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"The Triumphs of Virtue over Vice": Gargoyles on the west front of St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork, designed by William Burges, modelled by Thomas Nicholls, and carved in Cork limestone by Robert Macleod and his stonemasons, 1868.

Every single piece of sculpture incorporated into the fabric of St Fin Barre's Cathedral (and there were 1,260 pieces of it, according to Joseph Mordaunt Crook, 167) was designed by Burges himself as architect, and modelled in plaster under his very close supervision by his trusty sculptor Thomas Nicholls. With the exception of the figures at the west entrance, including the symbols of the Evangelists around the rose window, they were carved locally, in the Cathedral's Cork limestone, by the stonemason Robert McLeod and his men (again, see Crook 167). The monkey-faced winged gargoyle above, from which piglets are suckling, represents Vice: it grimaces with pain as the crowned and armed female figure of Virtue attacks it.

Here, the two pictures on the left illustrate a similar theme, as a horse, complete with knightly trappings, bestrides its vanquished foe. Seen on the far left is a female figure (Virtue again) pressing on the foe's head. Such gargoyles show that Burges, however much he was inspired by Early French Gothic examples, blended into it his own sense of the grotesque, and his own highly imaginative ideas. Anyone can see that these, and the carvings that follow, are the creatures of his own mind and design.

On the left, snakes writhe below a small ledge. On the right, a gargoyle takes the form of a winged ram, and (on the far right) a patriarch looks out from the Cathedral. Crook writes that "the overall standard of production is consistently high and occasionally outstanding" (167), confirming Burges's belief in the absolutely vital importance of architectural sculpture to the character of a building.

On the left, the grotesque creature on parade is a winged griffin, with a bird-like head, an animal's ears and large, stylized wings. To its right, as seen in the picture on the right, is a projecting, functional spout, a gargoyle in the shape of a dog's head.

Prowling around here is another grotesque: a strange beast, probably the four-headed panther of the Book of Daniel, VII, 6, representing the domination of worldly powers that need to be vanquished — again, a part of the good versus evil iconography with which Burges endowed the Cathedral. It is advancing on a group of faintly seen, carved classical buildings.

Photographs by Robert Freidus, formatting and image correction by George P. Landow, and text by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on the images to enlarge them.]

Bibliography

Crook, J. Mordaunt . William Burges and the High Victorian Dream. Revised and Enlarged Edition. London: Francis Lincoln, 2013. [Review]

Searching for the New Jerusalem: The Iconography of St Fin Barre's Cathedral, with a Foreword by the Very Revd Nigel Dunne, Deane of Corke, and Michael Murphy, President, University College Cork, and "Searching for the New Jerusalem," an essay by Richard Wood. Cork: Lewis Glucksman Gallery and the University of Cork, 2013. [Review]

St Fin Barre's Cathedral: Present Cathedral." The Cathedral's own website. Web. 13 November 2019.


Last modified 13 November 2019