Jesuits from home and abroad marked St Ignatius feast day (31 July) by unveiling a newly acquired stained glass portrait of St Francis Xavier in Gardiner St Church, Dublin. The window, which comes from the Harry Clarke studio, has been installed in the refurbished prayer room in the church. Nicola Gordon Bowe, who has written a well-received biography of Harry Clarke, was guest speaker at the event which included a special feast day Mass.
In an entertaining presentation she spoke about Harry Clarke’s early days as a student in Belvedere. “He was known even then for his drawings,” she remarked, “especially on the school desks!” She also spoke about his work and how over 15o windows were produced in his studio even though he died very early, aged 41. He had been living in Switzerland and suffering with TB, but when his condition worsened he wanted to return to Ireland. Unfortunately he did not survive the trip, dying in transit.
TB plagued the family. Clarke’s mother died from it when he was a young boy. His father, Joshua Clarke, set up his own stained glass studio, naming it Joshua Clarke and Sons in the hope that some of the family might follow in his footsteps. Thankfully Harry did just that. His work became an important part of the Celtic Revival of Irish art and identity. He was also a leading figure in the Irish Arts and Craft Movement.
Harry Clarke’s wife Margaret was also a very fine artist in her own right, according to Nicola, who remarked on the quality of her portraits, some of which feature members of the Clarke family. When asked why Harry pictured himself among ‘the damned’ in at least two of his windows Nicola said that at one level he was being tongue in cheek. But at another level he was aware of the almost Faustian pact artists make where even God could be seen to come second to the artist’s inner compulsion to create.
Peter McVerry SJ was the homilist at the feast day Mass. He spoke about the life of St Ignatius as one of two halves and two dreams. The first half held the dream of fame, riches and glory. Then came “the famous canon ball that not only shattered Ignatius’ leg, but also shattered his worldly dreams”. And as he struggled to recover from his leg injury the seeds of the second dream were sown so that “if he could no longer be the finest warrior that ever lived, he would become the finest saint that ever lived”.
He said the core of Ignatius’ sanctity was his deep and close relationship with Jesus. That’s why Ignatius wanted Jesuits to be ‘companions of Jesus’ and ‘contemplatives in action’, living as Jesus did, caring for the poor, healing the sick. And Jesus too had a dream, he said. “Jesus came to share with us God’s dream for our world, the dream that we, the children of God, the whole human race, would live together as a family, the family of God”. It was a dream also of a world where no-one would be hungry and not given something to eat, thirsty and not given something to drink he said, adding, “No-one would be naked and not given something to wear, sick and not have someone to visit them. And no-one would be in prison and be rejected by their community”. (Read the full homily here)