William Burges and the Jewel Box Cathedral of St Fin Barre’s, Cork.

Painted Image of Angel holding St Fin BARRE'S Cathedral in her hands. This is painted on the ceiling above the alter.
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral


I was motivated to revisit Cork City’s stunning St Fin Barre’s Cathedral recently. My interest was piqued following a great talk by Penny Johnston regarding her oral history mapping project with stories from North and South Main streets at the DH Colloquium arranged by James O’Sullivan back in October. Also, during DH lectures we were guided towards a wonderful final year project by UCC student Barra O’Connell titled CorkThreeSixty.

Caption from Cork Three Sixty Title
Screenshot of website

Both projects were based on Cork History and highlight the wonderful architecture and people of this city. I pass St Fin Barre’s Cathedral on the way to and from college every day, so a revisit was definitely going to fit into my schedule. St Finbarr is the patron saint of Cork and the spires of St Fin Barre’s nobly crown the sacred site which has been a place of worship for more than 12 centuries. It is believed that St Finbarr founded the School of Cork here in 606.

Image exterior of St Fin Barres Cathedral
Exterior of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

You can clearly see in Barra O’Connell’s 360 videos of the Cathedral, the outside is gleaming white limestone (local stone from Ballintemple). The exterior is overpowering with 3 spires and its height dominates the Cork City Skyline. The Cathedral is among the high points of Gothic architecture.  Inside it is actually modest in size, being higher than it is long. In the interior, pillars are of white Bath stone, the ceiling is high and lofty with a large expanse of stained glass. The result is a feeling of being enveloped in light and colour. The Sculpture totaling 1,260 both inside and outside the Cathedral highlight the excellent partnership between architect William Burges and Sculptor Thomas Nicolls. It is absolutely amazing to read that all of these sculptures with the exception of the 4 Evangelist Beasts were carved in situ.

William Burges is stated to be one of the most intriguing and eccentric figures of the Gothic Revival. He is regarded as a herald of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The design and architecture of the building, the Iconography of the stained glass, the sculpture, mosaics, painted decorations, furnishings, and metalwork were all minutely specified and designed by William Burgess. It is absolutely fascinating how Burgess had one overall and complete vision for the building of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.

Image of David's Door, St Fin Barres Cathedral
David’s Door, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

Just one of the many beautiful features of the Cathedral is David’s Door. The door is made of bronze, designed in panels, decorated with foliage and inlaid in silver. At the center of the door is a Lion’s head and in his mouth a ring of bronze, the Lion symbolising David. Over the doorway which is the entrance to the tower stairs is a beautiful carving of David playing the harp with the face of the arch itself decorated with Lions.

It is the beautiful stained-glass windows that fascinate me the most. When standing inside the Cathedral when the sun shines through those windows, it is like being in a Jewel Box. It is intriguing that Burgess required that the windows would be an integral part of the whole Architectural concept, in style and colour. Burgess drew up an overall iconographic scheme for the windows and maintained control over all stages of design, the original sketch, the cartoon and there manufacture. The original Cartoons for each of the stained windows thankfully have been conserved and currently form part of the Special Collections held at the Boole Library, UCC. “Searching for the New Jerusalem” presented the original preparatory drawings to the public at an exhibition held in the Glucksman Gallery in 2014, curated by Richard Wood.

Image of Stained Window Depicting Abraham speaking to God.
Stained Glass Window in Nave of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral


Image of window depicting scene from the old testament
Scene from Old Testament, Stained glass window in Nave of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

Nave:  The windows depict events from the Old Testament.

Transepts:      Illustrations of the lives of the Prophets who foretold the coming of Christ.

Ambulatory:  The illustrations here tell the story of Christ’s life, his birth, miracles, death, Resurrection, and ascension.

Image depicting story of David and Goliath
Stained Glass window depicting Old Testament story of David & Goliath, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral.


      Clerestory Level:

West Rose Window: Illustrates the days of creation.

Nave:  Signs of the Zodiac

North Rose Window: Last Judgement

South Rose Window: Heavenly hierarchy.

Image of Window depicting the head of Goliath, slain by David.
The head of Goliath, Nave Window St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

The illustrations on the windows contribute to a coherent Iconographic scheme. The use of colour heightens this symbolism. There is a progression from light colours used for the glass in the Nave to a richer, darker and more mysterious chancel. Tragically, the visual climax of the Crucifixion sequence of the Apsidal Clerestory windows of the chancel is not complete. Burgess envisaged nine monumental figures, Christ and those present at his Crucifixion to stand high above the choir and the sanctuary.   The sequence was to symbolise the central message of the Gospel – Christs triumph over death.

Image of stained glass window depicting prophet
Stained Glass Window in Transept of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral

The beauty of this Cathedral, being within this complete work of art absorbs me. Here within St Fin Barre’s, we come to fully appreciate Walter Benjamin’s concept of authenticity and aura, “its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence… We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of a distance, however, close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.”(Benjamin, 219) I do experience what Orla Peach Power outlined as the aura and authenticity linked to this site. Here unlike The Stone Corridor in UCC, everything is in the landscape for which it was originally designed. There is aura ingrained in the very fabric of the building and I experience a desire while standing within it to understand better the stories communicated in the mosaics, stained glass, sculptures.


References :

  • Lawrence, David, and Ann Wilson. The Cathedral of St Fin Barre at Cork: William Burges in Ireland. Four Courts, Dublin, 2006

06b_benjamin-Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.Pdf.  Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Orla Peach Power. “Democratising Datasets: Digital Replication and Aura.” Orlapeach, 28 Oct. 2016,

Responsible-or-Free_ONLINE.Pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2017.

Stories-of-Place-Johnston-in-Landscape-Values-Place-and-Praxis-Proceedings.Pdf. Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.


References online:

Boole Library, UCC

Video Courtesy of  YouTube