05 July 2020

The dome in Florence changed
city skylines from Rome and
Dublin to Berlin and Albania

Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence … how were the self-supporting Renaissance domes in Italy built without shoring or temporary timber centring? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Until the 20th century, four domes in particular graced the skyline of Dublin: the domes of the Four Courts, Custom House and City Hall, and the Russian-style copper church dome in Rathmines. But domes were difficult to build and needed highly-refined architectural and engineering skills.

The skills needed for constructing domes were brought to Torcello, Venice, Ravenna and other parts of northern Italy by Byzantine craftsmen who were reluctant to share their secrets with other building workers.

But domes eventually became popular as a status symbol for churches with wealthy patrons. In time, the word duomo in Italian became a synonym for cathedral, to the point that many people think Saint Peter’s in Rome, with its dome, is a cathedral.

The dome at Torcello … Byzantine building skills were transferred to Venice and other parts of Italy? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Earlier this summer, in a collaborative study published in Engineering Structures, researchers at Princeton and the University of Bergamo revealed the engineering techniques behind self-supporting masonry domes that are part of the Italian Renaissance.

They analysed how cupolas like Brunelleschi’s duomo in Florence and later self-supporting Renaissance domes were built without shoring or the usual temporary timber centring.

James Gandon’s dome at the Custom House in Dublin was rebuilt after the Irish Civil War (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

Professor Sigrid Adriaenssens of Princeton collaborated with a graduate student Vittorio Paris and Professor Attilio Pizzigoni of the University of Bergamo. Their study is the first ever to quantitatively prove the physics at work in Italian Renaissance domes and to explain the forces that allow such structures to have been built.

Previously, there were many hypotheses about how forces flowed through such constructions. But no-one really knew how they were built.

Now these researchers have found that the brickwork of the inner domes incorporated a ‘cross-herringbone pattern,’ lines of staggered, vertical bricks that extended diagonally across the curvature of the dome. These lines repeatedly crossed each other, forming diamond shapes, and were filled in with horizontal courses of bricks.

The copper dome in Rathmines … said to have been made in Glasgow for an Orthodox church in St Petersburg before the Russian Revolution (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For Professor Adriaenssens, the project advances two significant questions. ‘How can mankind construct such a large and beautiful structure without any formwork – mechanically, what’s the innovation?’ she asks. Secondly, ‘What can we learn?’ Is there some ‘forgotten technology that we can use today?’

Their detailed computer analysis accounts for the forces at work down to the individual brick, explaining how equilibrium is leveraged. Their tests verify the mechanics of the structures and make it possible to recreate the techniques for modern construction.

The researchers anticipate their study could increase worker safety, enhance construction speed, reduce building costs and yield environmental benefits. ‘The construction industry is one of the most wasteful ones, so that means if we don’t change anything, there will be a lot more construction waste,’ said Dr Adriaenssens.

‘Overall, this project speaks to an ancient narrative that tells of stones finding their equilibrium in the wonder of reason,’ said Professor Pizzigoni. ‘Nothing is more moving than reading the lightness of the heavens in stone, in absolute and simple form such as that of the Florentine cupola.’

The dome inside an Orthodox church in Crete … domes are a central feature of Byzantine-style churches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The dome of the New Synagogue in Berlin … symbolic of Jewish confidence in 19th century Germany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Blue church domes are synonymous with many Greek islands. The dome was adapted by Muslims from Byzantine architecture and became part of the design of mosques throughout the Islamic world.

Inside the dome at the Irish Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A new-found confidence in Jewish communities across Europe was expressed in the 19th century in elegant architecture that included striking domes in new synagogues in Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Florence and Rome. The most eye-catching dome in recent Dublin architecture is at the Irish Islamic Centre in Clonskeagh. Who knows, in time we may see more domes on the Dublin skyline.

In multi-faith Albania

The archaeological site at Butrint … settled by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Venetians, it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Now that I have been semi-cocooned for far too many months, I realise how much I managed to travel last year, to the point that I never got to write about everywhere I visited. Perhaps the most remote and unusual place to visit last year was the once-Greek-speaking part of southern Albania, including the town of Sarande and the archaeological site at Butrint.

I had first visited southern Albania in 2006, when I lectured on Greek history at the Durrell School of Corfu, and it was interesting to see how much has changed in less than a decade and a half.

At the harbour in Sarande … tourism has opened Albania to the outside world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

We crossed the once heavily-mined, narrow straits (14 km) that separate Corfu from Albania in less than an hour, and in those pre-Covid 19 days the checks were minimal, with the barest of glances at our passports.

Sarande takes its name from the Greek Agioi Saranda, or Forty Saints, recalling the 40 martyrs of Sebaste, a group of Roman soldiers who were martyred in the year 320. Before World War II, the town was known to occupying Italians as Santiquaranta, until Mussolini changed the name to Porto Edda to please his eldest daughter.

During the Cold War, Albania was one of the most closed countries in the world, isolating itself from both east and west. In 1967, Enver Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state.

Until the Covid-19 outbreak, Sarande was enjoying a steady growth in tourism, and Albania has become a diverse, multi-faith and pluralist society.

In classical Greek times, Sarande was Onchesmos. Albania’s first synagogue was built in Onchesmos in the fourth or fifth century by the descendants of Jews who arrived on the southern shores of Albania around 70 CE after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Albania’s first synagogue was built in Onchesmos (Sarande) in the fourth or fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

Today, the four major faith groups in Albania are the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Sunni Muslims and Bektashis. The Bektashis are little known outside the Balkans, but their importance is greater than their small numbers suggest. They blend elements of Islam, Christianity and even Buddhism in an esoteric, mystical mixture. Today, Bektashis believe they can be a bridge between Christians and Muslims.

The bells and the bell tower of the Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos in Sarande (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The City Mosque or Xhamia Sarande in the heart of the city is a relatively small building, with a dome and one, tall slender minaret. Its size compared with the much larger and more impressive Orthodox Church of Saint Charalambos, with its large dome and bells, shows clearly that Sarande is a mainly Orthodox city. It is said that when Saint Charalambos was martyred in the year 202, he was 113 years old.

Inside the City Mosque in Sarande (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The church had notices outside in both Albanian and Greek, but many ethnic Greeks have left this part of south Albania – often known to Greeks as Northern Epirus – and moved to Greece.

Almost all Jews in Albania were saved from the Holocaust during World War II. It is a remarkable record that cannot be claimed in any other occupied country in Europe, and it is all the more remarkable in some people’s eyes because Albania is Europe’s only country with a Muslim majority.

Resisting Nazis in Poland

A group of Jewish people are moved from the Warsaw Ghetto by German soldiers on 19 April 1943

One city-break that has been cancelled already this year was a mid-week visit to Warsaw at the end of May. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and World War II. Since childhood, I have been haunted by the photograph of the unnamed boy with his hands raised high as the Nazis cleared Jews out of Warsaw following the suppression of the Ghetto Uprising.

I have already visited Kraków, and I wanted to see the site of the Warsaw Ghetto and the surviving synagogues. However, this is not the first but the second time in recent years that circumstances have cancelled a planned visit to Warsaw.

Bishop Edward O’Rourke … the Polish count with Irish ancestors who as Bishop of Danzig was a vocal opponent of the Nazis

The Irish diplomat Sean Lester (1888-1959) played an heroic role as the League of Nations High Commissioner in pre-war Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), but for many Irish people the abiding Irish connection with Poland is Casimir Markievicz, the self-styled Polish count who was married to Constance Gore-Booth.

But an oft-forgotten hero in 20th century Poland with an Irish background is Edward O’Rourke (1876-1943), the first Bishop of Danzig and an outspoken opponent of the Nazis.

O’Rourke, who was known in Polish as Edward Aleksander Władysław O’Rourke, was born Eduard Alexander Ladislaus Graf (Count) O’Rourke in Minsk, in present-day Belarus. He was a member of an aristocratic family of Irish ancestry. The O’Rourkes held titles in the Russian Empire and of the Holy Roman Empire, and Tsar Nicholas I legitimised their titles as Irish counts in 1848. However, as there are no Irish counts as such, many genealogists question the origins and legitimacy of the titles.

Edward O’Rourke studied in Riga, Freiburg and Innsbruck. He was ordained priest in Wilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1908, and became Professor of Church History at a seminary in Saint Petersburg and parish priest of a multilingual congregation.

After the February Revolution in Russia, O’Rourke was appointed administrator of the Diocese of Minsk and interim head of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia. With the proposed independence of Latvia, he became Bishop of Riga in 1918, but resigned in the face of calls for an ethnic Latvian bishop.

O’Rourke was then appointed titular Bishop of Canea and Apostolic Delegate for the Baltic States in 1920. Canea or Chania in Crete was once a Venetian diocese, and the title was previously held by the church historian Nicholas Donnelly (1837-1920), an Auxiliary Bishop in Dublin (1883-1920).

The old harbour of Chania … Edward O’Rourke was the titular Bishop of Canea from 1920 to 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, the Free City of Danzig was separated from Germany under the Treaty of Versailles, and its autonomy was recognised in International Law. O’Rourke became the Apostolic Administrator of Danzig in 1922, with the title of Bishop of Pergamon, one of the seven churches named in the Book of Revelation.

He visited Co Leitrim in 1920s to research his Irish ancestry and later published a history of the O’Rourke family. When the Diocese of Danzig was formed in 1925, outside the hierarchies of Poland and Germany, O’Rourke became the first bishop.

* * *

An international crisis unfolded when the Nazis took over Danzig and tried to absorb the city into Nazi Germany. Sean Lester repeatedly protested to the Germans at the persecution of the city’s Jews and O’Rourke and Lester became personae non grata.

The two found a common affinity in their respect for human rights, their opposition to the Nazis and their Irishness. Lester recalls that on their first meeting the bishop arrived ostentatiously carrying an Irish magazine and patriotically forcing himself to smoke ‘Irish’ cigarettes over his preferred Russian brand.

When the Nazis forced Lester to leave in 1937, O’Rourke became the last independent voice in Danzig until the Nazi-controlled senate forced him to resign and he moved to Poznan in Polanad. In Poland, O’Rourke was appointed titular Bishop of Sophene, a former diocese in Mesopotamia, and became a Polish citizen.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, O’Rourke was on his way to Estonia. He travelled through Warsaw and Königsberg (Kaliningrad) to Berlin, and then to Italy. The Nazis refused him a visa to return to Poland and he died in Rome on 27 June 1943. He was reburied in the cathedral in Gdansk in 1972. Today, Edward O’Rourke is regarded as one of the heroes of Polish resistance to the Nazis.

A statue of Constance Markievicz in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin … her husband was a self-styled Polish count (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This feature was first published in July 2020 in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough)

Sunday intercessions on
5 July 2020 (Trinity IV)

I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 122: 1) … inside Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Let us pray:

We pray for the universal Church of God;

We pray for the bishops of the Church of Ireland
and the staff of the Representative Church Body,
who have continued to work throughout this crisis,
monitoring guidelines and regulations,
and working towards the day when our churches reopen.

We pray for the bishops of the Anglican Communion,
faced with the disappointment
of postponing the Lambeth Conference.

We pray for our own bishop, Kenneth,
for our two cathedrals, in Limerick and Killaloe,
and their deans, Niall and Rod,
who have continued to broadcast services Sunday after Sunday.

We pray for our neighbouring churches and parishes.

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

We pray for the nations of the world:

We pray for our own government and all governments
that have tried to find ways of dealing with this crisis,
thanking God for the blessings of wise decision makers and advisers …
including Dr Tony Holohan and his team …

We pray for the local community:

We give thanks for frontline workers,
essential services that have kept working …
for our schools, children, parents and teachers …
for community volunteers who keep in touch with the housebound …
for those who return to work and those who wait to return to work …
for business owners who try to keep going …
for those who still live with fear …

In this time, known in the Church as Ordinary Time,
we give thanks for all the ordinary things
we have taken for granted …
the sounds of people …
the sounds of nature …
a visit to the hairdressers …
going out for a meal or a drink …
the prospect and promise of travel …

Christ have mercy,
Christ have mercy.

We pray those in need:

In our hearts, we name individuals, families, neighbours,
care homes, hospitals,
voluntary groups …

We remember, and give thanks for, the faithful departed ...
May their memories be a blessing to us …
We pray in particular for all who grieve and mourn at this time …

Lord have mercy,
Lord have mercy.

God of all consolation,
in your unending love and mercy
you turn the darkness of death
into the dawn of new life.
Your Son, by dying for us, conquered death
and, by rising again, restored us to eternal life.
May we then go forward eagerly to meet our redeemer
and, after our life on earth,
be reunited with all our brothers and sisters
in that place where every tear is wiped away
and all things made new;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

Merciful Father …

These intercessions were prepared for Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry, on Sunday 5 July 2020 (Trinity IV)

‘And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well’

‘And all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ (TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’ … hope for the future as our churches begin to re-open this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 5 July 2020

The Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity IV)

9.30 a.m.: the Parish Eucharist, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick

11.30 a.m.: the Parish Eucharist, Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry

The Readings: Revelation 21: 9-14; Psalm 122; Matthew 21: 12-16

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

I think reopening our churches this morning, as we enter a new stage of coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, leaves us open to many mixed feelings.

Some of us are here, glad to be back in church again this morning.

Some of us are here, wondering if everything is going to be all right.

Many of us are conscious of those who are not here, feeling vulnerable, perhaps even feeling fearful.

In many parishes, I imagine, there are people who have lost the regular rhythm or habit or sense of purpose of going to church on Sunday, and may find it difficult to get back into that practice.

Most of us are going to find the restrictions here this morning strange and off-putting: wearing masks, leaving contact details for tracing, sitting in pews that are not of our choice, wondering about the markings.

Some things are different this morning: fewer readings and hymns so we spend less time in a closed space with one another; listening to but not singing hymns; not sharing the peace; the strange way of administering the Holy Communion … in these attempts to make ourselves safe, we may also be making ourselves uncomfortable.

Hopefully, this is not the ‘new normal.’

Hopefully, we can return to living out the ideal of the Church as community, the church as the living body of the Christ … ‘we being many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.’

How can we balance the joy of reopening our churches with the obvious restraints we must respect?

How do we balance our celebrations with the real mourning and grieving that our families, our parish, our community, our diocese, our nation, all need to acknowledge?

Many people this morning are asking where God has been in the midst of this crisis. Has God been present in the church? Has God heard our prayers? Is God going to hear and answer our prayers?

Psalm 122 is well-known because of the setting we heard by Sir Hubert Parry.

But, as we listened to Psalm 122, were you ‘glad when they said to me, Let us go to the house of the Lord’?

In this psalm, the author has a vision not of Jerusalem as it was at the time, but of the heavenly city where God dwells and where all people dwell in unity.

His response to this vision is to pray for the peace of the heavenly city and for all who live within its walls, for his family, and for the house of God.

In our reading from the Book of Revelation (Revelation 21: 9-14), after a time of great and many plagues, Saint John is taken to see the new Jerusalem, and in this vision he finds he has an encounter with the glory of the living God.

It is a reminder to us that the Church should be a living example of the hope we have for the kingdom of God, the new Jerusalem, the living Jerusalem, the hope we should have for the future, for all people.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 12-16), we hear Saint Matthew’s account of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple.

A lot of work has gone into cleaning and preparing this church so that we could re-open it this morning.

But this is not just a matter of parochial, community or family pride. After cleaning our churches and returning to them, are we sure that they are houses of prayer?

And will the blind and the lame, whoever they may be in our society today, find welcome in this church?

During this time of forced lockdown – when our churches have been closed, as we rang the church bell in Saint Mary’s, Askeaton, every Sunday morning to remind all who heard it that the Church is alive and welcoming, as I looked forward to the churches opening again – I reflected time and again on the words of Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711):

O God, make the door of this house
wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship,
and a heavenly Father’s care;
and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and hate.
Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children,
nor to straying feet,
but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power:
make it a gateway to thine eternal kingdom.

But I am also assured by the words of Julian of Norwich, quoted by TS Eliot at the end of his poem ‘Little Gidding’:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

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

A vision of the heavenly city (see Revelation 21) depicted in the West Window in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Revelation 21: 9-14:

9 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ 10 And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal. 12 It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14 And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Matthew 21: 12-16:

12 Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. 13 He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”

14 The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. 15 But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read,

‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies
you have prepared praise for yourself’?”

I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord’ (Psalm 122: 1) … inside Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Introductory prayers:

Lord, be with us as we open the door.
Come in with us, go out with us.
Do not sleep when we sleep,
but watch over us, protect us and keep us safe,
our only help and maker. (cf Psalm 121)

The Collect:

Almighty God,
we praise you for the many blessings
you have given to those who worship you here:
and we pray that all who seek you in this place may find you,
and, being filled with the Holy Spirit,
may become a living temple acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Introduction to the Peace:

Peace to you from God our heavenly Father.
Peace from his Son Jesus Christ who is our peace.
Peace from the Holy Spirit the Life-giver.
The peace of the Triune God be always with you.
And also with you.


You have revealed your glory
as the glory of your Son and of the Holy Spirit:
three persons equal in majesty, undivided in splendour,
yet one Lord, one God,
ever to be worshipped and adored:

The Post-Communion Prayer:

Father in heaven,
whose Church on earth is a sign of your heavenly peace,
an image of the new and eternal Jerusalem:
grant us in the days of our pilgrimage
that, fed with the living bread of heaven,
and united in the body of your Son,
we may be the temple of your presence,
the place of your glory on earth,
and a sign of your peace in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Concluding Prayers:

And now to him who is able to keep us from falling,
and lift us up from the dark valley of despair
to the bright mountain of hope,
from the midnight of desperation
to the daybreak of joy;
to him be power and authority for ever. Amen.

Liturgical colour: Red

A note on the choice of Liturgical colours: Green is the colour for Ordinary time, but Red symbolises both the Holy Spirit and the witness of the Church in the lives of the great saints and martyrs.


325: Be still, for the presence of the Lord (CD 20)
338: Jesus stand among us (CD 20)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

Material from Common Worship is © The Archbishop’s Council, the Church of England.