18 August 2018

Tales of Russian love
and poetry in the mosaics
in Mullingar Cathedral

Saint Anna … Boris Anrep’s image in Mullingar Cathedral was inspired by his former lover, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Patrick Comerford

The works of art for which the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is most noted are the mosaics in the side chapels dedicated to Saint Patrick and Saint Anne. These are the work of the Russian-born mosaic artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969), a celebrated artist and socialite who is best known for his monumental mosaics at the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, and the Bank of England in London.

The Saint Patrick mosaic depicts Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. In the Saint Anne mosaic, Saint Anne’s name is spelled Anna, and the image of Saint Anne resembles the poet Anna Akhmatova.

Boris and Anna had an affair in Russia during World War I. But Boris Anrep left Russia before the October Revolution, and did not contact Anna for 48 years. Yet, she remained the muse who haunted his imagination. She appears in several of his mosaics, but this one in Mullingar is the only to include her name. In return, up to 34 of her poems are about him.

In England, Boris was close to the Bloomsbury Group and was a leading figure in London social and intellectual life from 1912 until the mid-1960s. In Ireland, he is known for his mosaics in Mullingar Cathedral. In Russia, he is associated with the Silver Age of Russian Poetry as the focus of many beautiful poems by Anna Akhmatova, including her Tale of the Black Ring. Anrep was also friendly with Nikolay Gumilyov, an outstanding poet and Anna’s husband, and Nikolay Nedobrovo, a talented critic, two prominent figures of the 1910s in Saint Petersburg.

But how did this Russian love affair end up being depicted in Orthodox-style mosaics in a cathedral in a market town in the Irish Midlands, and in mosaics in the National Gallery in London?

Boris Anrep was born Boris Vasilyevich Anrep in St Petersburg on 27 September 1883. The Anrep family, originally from Westphalia, belongs to Swedish and Russian nobility and family members included famous army officers from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

His father, Vassily von Anrep, was a professor of forensic medicine. He held senior positions in the Russian education and interior ministries and was elected to the Duma, the Russian parliament, in 1907.

From 1899 to 1901, Boris went to school in Kharkov, where he first met Nikolay Nedobrovo. He spent the summer of 1899 learning English in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and from 1902 he studied law in St Petersburg,.

After Nedobrovo introduced Anrep to the painter Dmitri Stelletsky, Boris took an active in the creative arts. In 1904, Boris travelled with Stelletsky to Italy, and there he was enthralled by the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. It was on this visit that he determined to become a mosaic artist himself.

He graduated in law at St Petersburg in 1905. He also met Yunia Khitrovo that year, and they were married in 1908. He then abandoned his law studies and left for Paris to study art, followed by a year at the Edinburgh College of Art in 1910-1911.

In France, Boris had become friends with the painters Henry Lamb and Augustus John, and he soon befriended other English artists and intellectuals, including Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Roger Fry and Virginia Woolf. He fell in love with Helen Maitland, a friend of Augustus John’s wife Dorelia. They lived together from 1911, had two children, and got married in 1918. However, the marriage was unhappy, and Helen left him to become the lifelong companion of the artist and critic Roger Fry.

Anrep worked with the art critic Clive Bell on Roger Fry’s second Post-Impressionist exhibition in 1912. He was in charge of the Russian section and presented pictures by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov and Nicholas Roerich.

His first success in London came in 1914 he created mosaics for the Crypt in Westminster Cathedral.

By now, Boris was writing poetry in Russian and in English, influenced by the English romantics, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. His poem Fiza was read in 1913 in his absence in St Petersburg and would give its name to the society of poets that included Anna Akhmatova, her husband Nikolay Gumilyov, and Osip Mandelstam and became the centre of Acmeism, a new trend in Russian poetry.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Anrep enlisted as an officer in the Russian army and fought in Galicia until 1916. Before joining the army, he visited Nedobrovo in Tsarskoe Selo and was introduced to Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who lived nearby. They met continually during Anrep’s short breaks in St Petersburg.

Anna, who was born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, is regarded as one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century.

Boris described their relationship as a ‘warm friendship,’ but for Anna it was intense and inspired over 30 poems that trace their affair from her early hopes and dreams to her bitter disappointment at their parting. They include 17 poems in her third book and 14 poems in her fourth book ‘devoted’ to Boris.

These poems suggest strongly that Anna was passionately in love with Boris. She sees him everywhere in his absence. She dreams of turning the inattentive Boris into an attentive lover, she imagines him as an angel who will reward her for all her suffering, she fantasises about how he would react if she took her own life, she sees herself abandoning everything to live with him as a beggar in a foreign city, and she rails against his eventual decision to leave Russia and to leave her for England in April 1917, and to live permanently in England.

Boris had been called back to London as Military Secretary to the Russian Government Committee. He never returned to Russia. The same year, Anna used a line from Fiza as an epigraph to her book White Flock.

Back in London, Boris resumed his work as an artist. In 1917-1920 he was commissioned to decorate the hall of the Chelsea home of the artist Ethel Sands. This included a turquoise blue floor with Byzantine characters (1917) and walls decorated with portraits of Lytton Strachey, his companion Dora Carrington, and Virginia Woolf in male costume (1920).

He made the mosaics Christus Militans and The Vision of Saint John for the chapel at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (1921). Another commission was the vestibule in Mayfair for Sir William Jowitt, showing Various Moments in the Life of a Lady of Fashion (1922). Lesley Jowitt was shown telephoning in bed, in her bath, and at a nightclub. In 1923, he decorated the octagonal room in the Tate Gallery with eight panels, illustrating ‘The Proverbs of Hell’ from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake.

The trustees of Saint Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Bayswater, London, commissioned Boris in 1926 to execute a major set of mosaics in the sanctuary. He designed a scheme of Byzantine-style mosaics depicting the Incarnation and the mystery of the Eucharist. They depict the Nativity, the Hospitality of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity, and angels with the chalice at the Eucharist.

He was invited back to decorate other parts of the cathedral from 1932 to 1956, with full length figures of the Major Prophets, busts of the Minor Prophets, and depictions of Saint Nicholas and Saint Christopher with the Christ Child.

Boris also created four colourful mosaics that decorate the imposing staircase built by Sir John Taylor in 1887 for the entrance hall of the National Gallery. The mosaics were paid for by the industrialist Samuel Courtauld and Maud Russell, wife of the banker Gilbert Russell and another of Boris Arnep’s lovers.

The four mosaics are ‘The Labours of Life’ (1928) in the west vestibule, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929) in the east vestibule, ‘The Pleasures of Life’ (1929) in the east vestibule, ‘The Awakening of the Muses’ (1933) on the half-way landing.

Anna Akhmatova, portrayed as Caliope, appears with other contemporary figures in these mosaics, including Sir Osbert Sitwell (Apollo), Clive Bell (Bacchus), Diana Mitford (Polyhymnia), Virginia Woolf (Clio), Greta Garbo (Melpomene), Lady Keynes (Terpsichore), Lady Christabel Aberconway (Euterpe), Maria Volkova (Urania), Mary Hutchinson (Eratoas) and as Lady Lesley Jowitt (Thalia).

Boris returned to National Gallery in 1952 to create the mosaics depicting the ‘Modern Virtues’ in the north vestibule. Once again, Anna appears in Boris’s mosaics, this time as ‘Compassion,’ alongside Loretta Young, Lord Rutherford, Winston Churchill, Margot Fonteyn, Edward Sackville-West, Lady Diana Cooper, TS Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Fred Hoyle, Augustus John and Edith Sitwell.

In this series, ‘Compassion’ is a portrait of Anna Akhmatova surrounded by the horrors of war. She is looking towards another panel that depicts Anrep’s gravestone, linking together his art and her poetry.

The mosaic of Saint Patrick by Boris Anrep in the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Boris is best known in Ireland for his two colourful mosaics of Saint Patrick and Saint Anne in the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar. The cathedral, built in 1933-1939, was designed by Ralph Byrne and the decorative work is by Oppenheimer of Old Trafford, Manchester.

Boris was living in Paris when John Kyne, Bishop of Meath, invited him to Ireland to create his mosaics in Mullingar Cathedral to mark the Marian Year in 1954.

His mosaic depicting Saint Patrick shows Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Saint Patrick is seen lifting the cross with one hand in a vigorous movement, and in his other hand he is holding a torch. The firewood is arranged in a Christogram, signifying the symbolic importance of the fire, an is also one of the signs of the strong influence of Eastern Orthodox iconography on this mosaic.

In the upper part of the mosaic, Christ is enthroned – Mullingar Cathedral is the first in the world to have been dedicated to Christ the King. Christ is enthroned between two angels, an image that draws on the composition of the Visitation of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity in Orthodox iconography, best known in the West through the work of the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev.

Below are inscriptions drawing on the Breastplate of Saint Patrick and images inspired by the High Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare.

Saint Anna is the dominant figure in the mosaic by Boris Anrep celebrating the Marian Year in 1954 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

His mosaic to celebrate the Virgin Mary presents a scene clearly inspired by the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The young Virgin Mary is being presented to High Priest in the Temple by her mother, Saint Anne, as her father, Saint Joachim, watches on.

Although this was the Marian Year, the dominant figure in this scene is Saint is Anne. She is tall and swathed in dazzling yellow and blue. Below the figures, mirroring the style of the Saint Patrick mosaic in the side chapel opposite, there are Celtic crosses and motifs inspired by the High Crosses at Monasterboice, Co Louth, and a an ancient mediaeval hymn in Latin praising Saint Anne.

Boris gives her name not as Anne but as Anna, with the letters ‘S. Anna’ at the centre of the mosaic. The long face of the saint, with her large dark eyes and curved nose, has an uncanny resemblance to the poet Anna Akhmatova in her mid-20s.

Boris wrote that the face is ‘full of calm dignity.’ He also wrote that he was trying to capture her ‘touching motherly care’ and ‘culminating vision of her child.’ Perhaps he was thinking of Anna queuing outside the Kresty prison to bring food to her son Lev, incarcerated in a gulag.

In this mosaic, Boris transforms the woman he had abandoned almost 40 years earlier into an icon of endurance and acceptance.

He uses an unconventional spelling of Saint Anne in the mosaic and calls her Anna. Additionally, the saint’s image bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the poet Anna Akhmatova in her mid-20s.

Did Boris still love Anna, the woman who had remained his muse throughout almost 40 in exile?

During those four decades, Anna stayed on in St Petersburg, which became Leningrad, and she suffered throughout the Stalinist years. Gumilev, Punin and Mandelstam were murdered, and her son Lev spent years in a gulag.

For 30 years, Anna lived in an apartment in the Fountain House, a former palace in St Petersburg. It is now a museum to her memory and to that of her husbands, Nikolai Gumilev and Nikolai Punin, and her friend Osip Mandelstam, who were all murdered by the Stalinist regime.

For many years, Boris and Anna did not communicate. But they met again, and for the last time, in 1965, where Paris had been living since the end of World War II. Anna had been shortlisted in 1965 for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Sadly, Boris and Anna had little to say to each other. Anna had immortalised Boris in her poems in Russia, Boris had immortalised Anna in his mosaics and icons in London and Mullingar. But East is East and West is West, and the last meeting lacked the love and romance of their first encounters.

After receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, Anna suffered a heart attack and was taken to hospital in Oxford. From there, she was moved to a sanitorium in Moscow, and she died on 5 March 1966 at the age of 76.

Boris spent his last years were spent in Hyde Park Gardens with Maud Russell. His last great work, completed when Boris was almost 80, is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral which went back in style to the pre-Byzantine Roman mosaics, with little gold and far from the expected monumental sightless figures. They are full of colour, light and rhythm.

Boris Anrep died in London on 7 June 1969. He was cremated at Golder’s Green and his ashes were taken away. According to some sources, his ashes were buried at Mottisfont Abbey, where Maud Russel was buried in the family mausoleum.

Boris Anrep’s image of Christ the King in his Saint Patrick mosaic draws on the composition of the Visitation of Abraham or the Old Testament Trinity best known in the West in the work of Andrei Rublev (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen views)

Mullingar Cathedral declares
Catholic triumphalism in
post-independent Ireland

The Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar, Co Westmeath … a landmark building in the Irish Midlands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Cathedral of Christ the King in the centre of Mullingar, Co Westmeath, is a landmark building in the Irish Midlands. The campanile towers and the dome dominate the skyline and approaches to Mullingar for many miles around, and the silhouette of the cathedral has become a symbol of Mullingar.

This is the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Meath and it stands at the top of Mary Street, at the junction with College Street and Bishop’s Gate Street, towering above the centre of the county town of Westmeath.

Mullingar Cathedral is yet another statement by the Dublin-based architect Ralph Byrne of the confidence of Roman Catholicism in post-independence Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, like his cathedral in Cavan and his strong emphatic churches in Athlone, Co Westmeath, and Harold’s Cross, Dublin.

I visited both his Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone and his Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar while I was staying at Wineport Lodge outside Athlone earlier this month.

Byrne’s cathedral in Mullingar replaced an earlier cathedral, dedicated to Saint Mary, that stood on the same site from 1836. This was a large Gothic Revival T-plan church, with four octagonal turrets at the west front, and this, in turn, had replaced the parish chapel dating from 1730.

Planning for a new cathedral began in 1920. The building work began in March 1933 and the foundation stone was laid on 6 August 1933 by Thomas Mulvany, Bishop of Meath (1929-1943).

The new cathedral was designed by the Dublin-based architect, Ralph Henry Byrne (1877-1947). Byrne was noted for his academic approach to architectural design. He favoured the classical idiom for much of his church designs, moving away from the Gothic Revival-style, which had been in vogue for Roman Catholic building projects since the early 19th century.

Inside the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Byrne designed the cathedral to look like a basilica in form and renaissance in style. The distinctive twin towers, surmounted by bronze crosses, rise to a height of about 42.6 metres. The nave is 36.5 metres long and 15.2 metres wide. It follows the pattern of great Roman basilicas such as Saint Paul Outside the Walls.

Murphy of Dublin were the builders, while much of the artistic decoration work, including the marble altar goods and the bronze and brass fittings, was designed and fitted by Earley of Camden Street, Dublin, Gunning Smyth’s, and J and C McGloughlin of Dublin, and Oppenheimer of Old Trafford, Manchester.

The cathedral is designed on a complicated regular plan and on a north-south axis rather than an east-west axis. It has a seven-bay nave with a clerestory over and flanking single-storey side aisles, full-height transepts terminated by pediments, a broad apsidal chancel at the north or liturgical east end, and a circular drum with a copper dome above at the central crossing.

At the south side or liturgical west end, the cathedral has a central two-storey block with a pedimented breakfront and with colonnades or loggias at both the first and second floor levels. This is flanked by single-storey blocks on each side supporting the four-storey arcaded campanile towers, each crowned with limestone domes, topped with gilded cross finials.

The main, square-headed entrance has timber panelled double-doors, with a segmental-headed window over, to the centre of the south façade. It is set behind a Venetian-type arrangement of a central round-headed arch flanked by lower square-headed openings, divided by Doric columns in antis.

Albert Power’s elaborate sculpture on the tympanum of Mullingar Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The elaborate sculpture on the pediment or tympanum is in Portland stone by Albert George Power (1881-1945), the leading Irish sculptor of the 1920s and 1930s. It depicts the Virgin Mary handing over a model of the previous Gothic Revival cathedral into the care of Christ the King. There is a number of sculpted panels by H Thompson of Dublin on the front façade above the main entrances.

The cathedral is built of channelled ashlar granite, with extensive ashlar limestone and ashlar granite detailing. There is a variety of window openings, mostly square-headed with metal glazing bars and cut stone surrounds. The ground floor window openings in the nave are set in round-headed recesses. There are pitched roofs.

Inside, the vast open interior of the cathedral is reminiscent of the layout of a Roman basilica and seats over 1,800 people. It is lavishly decorated using different types and colours of marble and has least seven side chapels. There are numerous columns in various types of marble, including colonnades formed of paired Doric columns in Rochambeau marble, separated by high round-headed arches, giving access to the side aisles and to the transepts.

The mosaic in the apse in the sanctuary depicts the Ascension (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The mosaic in the apse in the sanctuary represents the Ascension. The cathedra or bishop’s throne and the chapter stalls were carved in Irish oak in Waterford.

There are seven individual side chapels in the cathedral, dedicated to Saint Patrick, Saint Anne, Saint Joseph and the Holy Family, Saint Therese of Lisieux as patron of Foreign Missions, a mortuary chapel, a Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. Some of these chapels are decorated with mosaics by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883-1969).

The Baptistry is now the cathedral shop and the double baptism font has been moved to the top of the west or right-hand aisle.

The Stations of the Cross are in opus sectile and mosaic. The pulpit, of white marble, has carvings depicting the Sermon on the Mount, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Patrick. There is an extensive collection of marble altar goods and a number of bronze fittings and railings.

The new cathedral was formally opened and dedicated on 6 September 1936. At the request of Pope Pius XI, this became the first cathedral in the world to be dedicated to Christ the King. The cathedral was dedicated on 6 September 1936 and was solemnly consecrated on 4 September 1939. The total cost of the building, including decoration, was £250,000 to £275,000, an enormous sum for those days.

The Baptism Font has been moved to the top of the west (left) aisle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The works of art for which Mullingar Cathedral is most noted are the mosaics in the chapels of Saint Anne and Saint Patrick. These are the work of the Russian-born mosaic artist Boris Anrep, a celebrated artist and socialite, best known for his monumental mosaics at the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral, and the Bank of England in London.

The Saint Patrick mosaic depicts Saint Patrick lighting the Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane. Saint Patrick is seen lifting the cross with one hand in a vigorous movement, and in his other hand he is holding a torch. The firewood is arranged in a Christogram, signifying the symbolic importance of the fire.

In the Saint Anne mosaic, her name is spelled Anna, and the image of Saint Anne is said to resemble the poet Anna Akhmatova. Anrep had an affair with her during World War I. But the story of Boris and Anna is worth returning to later today.

The entrance porch in the Cathedral of Christ the King, Mullingar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Byrne was the architect of choice for the Roman Catholic Church at this time and during the 1930s his commissions included the new cathedral in Cavan and the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Athlone, Co Westmeath, during the 1930s.

In Mullingar, Byrne calls on an eclectic mix of architectural styles, drawing on the classical imperial traditions of Rome, the work of Palladio, the Italian Baroque, Webb and perhaps even the neoclassicism of James Gandon and the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens in New Delhi.

Despite Byrne’s seemingly ad hoc use of classical styles, his cathedral in Mullingar is a polished architectural work. The stark cold ashlar granite on the façade contrasts with the opulence of the marble interior. The façade is a complex arrangement of classical elements, giving out a strong message of triumphalism, and is dominated on the upper storey by the pedimented temple with inset Corinthian columns.

The cathedral is set back from a busy junction in the town centre in extensive mature grounds, with the Bishop’s Residence to one side, a school in its own grounds on the other side, north-east and a large forecourt and car park at the front.

Mullingar Cathedral has been compared in terms of architectural style and ambition to the state-sponsored architectural projects built in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the same time. Other critics are kinder when they say this is one of the most stylishly triumphant cathedrals in Ireland, offering visitors ‘an overwhelming experience.’

Whatever you think of it, this massive and extensively detailed cathedral is a monumental statement of the confidence, power and the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland in the first decades after Irish independence.

The towers and dome of Mullingar Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)