On the small and picturesque Castlehaven peninsula in West Cork sits the small and picturesque church of St Barrahane’s. As you walk up the brightly-lit nave, flanked on either side by simple yet elegantly-decorated stained glass windows, the eye is drawn to the altar and the three large, darkly coloured paintings above it. They catch the eye not just for their lifesize scale, but for their contrast with the white marble of the altar and the clean bright lines of the church interior. For Mike and me, their attraction was the artist – our boy Sam. These are the three paintings he records working on through the night in November 1827 for the cathedral in Skibbereen, and for which his anonymous biographer in the Dublin University Magazine of 1845 says he was sought out.
Painted Crucifixion for Skibbereen, from two o’clock, November 8, to half-past two o’clock, November 10. Painted in light and shadow, glazed with sienna and lake.
Samuel Forde’s religious triptych at St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven. Photo by Shane Lordan.
The commission was originally given to a ‘Mr B-‘ [possibly Frederick Buck (1771-c.1840)], noted for his ability as a miniaturist but now confronted with covering ten feet of canvas. He is said to have conferred with Forde about the paintings, possibly because of his reputation for working at scale and speed, and over the course of the two nights the latter worked in Skibbereen itself to finish them.
The pictures, from left to right, have been identified as St Brigit, the Crucifixion, and St Patrick. They are executed using a muted yet colourful palette. We say the woman is Brigit, following previous identifications of her as such, and because the corresponding portrait of Patrick (complete with fleeing snakes) would make this a logical choice. The height at which the paintings hang makes it hard to discern much detail, but the woman appears to be standing on a crescent-shaped object that looks like a pair of horns. In between them lies a brown object we cannot make head nor tail of!* It seems quite an unusual depiction to us, and we’re eager to figure it out!
Samuel Forde’s Saint Brigit (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Samuel Forde’s Saint Patrick (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
The Crucifixion scene is striking and mysterious, in a way. Christ is not high above his attendants, as might frequently be expected, and is flanked by a turbaned man wrapped up in a cloak who watches the group of women mourn. It is possible that this man is John, following Christ entrusting his mother to the disciple he loved in John 19.26, ‘Woman, behold your son’. The group of three women are surely the three Marys of John 19.25: Mary the mother of Jesus, her sister Mary the mother of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. The latter is the woman with uncovered red hair huddled over Christ’s feet. Mary Magdalene was frequently misidentified with the unnamed sinner of John 12.3-8 who washed Christ’s feet and dried them with her hair. Throughout the centuries she was depicted with uncovered flowing hair which usually fell over her shoulders, in contrast to the other Marys of Christ’s following who generally wear dark hair under scarves or headdresses. Patrick appears in full episcopal regalia, complete with a very papal-looking tiara. He carries his crosier and an object we cannot yet identify in his left hand, while raising his right in a sign of benediction.
Samuel Forde’s Crucifixion (1827) © St Barahane’s Church, Castlehaven, Co. Cork. Image: Dara McGrath and Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
Although no one in the church could tell us much about the paintings, even that they were by Forde, we were very glad to hear from the sacristan at St Barrahane’s that the congregation is very proud of the artworks decorating their church, recognising their antiquity and the need to preserve them. Overall they seem in fair condition; there is some obvious damage on Brigit’s portrait and the Crucifixion, while all three suffer from warping around their edges where they were re stretched and re framed in the 1970s (we think), after being brought to attention by Davis and Mary Coakley, authors of Wit and Wine: literary and artistic Cork in the early nineteenth Century. Looking closely at the top of each canvas you can see that they were originally framed with a curved top, in the style of Forde’s self portrait and indeed the style he seems to have worked into his other paintings. A full appraisal would require them to be taken down — no mean feat. So for now we hope to get some high resolution photographs taken of them and these should inform us better.
We don’t know at what point they were moved from the cathedral in Skibbereen to St Barrahane’s, but we have deduced that they must have been commissioned to decorate the new cathedral itself – opened in 1826. They pose a bit of a mystery to us, and it will be exciting work pinning down their history. We can already envisage hunting through the diocesan archives in an effort to learn more about them!
*Since our visit to St Barrahane’s, and thanks to some high-quality images by Dara McGrath, we’ve made some progress decoding ‘Brigit’s’ accompaniments. The ‘pair of horns’ is probably a crescent moon, a common way of depicting Mary in Catholic art, following Revelations 12:1 which describes a woman ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’. Mike has suggested the brown object beneath the woman’s feet is a serpent, quite similar in fact to that in Peter Paul Rubens’s The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse (c.1623). Such heavy Marian imagery fits well with how Brigit, the ‘Mary of the Gael’, is represented in Irish art, and certainly from the period in the early nineteenth century when Irish Catholicism was beginning to assert itself openly. Her pairing with Patrick also develops as an artistic feature in line with the growth of Nationalism at the same time. However, despite the serious damage to the left-hand portrait, a comparison of the solitary female figure with Christ’s mother in the central scene reveals them as one and the same person. Their faces are the same, even down to their expressions, and the clothes are identical. It is more likely then that Forde’s triptych should be read as Mary, Crucifixion, and Patrick. We still hope to uncover something of the original commission in the diocesan archives that would confirm or deny this interpretation, but for now it seems (at least) that Forde’s most complete surviving works just got a bit more interesting!!