12 February 2020
Time to reflect on the
creative beauty of Saint
Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork
I have visited Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, periodically, taking part in the installation of clergy (2013), attending ordinations (2009), preaching at the Good Friday Three Hours Devotion (2004), and delivering the annual Dr Webster Sermon (2000), sometimes staying at the Deanery as the guest of previous deans.
During those visits over the past 20 years, I had little time to visit the cathedral on my own or to take time off to enjoy it as a work of architecture and a work of art.
But last week’s visit to Cork and Cobh provided that missed opportunity to take time on my own, away from the busy-ness of church life, in this Gothic Revival cathedral on the south banks of the River Lee.
Although the cathedral was completed less than a century and a half ago, in 1879, there has been a place of worship on this site since the 7th century, when Saint Finbarr of Cork founded a monastery.
According to legend, Saint Fin Barre came from Gougane Barra, at the source of the River Lee, to the marshes of Cork in 606 and founded a monastery and a monastic school on the site of the present cathedral. He died in 623 and is said to be buried in the graveyard somewhere near the east end of the present cathedral.
An earlier cathedral survived until the 12th century, by when it had either fallen into disuse or was destroyed by the Anglo-Normans and replaced in the Middle Ages.
The mediaeval cathedral was badly damaged during the Siege of Cork in 1690, and after a fire only the steeple remained intact. The crumbing cathedral was demolished in 1735 and replaced that same year by a smaller building, which retained the earlier spire. The new cathedral was newer building than both the Unitarian Church on Prince’s Street (1717) and Saint Anne’s Church, Shandon (1722-1726), which I also visited last week.
However, the Georgian cathedral, was widely regarded as plain and featureless. The Dublin Builder described it as ‘a shabby apology for a cathedral which has long disgraced Cork.’
The Church of Ireland, then on the brink of disestablishment, agreed in 1862 that Cork needed a new cathedral. The old building was demolished in 1864-1865, and work began on a new cathedral, the first major project for the Victorian architect William Burges (1827-1881), then only 35.
Burges is among the greatest of the Victorian architects, standing within the tradition of the Gothic Revival. His works echo those of the Pre-Raphaelites and herald those of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
This was the first Anglican cathedral built in these islands since Christopher Wren built Saint Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London. The foundation stone was laid on 12 January 1865, the unfinished cathedral was consecrated on Saint Andrew’s Day, 30 November 1870, and the limestone spires were completed by in 1879.
The project constantly ran over budget because of exuberance on the part of Burges. But the Bishop of Cork, John Gregg, was instrumental in sourcing additional money, including local merchants, including William Crawford of the Crawford brewing family and Francis Wise, a local distiller. The original price was set at £15,000, but the total cost came to well over £100,000. br />
The cathedral is mostly built from local stone from Little Island and Fermoy. The exterior is capped by three spires: two on the west front and one above where the transept crosses the nave.
Burges designed most of the cathedral, including the sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics and furniture. He used earlier unrealised designs for the exterior, including those intended for the Crimea Memorial Church, Istanbul, Saint John’s Cathedral, Brisbane, and elevations for Lille Cathedral.
The spires were finally completed in 1879. When Burges died in Kensington on 20 April 1881, he was only 53. His gift to his new cathedral is the Resurrection Angel, made of copper covered with gold leaf, crowning the sanctuary roof at the east end.
The gilded copper ‘resurrection angel’ has become the cathedral’s most iconic feature locally, and is known to the people of Cork as the ‘goldie angel.’
Building, carving and decoration continued into the 20th century, including the marble panelling of the aisles, the installation of the reredos and side choir walls, and building the chapter house in 1915.
Burges insisted on his overarching control of the design of the architecture, statuary, stained glass and internal decorations, which gives the cathedral its unity of style. The shell of the building is mostly limestone, sourced from near Cork, with the interior walls formed from stone brought from Bath, red marble from Little Island, and purple-brown stone from Fermoy.
The sculptures total 1,260, including 32 gargoyles, each with different animal heads.
Many of the external sculptures, including the gargoyles, were modelled by Thomas Nicholls. The entrances contain the figures of over a dozen biblical figures, capped by the tympanum.
The imagery of the tympanum is drawn from the Book of Revelation, with the divine on the upper register and mortals below. It shows an angel, accompanied by Saint John the Evangelist, measuring the Temple in Jerusalem, while beneath them the dead rise from their graves.
The designs for the west façade are based on mediaeval French iconography. The theme is The Last Judgement, with representations of the 12 Apostles bearing instruments of their martyrdom, the Resurrection of the Dead and the symbols of the Four Evangelists. On each side of the west door, are figures representing the wise and foolish virgins – the dejected foolish virgins holding their empty lamps – as they approach the bridegroom (Matthew 25: 1-13).
The three doors at the west front lead into the nave, with internal vaulting, arcade, triforium and clerestory, rising to a timber roof. Beyond the nave, the pulpit, choir, bishop’s throne and altar end in an ambulatory. The building is relatively short with a length of 180 ft, but the three spires allow the illusion of greater interior space.
The pulpit was completed in 1874, but not painted until 1935. Five stone relief figures represent the Four Evangelists and Saint Paul.
The baptismal font is decorated with a carving of the head of Saint John the Baptist. Brass lettering reads, ‘We are buried with him by baptism into death.’
The brass lectern, a design Burges originally intended for Lille Cathedral, is decorated with the heads of Moses and David. A ‘Heroes Column’ or War Memorial lists over 400 men from the dioceses killed in battle during World War I. A processional cross, completed in 1974, is the work of the late Patrick Pye.
The elaborate colourful painting on the sanctuary ceiling was carried out in 1933-1935 to designs by Burges.
Burges designed the individual panels for each of the 74 stained-glass windows, and oversaw every stage of their production, although four windows remain incomplete.
There are two rose windows, at the west front and in the south transept The west window shows God the Creator resting on a rainbow and in the act of blessing, surrounded by eight compartments, each inspired by the scenes in the Book of Genesis, beginning with the creation of light, and ending with the birth of Eve and Adam naming the animals.
The rose window in the south transept rose, known as the ‘Heavenly Hierarchies,’ places Christ the King in the centre surrounded by angels, archangels and cherubim.
The organ was built in 1870 by William Hill & Sons.
A major restoration of the cathedral at the end of the 20th century cost £5 million and included reinstating and restoring the twin trumpets held by the resurrection angel that had been vandalised in 1999.
Today, Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral is a living community of liturgy and prayer, enriched by a centuries-old choral tradition. The Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross is the Right Revd Dr Paul Colton, the Dean of Cork is the Very Revd Nigel Dunne, and the Revd Ted Ardis is the Dean’s Vicar.
The Cathedral Eucharist is celebrated at 8 a.m. (said) and 11.15 (sung) on Sundays, Choral Evensong is at 15.30, and there is Morning Prayer and the mid-day Eucharist daily throughout the week. The cathedral is open to visitors daily.