23 August 2015

A tour of Russborough House in the rain
to delight historians of art and architecture

The Library in Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wickow, with one of the three stucco ceilings in the house by the Lafranchini brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

What do you do on a rainy summer afternoon?

I was in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount, this morning, presiding at the Sung Eucharist and preaching.

But it had been raining all morning, and when I left at early lunchtime there was no sign of the downpour easing.

A walk on the beach was certainly out of the question, and so instead two of us headed back through Knocklyon, and then out through Bohernabreena and Blessington to spend an afternoon in Russborough House on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains.

I had been to Russborough earlier last year, on another rainy afternoon, and had a double espresso during that visit, but I had never been on a tour of the house.

Russborough House, near Blessington, Co Wicklow, on a wet August afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Russborough is one of Ireland’s truly great houses. It was built in the 1740s by Richard Castle for Joseph Leeson, a wealthy Dublin brewer. As Castle’s masterpiece it represents one of the most architecturally significant neo-Palladian buildings in Ireland.

Leeson, who later became 1st Earl of Milltown, embarked on two extensive Grand Tours to Italy, commissioning and acquiring paintings in Florence, classical statues, and splendid rococo gilt furniture, to adorn the house and to complement its decoration.

Much of the stucco ceiling work in Russborough House may be the work of the Lafranchini brothers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Much of the plaster work is attributed, without certainly by the great Swiss-Italian stuccodores, the Lafranchini brothers Paolo and Filippo. They were among the earliest and great stucco artists in Ireland, and their work in Russborough includes the ceilings of the library, saloon and music room.

Russborough was home to a curious cast of characters from Joseph Leeson, the idiot 2nd Earl of Milltown, to Joseph Leeson, the dysfunctional 4th earl, who spent almost the entire family fortune at the racetrack, and his formidable wife. Their son eloped with a farm girl.

The coat-of-arms of the Earls of Milltown in frosted glass in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Earls of Milltown remained at Russborough until the early 20th century when the last countess donated its contents to the National Gallery of Ireland. The house passed to a nephew of the 4th Earl of Milltown, Sir Edmund Russborough Turton, whose widow later sold the house and estate to Colonel Denis Daly.

In 1952, Russborough was bought by Sir Alfred Beit, whose family made its fortune in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, and Lady Beit. They brought with them their internationally acclaimed art collection, including works by artists such as Murillo, Vermeer and Velázquez.

Several well publicised robberies in the 1970s and 1990s did not deter the Beits from two public generous bequests to the people of Ireland. They donated major works of art to the National Gallery of Ireland, while the house and its collection were passed to the Alfred Beit Foundation.

Our tour began in the Dining Room, with its Italianate mantelpiece decorated with a mask of Bacchus supported by the vine. The dining table was made in the 1930s and the mirror dates from the reign of George II.

We then moved on the entrance hall. While all the other rooms on view have covered ceilings that bring down the cornice and frieze by two or three feet, the hall is rectangular and gives the impression of greater height than the other rooms. In fact, they are all have a uniform height of 20 ft.

The two niches on either side of the Kilkenny black limestone fireplace contain 18th century French stone busts of an unknown lady and gentleman by Pajou (1730-1809). In the two niches on the north wall are busts of Sir Alfred and Lady Beit. The glass chandelier, which forms a pair with the chandelier in the saloon, is by Perry of London (ca 1820).

There are two paintings by the Genoese artist Alessandro Magnasco (1681-1747), one depicting Saint Augustine and his vision of the Christ Child, and the other Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to the birds and the fish.

The Drawing Room in Russborough House has fine plaster mouldings made to display Vernet’s marine paintings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Drawing Room was probably completed in the mid-1750s, after the rest of the house was finished and after the death of Richard Castle in 1751 to accommodate four marine scenes by Joseph Vernet. The pictures represent morning, afternoon, evening and night. The fine wall plaster mouldings were made to receive them in their present frames, which are the original ones.

The ceiling is the work of an anonymous stucco artist known as the Saint Petersburg Stuccodore.

But the main focus in the room is a copy of The Triumph of David by Guercino – Leeson may have seen the original in Rome in the Galleria Colonna.

The barrel-vaulted ceiling in the Tapestry Room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Tapestry Room has a barrel vaulted ceiling. It is an unusual choice of room to display a state bed made for Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the Spinning Jenny. The Soho Tapestry, dating from around 1720, represents Mogul characters and fantasies. The mantelpiece shows Aesop’s fable of the dog and the bone: a dog carrying a bone was crossing a stream and saw a much larger bone reflected in the water; to get it, he dropped his bone in the water and of course ended up without either.

Aesop’s greedy dog with a bone in the Tapestry Room )Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

This room once displayed The Moorish Kitchen Maid and Christ at Emmaus, both by Velasquez. Today, the main painting in the room is a portrait of an unknown female sitter by the French artist Andre Derain, and few visitors probably notice the signed Picasso in the corner.

Looking out on the rain from the Music Room in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Music Room also has a ceiling by the Lafranchini Brothers, but is very different from the others with a more geometrical form that has the effect of a sounding board. The pianos, one Steinway and one Bluthner, are encased in matching inlaid rosewood.

Androcles and the Lion … the mantelpiece in the Saloon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Saloon is the largest room in the house. It too has a superb plaster ceiling by the Lafranchini brothers, decorated with of putti or angels. The chandelier is a pair to the one in the front hall.

The mantelpiece, probably by Thomas Carter of London, represents the story of Androcles and the Lion, flanked by Homer and Plato. The room also has a portrait of Thomas Conolly of Castletown House by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

The Library has another of the three stucco ceilings by the Lafranchini brothers. This room, which is probably my favourite room in the house, once displayed Goya’s portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate, a Spanish actress who had the distinction of being painted twice by Goya – the other portrait is in the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

The stucco plasterwork in the Staircase Hall appears to be the work of Irish apprentices and pupils (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The plasterwork in the Staircase Hall is probably by Irish apprentices and pupils. Mixed with garlands are the masks of hounds and other trophies of the chase, and in a rectangular plaster frame on the left of the door from the front hall is a caricature of the 1st EarI of Milltown.

The domed oval lantern upstairs in Russborough House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Upstairs, we saw the domed oval lantern and visited some of the bedrooms, with their spectacular views of the parkland, the Blessington lakes and the Wicklow Mountains. Indeed, these views were one of Leeson’s reasons for choosing this location for building his house.

We visited the basement before finishing our visit with a late lunch in the Tea Rooms – including the requisite doubles espressos. As we were leaving we also visited the Hippodrome, a former riding school restored by the Beits.

The Hippodrome or former riding school was restored by the Beits (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

It was a guided tours to excite and inspire historians and lovers of art and architecture, from the beauty of the Lafranchini ceilings to the collection of art, furnishings and ornaments.

There are guided tours of the house every hour, on the hour, from May to September, and on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays in April and October.

The view of the Co Wicklow countryside inspired Joseph Leeson’s choice of site for his new Palladian mansion near Blessington, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

‘Abide with Me’: the Eucharist is the
shape of the mission-shaped Church

‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me’ (John 6: 56) … an icon of Christ the Great High Priest, in a shop window in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford,

Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin

Sunday 23 August 2015,

The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity,

11 a.m., The Sung Eucharist

I Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43 or Joshua 24: 1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 84 or Psalm 34: 15-22; Ephesians 6: 10-20; John 6: 56-69.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

With this morning’s Gospel reading, we conclude our series of four readings in the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in Saint John’s Gospel. This is also one of the most explicit Trinitarian passages in the New Testament.

In this morning’s reading, Christ speaks to us of the Trinity in terms of the inter-relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, explaining how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit work together, dance together, and are inseparable.

We owe our understandings of the Trinity, in terms of doctrine and social understanding, and how we express these understandings to the Cappadocian Fathers.

I spent some time in Cappadocia, in south-central Turkey, earlier this year. I was there because of my interest in sites associated with the three Cappadocian Fathers.

These were three key Patristic writers and saints: Saint Basil the Great (329-379), Bishop of Caesarea, his brother Saint Gregory (335-395), Bishop of Nyssa, and Saint Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), who became Patriarch of Constantinople.

They challenged heresies such as Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ, and their thinking was instrumental in formulating the phrases that shaped the Nicene Creed.

But their thinking was not about doctrine alone. It was also about living the Christian life.

So, for example, Saint Basil challenged the social values of his day. He wrote: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”

Sacramental practice must be related to the practice of Christianity, and doctrine and belief must be related to how we live our lives as Christians.

Without the Cappadocian Fathers, would we have turned away from the difficult teachings of Christ, as we find them in this Gospel passage? Would we too have dismissed this passage as a “hard saying.”

Although Christ’s words “I am the Bread of Life” are familiar to many Christians, in this passage the disciples declare this to be a “hard saying.”

Christ is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, where he is interpreting a passage of scripture that has already been introduced by the crowd (see verse 31). They want a sign similar to the one of manna given to their ancestors in the wilderness in Sinai.

In response, he declares he is the manna, the “bread of life” (verse 35), just as he has told the Samaritan woman at the well that he is the living water (see John 4: 5-26), and just as he tells the disciples later that he is the true vine (see John 15: 1).

Moses could provide this miraculous bread, but he is not the bread of life. Moses could strike the rock and bring forth water, but he is not the living water.

How can Christ himself be bread and wine?

These are such difficult conundrums that they turn many of his listeners away.

They murmur and mutter, and the word used here is the same word used in the Exodus story (see, for examples, Exodus 15: 24; 16: 2) for the murmuring, muttering and grumbling of the people who have just experienced being liberated from slavery yet are not willing to accept the consequences of staying on the journey. They do not trust God to take care of them. Over and over, with questions of water, food, and physical safety, the Israelites play out the same drama of whether they will trust God to care for them.

Once again, people who are on a journey with God turn away. This turning away is the very opposite to the metanoia (μετάνοια), the turning around of conversion.

They are no longer willing to stay the course, they turn away from journeying with Christ, journeying with him to Jerusalem, journeying with him to the Cross, journeying with him to the promise of new life.

They are scandalised.

The phrase here reminds me of the common phrase, the Scandal of the Cross or the Scandal of the Gospel, although the phrase as such appears nowhere in the New Testament.

Some of Christ’s disciples have only understood his words in a literal way.

There are many today who hold up a literal interpretation of some obscure and contended passages of scripture, including, for example, some on sexuality, but who reject a literal interpretation of the passages in this ‘Bread of Life’ discourse in Saint John’s Gospel.

They cannot, will not, and refuse to accept Christ’s corporal presence, body and blood, in the Eucharist, however we may come to understand that. It is the one passage whose literal interpretation is a stumbling block, a scandal, to them.

When they ask whether you have invited Christ into your life, they would be scandalised were you to answer you do that every time you pray the Prayer of Humble Access, every time you receive him in the Eucharist, asking that “we may evermore dwell in him and he in us” [see The Book of Common Prayer (Church of Ireland, 2004), p 207].

There is little point in arguing that people at the time had no understanding of this Gospel passage as looking forward to the Last Supper and beyond that to the Eucharistic celebrations of the Early Church.

It was written not for the people who were present at the time, but written 50 or 60 years later and would have been first heard by people dealing with the divisions in the Pauline and Johannine communities that came together in the Church in Ephesus. In her lectionary reflections in the Church Times the Friday before last [14 August 2015], Dr Bridget Nicholas points out that the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse is the Fourth Gospel’s counterpart to the narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels.

The writer of this Gospel is addressing a small community of Christians in Ephesus, for whom linear time is displaced by the fact that they already know the divine identity of Christ. And the life that Christ offers to his own people is being worked out in practical ways by the recipients of the Letter to the Ephesians.

In this Gospel story, as in the Exodus story, this murmuring, muttering and grumbling shows a complete lack of trust, belief and faith in God. And this is not just intellectual assent, but a willingness to make life-changing decisions.

In this morning’s story, the twelve are the ones who “abide” with Christ. They stick with him even though his teaching is difficult. They stay with him at the Last Supper, and even though they will scatter during his trial and crucifixion, their faith is strengthened, returns in full vigour with the Resurrection and is fortified at Pentecost.

But the people who desert Christ in this morning’s Gospel reading, who turn away, are not “the crowds” – they are “disciples.” They had followed Christ and believed in him, but now they leave.

Abandoning the Eucharistic faith and practice of the Church is often the first step in abandoning the Church, abandoning Christ, and turning backs on the call to love God and love one another.

If we take part regularly and with spiritual discipline in the Eucharist we realise that it is not all about me at all. This bread is broken and this cup is poured out not just for us but also for the many.

It is interesting that the parishes with infrequent celebrations of the Eucharist are often the most closed, the ones most turned in on themselves, unwilling to open their doors to those who are different in social and ethnic background, with irregular relationships and lifestyles, and the parishes that err on the side of judgmentalism.

Regular reception of this Sacrament is a reminder that the Church exists not for you and for me but for the world, and that the Church is not for those who decide subjectively they are the “called” and the “saved,” but is there to call the world into the Kingdom.

In the Eucharistic prayers, we use words such as: “this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” (see The Book of Common Prayer, pp 210, 215, 217; Common Worship, pp 185, 189, 192,196, 199, 202).

In two of the New Testament passages we read: “for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26: 28); and “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14: 24).

It is clear that the Eucharist, while celebrated among the disciples or within the community, is for the benefit of “the many.” The Eucharist is the shape of “the mission-shaped Church.”

Knowing and belief come together, knowledge is meaningless without wisdom, faith goes beyond accepting facts.

As Canon Patrick Whitworth points out in his new book, for the Cappadocian Fathers, doctrine, prayer and pastoral ministry are inseparable from care for the poor [Patrick Whitworth, Three Wise men from the East: the Cappadocian Fathers and the Struggle for Orthodoxy (Durham: Sacristy Press, 2015)].

The profession of faith by Simon Peter in this morning’s reading is followed immediately by a cautious and disturbing remark by Christ about betrayal (verses 70-71), although the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have omitted them. Judas is going to walk out at the Last Supper. Is a regular refusal to eat this bread and to drink this cup a betrayal of Christ and of the Christian faith?

Which brings us back to our Epistle reading this morning (Ephesians 6: 10-20), which, like the Fourth Gospel, was written for the Church in Ephesus.

The word sacrament is derived from the Latin sacrāmentum, which is an attempt to render the Greek word μυστήριον (mysterion). Saint Paul asks the people of Ephesus to pray that he may be given a gift of the right words in telling of the “mystery of the Gospel” (τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου, to mysterion tou evangeliou) (Ephesians 6: 19).

What if this Gospel reading is a reminder of the heart of the Gospel, the mystery of the Gospel?

Yes, it would affirm, the Eucharist is the shape of “the mission-shaped Church.”

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Visitation of Abraham or the ‘Old Testament Trinity’ … a fresco in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, interprets a Trinitarian and Eucharistic theme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


Almighty and everlasting God,
you are always more ready to hear than we to pray
and to give more than either we desire, or deserve:
Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy,
forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid,
and giving us those good things
which we are not worthy to ask
save through the merits and mediation
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of compassion,
in this Eucharist we know again your forgiveness
and the healing power of your love.
Grant that we who are made whole in Christ
may bring that forgiveness and healing to this broken world,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. He preached this sermon at the Sung Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 23 August 2015.