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Michael Healy 1873-1941 and The Illuminated Window: illuminating the divine

Stories told in glass are the subject of two new books looking at the life of Michael Healy and stained glass through the ages

Michael Healy 1873-1941: : An Tur Gloine’s stained glass pioneer
Author: David Caron
ISBN-13: 978-1801510813
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Guideline Price: €55
The Illuminated Window: Stories across Time
Author: Virginia Chieffo Raugin
ISBN-13: 978-1789147933
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Guideline Price: £30

When the firefighters came in to the burning nave of Notre Dame on April 19th, 2019, they kept the water pressure low, angling their hoses away from the cathedral’s windows, so that the cold jets wouldn’t shatter the famous stained glass. Smoke damaged and dirty, the windows were saved. Eighty years earlier, stained glass windows were removed from churches and cathedrals across Europe, and hidden away safely from bombs. In the case of Coventry Cathedral, while the windows survived, the building itself did not.

The story of stained glass is inextricably linked to stories of the church, those high windows designed to inspire awe and wonder. Long before literacy became a shared affair, stories of salvation and damnation, saints, sinners and miracles were told across their panes. In a strange way, that ecclesiastical link can diminish the power of the medium today.

One reason is purely architectural. Stained glass is viewed from the distance of the clustered pews, and unless you are exceptionally lucky with the light, subtleties can be lost. Even somewhere as stunning as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, once you have gasped at the glory, the individual elements blur in the craning of necks, the windows’ upper reaches lost to ordinary view. Maybe that is part of it: works of art such as these were made for the eyes of God and angels, as much as for you and me.

In a church there is symbolic competition from stone and wood carvings, statues and from the building itself. While galleries have their own architectural moments, they are (mainly) designed to help you focus on the art. A church is more like what the Vienna Secessionists of the 1890s termed the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, where every element combines to create the whole.


Two new books put the focus back on to stained glass windows, and are both primer and guide, giving ways back into comprehending the more intricate wonders of the medium. David Caron’s Michael Healy, 1873-1941 is subtitled An Túr Gloine’s Stained Glass Pioneer, and the dates of Healy’s life make this exceptionally well-researched book double up as a fascinating story of Ireland during the dying days of the union, taking us through revolution and war and on, to become a chronicle of the early years of the new Irish State.

Caron had studied Healy for his thesis, but manages to avoid the pitfalls so many academics fall into when translating their studies into publications for a wider audience. He writes engagingly and is adept at knowing when to use quotes, which pepper the text, lending both depth and the occasional enchantingly gossipy air. An Túr Gloine (literally Glass Tower) sprang from a similar impulse to the founding of the Abbey, to create a cultural narrative for Ireland that was distinct from its nearest neighbour. So we have Sarah Purser grumpily snapping to Lady Gregory, “I don’t interfere with your Abbey Theatre, you keep off my glass works.”

In another passage, we read of how Healy took on the window designs for the Holy Trinity Church in Cumbria, after Wilhelmina Geddes pulled out of the project. On his work’s conclusion, Caron quotes Thomas McGreevy that “Mr Healy has tried to be scrupulously fair to her designs, but inevitably something of the extraordinary force of Miss Geddes’ own work has disappeared, and something of the peculiarly poetic quality of Mr Healy’s has crept in.”

Healy began his life living with his family in a tenement on Bishop Street. He worked as a sugar boiler in a sweet factory, which has interesting parallels with the great heat, translucence and fragility of glass. He enrolled at the Metropolitan School of Art in 1892 and would have been an outlier there. He was unusual too as one of the first recruits at the newly formed An Túr Gloine. Alongside AE Child, Sarah Purser, Catherine (Kitty) O’Brien and glazier Charlie Williams, Healy would have been the poorest, had the least formal education and was the only Catholic.

A reserved man, he nevertheless had the drive to attend art school, and later get himself to Florence, perhaps where he picked up the wonderful Renaissance habit of putting the faces of real people into his works. His figure of St Luke in St Mark’s Belfast (1932) makes me think of a Medici, while the patrician figure in his depiction of St Joseph at St Brendan’s Catholic Cathedral, Loughrea, Co Galway, from 1935 could easily be an elderly school master in any Irish village. You will also find children reading and playing, and artisans at work, alongside the shimmering saints and angels.

Caron can stich together sources in a way that flows into fascination, and he wears his learning lightly, so the lay reader will find as much here as the educated expert. It is well-referenced, with a comprehensive index and list of locations of Healy’s windows. Here I discover the gorgeous detail of a dancing child, leading a cavalcade of animals in St Catherine and St James’s Church on Donore Avenue in Dublin (1930), and I am ashamed to say I had lived around the corner from it for more than a decade and never knew it was there.

It must be a boon to any biographer to find that their subject kept a journal, and yet there is always an element of their life that will remain an enigma. Writing on the Easter Rising of 1916, Healy notes how his work on an angel’s dress is evolving, but “about 12 o’c I heard heavy rifle firing. I thought at first it was the Volunteers practising. It became continuous and a bit disturbing…”

Healy was ardently pro-Republic, and from his other work as a cartoonist for publications such as the Leader, we know he was politically aware, and yet, in his journal, he writes as an observer of the events of that Easter Monday, rather than a polemicist. Perhaps his descriptions of the soldiers with bayonets searching his rooms for arms: “They were nice enough”; is more to do with his humanity than his politics.

Throughout his career, Healy experimented with different styles, influenced by the changing aesthetics, and in Virginia Chieffo Raguin’s The Illuminated Window, we are offered a series of glimpses onto some of the more glittering examples of these and earlier periods. Rather than present an encyclopaedic look at stained glass through the ages, she focuses on examples from churches to universities and domestic settings, and from Gothic designs, through the Renaissance, to the work of contemporary artists.

Picking up on that Gesamtkunstwerk idea, Chieffo Raguin notes that unlike other art works, “stained glass is almost always encountered in its original setting”, a fact which makes it easier to “to reconstruct the context within which these works first achieved meaning”. In pursuit of this, her chapters take individual projects, or “monuments”, including Saint-Chapelle, Chartres, Cologne Cathedral, and St Mary’s Parish Church in Gloucestershire, and engages with the makers and the patrons who commissioned the works.

Chieffo Raugin is a US-based art historian, and so it is no surprise to also see a focus on the Memorial Hall at Harvard University, the Tiffany Chapel in Florida and Frank Lloyd Wright’s windows the Frederick C Robie House in Chicago. An intriguing introduction describes how panes are made, warmed in “glory holes” and tinted with metals, alloys and sometimes silver and gold. “The selection process”, she writes in one of the book’s more poetic passages, “can often seem as if one could hold beams of light in one’s hands”.

The chapters themselves are as varied as their subjects. Sainte-Chapelle is granular and academic in tone, while her text on Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Art Nouveau-inspired designs gives a stronger sense of the stories that wrapped around their times. Tiffany was another seeker of “the totally unified interior”, and while I am not a particular fan of his Art Nouveau-inspired designs, it is interesting to read of their secular contexts, his wealthy patrons and their sensibilities.

There was also a considerable amount of competition. In 1893, a reporter for American Architect and building news took advantage of the Tiffany installation at the World Exposition held in Chicago to write, that “our painted glass is not painted in the sense foreign glass is. Germany paints her figures, her draperies, her background with the most brilliant and often inharmonious colours […In] our stained glass there is much diversity of surface as well as thickness which leads to much more artistic results.”

Juries can happily be out on that one for as long as their hearts and minds desire, but Chieffo Raguin’s concluding chapter moves on to explore the Islamic tradition in stained glass, where abstraction has always stood in for figuration in expressions of the divine. Citing the Hagia Sofia in then-Constantinople, now Istanbul, and the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque/Pink Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, she then explores the increasing contemporary use of abstraction in stained glass windows across different traditions, including Christian: where Joan Villa-Grau has designed windows for Gaudi’s once-unfinished Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and Kiki Smith has made a chancel window for the Eldridge Street Synagogue in New York. Now that we no longer need biblical stories spelled out in pictures, abstraction in stained glass can give rise to intensities of emotional and spiritual wonder that take belief to places beyond the paltry power of words.

Further reading

Dark Beauty (Irish Academic Press, 2021), Lucy Costigan and Michael Cullen’s in-depth explorations of the work of Harry Clarke, is a lavishly illustrated guide to the great artist’s life and work

Nicola Gordon Bowe was a tireless champion of stained glass and stained glass artists in Ireland. With Wilhelmina Geddes (Four Courts Press, 2015), she turns her expert yet accessible eye to Geddes, who had been described on her death as “the greatest stained artist of our time”.

Edited by David Caron, with Nicola Gordon Bowe and Michael Wynne, Gazetteer of Irish Stained Glass (Irish Academic Press, 2021) was recently revised, 30 years after its original publication. This guide includes stained glass made by Irish artists, from 1900 to the present day, with biographical notes on the major names.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture