Harry Clarke was his name. He was an absolute master at creating wonder with bits of colored glass and light.
Even surpassing Louis Comfort Tiffany, who I consider one of the best of our age, Clarke may hold the title for the greatest stained glass artist of all time. He certainly can lay claim to that title for the twentieth century.
So why has no one heard of him?
An untimely death
It’s an exaggeration, of course, to say that no one has heard of him – he’s well-known in his native land of Ireland and in churches from Scotland to the UK to Australia. But he hasn’t gotten the press of a Tiffany or a Chagall.
Perhaps that’s due to his untimely death from tuberculosis in 1931, just short of his 42nd birthday. He didn’t have time to develop a wide international reputation, the kind that took Tiffany decades to establish. He also didn’t have the business skills for promoting himself and his art like Tiffany did. He was a pure artist and only secondarily a businessman.
In contrast, Tiffany inherited his father’s massive jewelry business and established his own major decorating business (which survive today as the combined entity, Tiffany and Co.) and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-four, twice the lifespan of Clarke.
It’s one of those tragedies of history that sometimes great geniuses die young. We can only wonder what further masterpieces he would have produced had he lived longer.
The crowning glory of Irish glass
The Irish are known for their phenomenal glassware and cut-glass crystal, an art they learned from the Venetians several centuries ago. They’ve developed glassmaking (including stained glass) into an art form that their secular and religious missionaries have carried to the ends of the earth.
An Irish priest I knew had the most exquisite (and expensive) collection of Waterford crystal I ever saw, but he never claimed to have a vow of poverty!
The Catholic Church in America has benefited from several centuries of Irish missionary priests who have come to our shores, built churches, and decorated them with Irish stained glass.
Harry Clarke’s only commission in the United States came in 1928 for the Basilica of St. Vincent de Paul in Bayonne, NJ. He only partially finished the series of windows before he died. His studio completed the project in 1940.
A “jewel-like” style
One of the hallmarks of true genius is that you can immediately identify a master artist’s style when you see it. There may be imitations and forgeries, but the one-of-a-kind style of the genius shines through like the flawless printed $100 bill from the US mint in the face of all the counterfeits.
Clarke’s style defies strict categorization, but, not surprisingly, medieval stained glass was his primary artistic influence. His visit to Chartres Cathedral in northern France in 1913 made the deepest impression on him and put a certain stamp of brilliance on his later art.
Earlier, during his formative years (the 1890s early 1900s), he was exposed to a host of other artistic trends and movements, traces of which can be seen in his stained glass as well. Among these influences were Pre-Raphaelite painting and the Arts and Crafts movement in England; Symbolism and Art Nouveau in France; as well as Art Deco in the US.
He thought the windows of Chartres had a “jewel-like effect”, and if there is one term that generally characterizes Clarke’s style it is just that: “jewel-like”. His stained glass windows simply sparkle when the natural light flows through them.
A stunning sign of the Art Deco influence in his art is his depiction of the Archangel Gabriel wearing ballet slippers in the Annunciation window in St. Joseph Church in South Dublin (see detail at right)!
A man of details
Clark’s windows – even the most strictly religious themes – simply abound with flora and fauna, which shows the abiding influence of the Art Nouveau and Symbolist movements on his work. He was a master at filling his windows with shades of vibrant colors and tiny details that astound the perceptive eye. Instead of pigment on a canvas, Clark painted with glass and light.
For example, if you look closely at the St. Cuthbert window in the Durham Cathedral in England, you will see a little stained glass otter at the feet of the great English saint. Legend has it that an otter emerged from the water and dried the feet of the missionary as he crossed the English Channel to evangelize the people.
And you will not find a greater collection of obscure Irish saints than in Harry Clarke’s windows. They are scattered like brilliant shards of incarnate holiness in colorful windows across the Emerald Isle. He was a card-carrying member of the Celtic revival in art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His famous Geneva Window (now residing in a museum in Miami) features Ireland’s finest writers immersed in colorful scenes from their tumultuous lives. It is one of only a handful of windows he created for a secular
Harry Clarke resources
I was introduced to Clarke’s work on a visit to Dublin in the early ‘90s, when a friend took me to an exhibition of some of his windows on display at a local museum. I have been a Harry Clarke devotee ever since.
There are also two excellent books about his life and works (published by The History Press), and a documentary, that have catalogued all his windows in extreme detail and color. They are worth their hefty price (plus shipping from overseas).
It is hard to find good high-resolution images of his windows on the internet, but I have assembled a few images available in the public domain for the gallery below. If you search for “Harry Clarke Stained Glass” on Pinterest or Flickr, you will find many lower-resolution copies of his bright images, which will fascinate you for hours.
NOTE: If you click on any image in the gallery, you can scroll through all the photos in their fine detail. Please take a moment to drink in the shimmering wonder of Harry Clarke’s genius.
You may not conclude (as I did) that he is the world’s greatest stained glass artist, but you will undoubtedly be impressed by his flawless artistry.
We all have some creative genius within us. We often equate creativity with artistic talent, but God’s gifts are not limited to art. There are many more humble gifts of spirit and service that are equally creative – that is, life-giving to us and others.
What is your specific gift? Harry Clarke’s gift was stained glasswork, and despite his short lifespan, I believe he illustrated well the principle that “to him who has more will be given” (Mark 4:25) because he so generously offered his gift to others.
That is the principle of gospel creativity. It means we only get more when we give away what we have!
Offer your gift in significant ways today. Those who offer their gifts with generosity of hear always receive more. God can never be outdone in generosity.
Source: Lucy Costigan & Michael Cullen, Strangest Genius: The Stained Glass of Harry Clarke, Dublin: The History Press Ireland, 2010.