A view into the monastic soul

 

VISUAL ARTS: RAYMOND GILLESPIEreviews Lumen Christi – The stained glass windows of Mount St Joseph AbbeyBy Laurence Walsh OCSO, Cistercian Press, 237pp, €50

MONASTERIES ARE, in most imaginations, places of mystery and secrecy. Within their forbidden walls are contained arcane knowledge and esoteric texts, such as the lost work of Aristotle sought by Friar William in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The mystery surrounding monasteries was played on by Gothic novelists and Protestant polemicists in the 19th century to create a world of the bizarre, the terrible and the indecent, as in Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel The Monk.

More recently, the walls of the enclosure have been breached if not torn down. The brethren of Glenstal have shared their insights on cookery and the detection of murder as well as more obvious Benedictine concerns such as prayer and icons. Now it is the turn of their monastic cousins, the Cistercians, to lighten the dark corners of the monastery. Appropriately enough, it is a magnificent book on the stained glass windows of the abbey of Mount St Joseph in Roscrea that does this. For more than 20 years, the biannual Roscrea conferences on medieval Ireland have opened the dramatic, if rather chilly, monastic church, to a world greater than the community and the people of Roscrea and this book now reveals its treasures to a wider audience.

For those who are not enthusiasts for 19th-century ecclesiastical architecture, Mount St Joseph might seem an unpromising place. Founded in 1879, the church was formally opened in 1881, and contained 11 stained-glass windows. Under the shadow of the later work of Harry Clarke these years were not a golden age of stained glass but the Dublin firm of Earley and Powell acquitted themselves well, helped by the fact that Earley was trained by the master of Gothic revival, ANW Pugin.

The earliest windows, mainly at the east end of the church as one would expect, reflected the ethos of this new community with images of SS Bernard and Benedict as monastic founders, St Cronan as patron of Roscrea, St Joseph as patron of the church, St Patrick as patron of Ireland and around the apse at the east end the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries. Between 1881 and 1903 the generosity of patrons allowed new windows to be added depicting Irish saints such as SS Malachy, Columcille, Brendan of nearby Birr, Flannan (patron of the diocese of Killaloe in which the monastery lies), and Ita, as well as more general subjects of Christian devotion. Up to the 1960s some new windows were added in the old infirmary and the chapel of the Cistercian college, all from the Harry Clarke studio. Finally, in 2003, the munificence of a new donor allowed two windows depicting more contemporary saints to be created. For those whose appetite for trivia has not been satiated by the contents of their Christmas crackers it is worth noting that the window to Blessed Gabriella of Unity contains the only image of a Church of Ireland cathedral to be portrayed in monastic stained glass.

This book provides a guided tour of this heritage. The stunning photographs by Sean Curtin and James Fraher provide the spine of this book as the reader takes a virtual walk around the church.

Yet this is not a book of the genus “coffee table”. Nicola Gordon Bowes foreward to the volume provides a concise introduction to the history of the entire corpus of stained glass in St Joseph’s but the main commentator on the glass is the former abbot Dom Laurence, a man of many parts; scholar, historian and above all a monk.

He skilfully sets the images in their historical context using items from the artefact and manuscript collections of the monastery, providing a unique perspective on each window.

These are not dry, disembodied images from the pages of history but rather living items. Much of the commentary reveals how the Cistercian community at Roscrea see these windows and the associations they have for those who worship there.

As such this magnificent book is as much about windows into the monastic soul, the lumen Christi, as it is about those used to keep out wind and rain. Even for the magnificence of the images these are windows surely worth looking through.


Raymond Gillespie teaches history at NUI Maynooth. He is editor, with John Crawford, of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin: A History, published by Four Courts Press last year