- The Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre at Cork: William Burges in Ireland
The Cathedral of Saint Fin Barre in Cork is a massive, beautiful, and coordinated structure. It reflects the impressive energy and cohesive purpose that distinguished the best of ecclesiastic architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. The impetus for the book is connected to David Lawrence's survey of stained glass in the Church of Ireland for the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne, and Ross completed in 1992, thus the welcome breadth of issues. The architecture and sculptural ensembles for interior and exterior are also well treated, including solid evidence made for Burges's inspiration from early thirteenth-century precedents from the cathedrals of Paris and Chartres. Quality illustrations for stained glass and other decorative elements receive equal treatment. Thus, the book presents an important resource for anyone interested in nineteenth-century architecture and/or ecclesiastic patronage.
There are some wonderful passages, such as the analysis of the transformation of the architect's rough sketch to color design, to full-scale cartoon, to finished window for the panel of the Massacre of the Innocents. The authors are deeply involved in the context of constructing a spiritually relevant form for a modern world. They courageously take on the contrast of St. Fin Barre's to the Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Colman's in Cob. A clear listing of both the sculptural and widow programs are listed in appendices.
As much as we are indebted to a serious monograph on St. Fin Barre,as well as the preservation of so distinctive an ensemble, it is disappointing to see art historical analysis still mired in the miasma of value judgments and overgeneralizations. Granted, this is not pervasive; still, we should be able to do without [End Page 400] such characterizations as "overwhelming and intoxicating" and "an experience unparalleled in Ireland and rarely matched anywhere." Readers should recoil at a statement such as "After the cultural wilderness of the preceding four centuries, pioneers like Pugin, Street and Burges had, by their painstaking studies re-established the principles of medieval architecture and decoration." Actually, one of these centuries, from 1450–1550, saw the glazing of the England's Fairford, Kings College Chapel, and Long Melford, not to mention innumerable sites in Europe. Pugin, Street, and Burges were indeed passionate exponents of the Gothic Revival, but no serious scholar now characterizes their works as a reestablishment of medieval principles. The eclectic revivals of the nineteenth century are clearly distinguished by their own qualities: far more attuned to the architectural practice of designs on paper, organization inspired by a written text, and the position of painting as the "dominate"art. These values are evident in St. Finn Barre.
The organization flows in an intimate chattiness—endeavoring to bring the reader into the process of constructing the church from the perspectives of its builders and supporters through many quotes from journals, newspapers, and letters. Thus we follow a largely chronological account that sometimes obscures key moments and summary overviews.
Anyone citing "material culture" must identify images with the same precision as text. A watercolor of a section of the Good Samaritan window from Bourges (fig. 12) has no identification. Is it a drawing made or seen by Burges? What is it present location? Indeed, the impact of this important book might have been enhanced by a more dispassionate contextualization of the issues. For example, the desire to erect a Gothic building and the former church's "unsightly architecture" reflects Pugin's polemics that characterized Neoclassical as spiritually dead against the uplifting forms of the Gothic that alone express Christian thought. Still,we are indebted for such a volume and hope for more concerning Ireland's great treasures. [End Page 401]