of the town’s ‘Twin Churches’: the Church of the Assumption on Bride Street and the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Rowe Street.
The Twin Churches are architectural masterpieces by Wexford’s own Gothic Revival architect, Richard Pierce (1801-1854) from Kilmore, who was once AWN Pugin’s clerk of works. The foundation stones of both churches were laid in 1851, and they were completed in 1858. Their identical spires long defined the Wexford skyline until the building of the new Opera House in High Street.
The East Window by John Hardman and Company (established 1838) of Birmingham is often regarded as the jewel among the stained-glass windows in Bride Street Church. The Hardman studios, established in 1838, are closely linked with the Gothic revival of the 19th century, and many of their windows are in churches throughout these islands associated with AWN Pugin (1812-1852)
However, I wonder how many people visiting Bride Street Church also notice the O’Keefe window by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) in the side aisle.
This is one of only five Harry Clarke windows in Co Wexford – a second Harry Clarke window is in the mortuary chapel in Saint Michael’s Church, Gorey, and the other three are in Christ Church, the Church of Ireland parish church in Gorey: Saint Stephen (1922), Saint Luke and Saint Martin of Tours with the Beggar (1923) and a Rose Window (1923).
The window in Bride Street church is an early masterpiece by Harry Clarke and has been described by the art historian the late Nicola Gordon Bowe as the epitome of Clarke’s work in the Art Nouveau style, where ‘the intricacy of detail is never sacrificed to the fluid integrity of the composition.’
The Wexford writer and researcher Lucy Costigan describes the O’Keefe window in great detail in her definitive book, Strangest Genius: the Stained Glass Windows of Harry Clarke (2010), published by History Press Ireland, with an introduction by Harry Clarke’s granddaughter, Sunniva Clarke Sheridan, and with generous illustrations by the Wexford photographer Michael Cullen. The window also features on the back cover of this book.
The window, ‘The Madonna with Saints Aidan and Adrian,’ was commissioned in 1918 by Matilda O’Keefe in memory of her son, Lieutenant William Henry O’Keefe, who was killed in World War I, and it was erected in the south aisle of Bride Street Church in 1919.
The O’Keefe family of the Faythe were prominent corn merchants and one of leading families in the malting industry that flourished in Wexford in the 18th and 19th centuries. The family lived at Faythe House, close to Bride Street Church.
Lieutenant William Henry O’Keeffe was born at Saint Magdalene, Wexford, on 13 July 1896, the second son of William Joseph O’Keefe, merchant, of Saint Magdalene and Faythe House, Wexford, and his wife Matilda Mary Agnes (née Fogarty) O’Keefe.
He went to school at Castleknock College, Dublin, and later studied engineering at the Royal College of Science, Dublin. When World War I broke out, he was commissioned in the 40th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, and by August 1915 he was on active service in France.
He was killed in action during the Battle of Arras on the morning of Saturday 19 May 1917. A stray German shell hit the officers’ mess, where he just had breakfast. He is buried in Plot VF 10 at Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras, Pas de Calais.
The O’Keefe window was commissioned by his mother, Matilda O’Keefe, in remembrance of her son. World War I was still being waged when Harry Clarke (1889-1931) travelled from Dublin to Wexford to meet her on 14 September 1918 and to discuss the window. On 27 September, he sent Mrs O’Keefe a design for a two-light window that would cost £125.
Clarke selected the glass for his Wexford window in January 1919 and worked throughout the month of April on the window and the tracery lights. He completed the window in May 1919. The window is signed by Harry Clarke and was set in place in 1919.
This vibrant stained-glass window is in the art nouveau style. The design is classic Harry Clarke, with figures that are elongated in a style that is typical of Clarke, who uses the grisaille effect on faces and hands.
In the first, left light, the image of the Madonna and the Christ Child evokes the bond between mother and child. She is floating serenely above the blue sea. She is clothed in a shimmering gown and an elaborate and bejewelled gown of deep blue that extends into the second panel, where two saints have come to pay homage.
The Virgin Mary’s turquoise headdress is encircled by a halo of ruby and emerald, while her slippers are of pink. There is a chalice to the right of her head, and a silhouette of the Crucifixion at her right shoulder.
Below her feet is another chalice, the monogram IHS (Iesus Hominum Salvator, ‘Jesus, Saviour of Humanity’) and a sail ship that Lucy Costigan describes as a ‘wind-blown galleon,’ although that Clarke may have intended this ship to represent the three burning ships on the coat-of-arms of Wexford town: ‘Argent, three lymphads flammant with pennons all proper; motto, Per Aquam et Ignem.
The Christ Child sits on a long white sole on the Virgin Mary’s lap and is dressed in robes of ivory and pale gold. His head is surrounded a silver halo with a gold cross. To his right is a miniature figure of Christ, holding a cross and flag as a symbol of his Resurrection.
In the second, right light, the two saints are depicted in profile, paying homage to the Madonna and Christ Child: Saint Adrian is the patron saint of soldiers and Saint Aidan of Ferns represents Wexford.
While the Madonna and Child are on the sea, the two saints are on land, and their names are given in their halos. Saint Adrian is in a lemon, crimson and black cloak, with a blue helmet, and he carries a long, golden crucifix. Saint Aiden is depicted as an ascetic bishop, holding a church in his right hand and an ornate silver crosier in his left hand.
The borders are decorated with twisting branches, roses and lilies. Clarke fills every section with numerous tiny details, including a ship, two leaping fish, crucifixion images, a tiny image of the Church of the Assumption, a heart and cross representing the Sacred Heart as well as his ubiquitous floral ornamentations and his signature above the top fish.
Above, in a trefoil tracery light, is a bearded Franciscan friar with the initials SA, possibly Saint Anthony, who gazes out in an attitude of prayer. In an inverted triangle below the Franciscan saint is the emblem of the Royal Field Artillery, a crown and cannon.
The inscription in the lower left corner reads: ‘In loving memory of Lieut William Henry O’Keefe RFA, aged 21 years, killed in action in France May 19th 1917. Give him eternal rest O Lord.’
O’Keefe was still only 20, two months short of his 21st birthday, when he was killed, yet his mother must have approved this detail in the window. And this is not the only peculiar point to note in this widow.
The window also includes a version of the coat of arms and motto of the O’Keefe family, with the motto above rather than below. The coat-of-arms seems to have been adopted from the heraldic arms on the monument to the London lawyer Arthur O’Keeffe in the west cloister of Westminster Abbey.
The heraldic display on O’Keefe’s monument is now worn, but the abbey website says the blazon was described in 1823 as: Quarterly of four: 1, azure, a lion rampant or, for O’Keeffe; 2, sable, an armed knight proper, on a grey horse, ground vert; 3, or, a peacock in its pride proper; 4; vert, three lizards in pale or, impaling or a chevron ermine, between three trefoils slipped proper. Supporters: two lions rampant. Motto: Forti et Fideli nihil difficile (‘To the brave and faithful nothing is difficult’).
However, Clarke changed the colours of the first quarter from azure (blue) and or (gold) to gules (red) and argent (silver), and the background colour in the second quarter from sable (black) to gules (red). He seems to have found it too daunting a challenge to depict a peacock in the third quarter or the details of the impaled arms in the fourth quarter. Indeed, the O’Keefe arms are normally given not as azure a lion rampant or, or as gules a lion rampant argent, but as: ‘Vert, a lion rampant or, in chief two dexter hands couped at the wrist erect and apaumee of the last.’
The O’Keefe arms in the window does not include the two severed rights hands, and Clarke’s change of colour makes the O’Keefe arms similar to those of the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury: ‘Gules a lion rampant or, a bordure engrailed of the last.’
It is unlikely that Clarke was not familiar with the symbolism and meaning of colours in heraldry and how they are used in stained-glass windows –the flaming ship in this window is a reference to the arms of Wexford town. In a similar way, in adopting a coat-of-arms associated with Arthur O’Keeffe, the O’Keefe family of the Faythe would not have made the deliberate social mistake of using the arms of the Talbots, Earls of Shrewsbury.
A monument in the porch of Bride Street Church lists the various gifts given to the church when it was being completed and decorated, and is headed by the name of the Countess of Shrewsbury. Maria Theresa Talbot was a daughter of William Talbot of Castle Talbot, Co Wexford, and she married John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, in 1814.
This family connection was instrumental in bringing AWN Pugin, the architect of the Gothic revival, to Wexford, and his influence is clearly visible in the ‘Twin Churches’ in Bride Street and Rowe Street.
Perhaps this heraldic ‘imperfection’ is an example of those many deliberate mistakes by artists in an effort to show humility in the presence of God who alone is perfect. It is a tradition found from Japanese ceramics, to Persian rugs, Islamic architecture, and Navajo weaving, seen in the art of Leonardo da Vinci and the floors of the synagogues of Venice. This is a custom that seeks to illustrate that God alone is perfect but also to reinforce the idea that there is beauty in imperfections, and beauty itself is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
As for Harry Clarke’s O’Keefe window in Wexford, it is also unique as one of only three known stained-glass windows in Roman Catholic churches in Ireland that are World War I memorial windows. This is difficult to explain, given that over 200,000 Irish soldiers fought in World War I, that 35,000 Irish soldiers died in that war, and that the majority were Roman Catholics.