A Forgotten Craftsman

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The crisp carving of a pair of capitals on the eastern side of the porch of University Church, Dublin. The building was commissioned in 1855-56 by John Henry Newman from John Hungerford Pollen – like Newman a convert to Roman Catholicism – and occupies the former gardens of its neighbour, 87 St Stephen’s Green. The little porch was an afterthought and added a few years later, most likely as a means of giving the churcsh some presence on the square. Its most distinctive feature are the capitals, carved with the emblems of the Evangelists (those of SS. John and Luke seen above) which are then linked by an abacus decorated by winged angels. Who was the sculptor responsible for this work? Like a medieval craftsman, his name seems not to have been recorded…

4 comments on “A Forgotten Craftsman

  1. Yes, wonderful work. A great shame that the artist/craftsman’s name has not come down to us. The interior of the church is one of my favourite Dublin spaces, the timber, painted roof and many- coloured marbles a delight, and the carved capitals there equally good as (and no doubt at least some of it is by) the same artist you show above. But the highlight is Pollen’s own series of wall paintings, lovely delicate paintings of various saints, each on lovely Byzantine-style gold background. The re-created panels higher up the wall, as you know after Raphael (his cartoons for tapestries for the Vatican Stanze, aren’t they, or it it for the Sistine Chapel? – although the cartoons themselves now in the V&A London) – These repainted “after Raphael” panels (restoration of the 19th C versions proved impossible) are a less happy aspect, but then, one can’t have everything. Overall the church is a marvel, and I’d argue Pollen himself deserves far more recognition. Thank you for this Robert. Very happy New Year to you. Wishing you the best for 2015. -Arran.

    • Dear Arran,
      Thank you for your kind comments. The panels on the upper portions of the walls are a Disneyfied travesty of the originals. Some years ago, the priest responsible for this building persuaded Bertie Ahern (when the latter was still in government) to give him a large sum of taxpayers’ money for ‘temporary’ replacements while the originals were being cleaned. The originals have not been seen since and these gaudy shockers remain in situ. It is a great blot ont the interior of the building…
      Meanwhile Happy New Year to you also, and wishing you every success in your endeavours during 2015.

  2. Pearse Walsh says:

    To whom it may concern. The Irish Aesthete pontificates with all the pomposity of the self appointed arbiter of good taste! What a diet of sour grapes posturing as pious concern. The “Disneyfied travesty” to which he refers are the work of the New York based but Byzantine born and trained artist Levant Tunser . They are 21st century works after Raphael, just as what they replaced are 19th century works also after Raphael. The figures in the works of Raphael have the perfection of Hollywood film stars whereas Mr. Tunser’s representation is imbued with the angst and suffering of recent times. e.g. in “The Martyrdom of St. Stephen” he shows the saint with the features of an Afro-American victim of hatred and racial prejudice being stoned to death. In another panel the artist, having studied the images of the sun taken from the Hubble Telescope, used this resource in his description of the dazzling light surrounding the Divine mystery.
    Love them or loathe them the new works at the University Church deserve more attention than an imperious dismissal as a “blot on the interior”.
    “Degustibus non disputandum”.
    The Irish Aesthete might aspire to accuracy in his stated opinions. The old canvases are safely stored in the church, all 22 of them. At least three attempts were made in the past to have them cleaned, all unsuccessfully. The advice of experts in the field from the National Gallery, Dublin, Fitzwilliam Institute, Cambridge and art experts from London was sought in relation to the project of replacing what had sadly become darkened beyond recognition. It was Cardinal Newman’s intention that the paintings depicting the 12 apostles and scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul would be a clear didactic instrument for young undergraduates of faith. This presupposed that the paintings could at least be seen.
    As “the priest responsible” at the time I can say that every effort was made to preserve what was inherited.
    The project was carried out under the expert direction of the OPW and was funded by a generous donation from the government of the day; which in my view ought to be celebrated and not disparaged with contempt.
    Fundamentalism is an ugly beast even when found among aesthetes and art historians. It needs must be faced down especially when it assumes the livery of “group think”. The late professor Michael McCarthy of UCD acted throughout as an encouraging and reliable guide. Why not let us all try to be a little positive instead of being so predictably precious? Now that would be a refreshing change.
    Pearse Walsh

    • Dear Fr Walsh,
      Thank you for getting in touch, although your intemperate language is regrettable and scarcely what could be called evidence of Christian charity. It is unwise, for example, to fling out accusations of pomposity and then demonstrate the same behaviour. Of course one realises members of your profession have long had difficulty dealing with dissent from their own views. Nevertheless, you must accept that the changes in this building for which you were responsible have not met with universal approval. If readers wish to learn more, I recommend that they read the following: http://www.politico.ie/archive/controversial-revamp
      As for the works installed in the church under the current incumbent’s watch, readers might like to see details of these on the artist’s own website: http://www.leventtuncer.com/pages/universitychurchdublin.html
      The cartoon-ish nature of the images make it plain that describing them as a ‘Disneyfied travesty’ of Raphael’s paintings was entirely accurate. One struggles to find evidence of the ‘angst and suffering of recent times’ in such gaudy and crude representations.
      I wish you well Fr Walsh but continue to be appalled by what has been done to the interior of this building.
      Incidentally, since you are so keen an advocate of Levent Tuncer, it might be advisable to spell his name correctly.

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