Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral: Gothic Features in the Cathedral Design

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As I worked through my thesis, I used many resources in order to gather research and contextualize the styles of architecture discussed, along with the functions and history of St. Fin Barre’s. These ranged from a variety of online sources, books and articles. After forming opinions based on the Cathedral, I found books, articles and websites were very useful when researching my ideas associated with my thesis. Some of the most helpful of these sources included extracts from Charles Handley-Read’s book “St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Architectural Review 161” as well as the website Visual Arts Corks’ “History of Art – Gothic Architecture”. I found online and physical articles very helpful when explaining points, along with seeing the research based on the topics discussed. I used these resources to analyse and discuss the Cathedral, the Gothic Revival style and other elements to the best of my abilities. Characteristics of Gothic Architecture Design and its influence on Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral

Through-out this thesis I look at how Gothic Revival / Neo-Gothic style architecture came about, what it was influenced by and its characteristics, and how it was used effectively for St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral is located near the heart of Cork, on Bishops Street in Cork. It is the most recent ecclesiastical site where St. Fin Barre is believed to have founded his monastic school in the 7th Century. The cathedral is surrounded by many attractions of our current society, with local spots such as the Elizabeth Fort, Costigan’s Pub, and the English market.

The style of architecture that was used for St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral and that I am going to be focusing on is Neo-Gothic architecture, or Gothic Revivalism. Gothic revivalism is a style which is correlated with the late medieval English art and architecture. It was an entire movement which spanned across many areas, one that’s revivals are attempts to style architecture, art – both visual and decorative, literature, landscape design, and music.

The style came about as a reaction to neoclassicism, which was a movement that came about during the 18th and 19th century, developing in Europe in response to the access of Baroque and Rococo. Neoclassicism sought to bring back the classical beauty and magnificence of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. The style is based around simplicity and symmetry; Neo-Classical works are often more serious in tone, emotionally detached, and heroic.

Gothic Revivalism is in complete contrast and contradiction to the style that came before, as it includes features such as irregularity, variety, naturalism and a general tendency to favour the individuality of the craftsperson or artisan, in all of its eccentricities, rather than the perfection and rigidity that neoclassicism strove for. The style of architecture that I am going to be examining of St. Finn Barre’s Cathedral is Neo-Gothic, or also known as the Gothic Revival style. It is the style of the current Cathedral, which has been knocked down and rebuilt many times throughout history. The current version of St. Finn Barre’s Cathedral began being built on the 12th of January in 1865. The Cathedral had been consecrated in 1870, and had not been fully completed until 1879 – as the spires and towers were completed then.

Neo- Gothic architecture is a style that was born in the middle of the 18th Century in England. As romanticism began to develop, enlightened amateurs such as Horace Walpole and William Beckford were highly influential on the public’s enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. (Unknown, n.d.), medieval Arts – where art was characterized by iconographic painting illustrations of Biblical scenes (Anon., n.d.), and the new aesthetic quality known as the “picturesque” – being attractive in appearance, primarily in an old-fashioned way, along with being part of the romanticism movement in architecture (Unknown, n.d.).

The Gothic Revival or Neo-Gothic style became highly popular in the mid – 19th century, when it began reflecting the public’s taste for buildings which took inspiration from the medieval design. This was a real departure from the previously popular styles that drew inspiration from the classical forms of ancient Greece and Rome (Commission, 2015). In the 19th century, Neo-Gothic architecture had a moment of glory with the works of Pugin and Ruskin; the London Parliament (1840-1860) Fig. 2 seen below (Pugin, n.d.), showcases a famous example of Neo-Gothic style in use (Unknown, n.d.)

During the 19th Century, as it reflected the publics taste for buildings, this movement gained a powerful influence on European and American arts (Unknown, n.d.), and in turn this Neo-Gothic style was translated and became particularly popular for use of churches, where high style elements such as parapets, castle-like towers, and tracery windows were featured often, along with the pointed Gothic arched windows and entries (Commission, 2015)

After the Revolution, in France, ties with the Christian and Monarchic past had been broken, creating a deep and social cultural traumatism. As a result of this, the Church began to look to the past, looking at the nostalgic glorious national past of the Middle Ages. Considered to be the golden age of Christianity, the Middle ages became their focus, as it was a source of new inspiration, a time that was the mystical source of religion (Unknown, n.d.).

It wasn’t until the Restoration period that Neo-Gothic imagery fully flourished in the arts, primarily architecture which was the main form of the Neo-Gothic, reviving the passion of the middle ages which had been hindered previously (Unknown, n.d.). It was also architecture which was where the primary structural characteristics of Neo-Gothic architectural design stemmed from the revival of the Gothic, which not only took the efforts of medieval masons in order to solve the problems associated with the supporting of arched roofs over a wide span, but to also reflect what the public was interested in at the time, romanticism and elegance (Unknown, 2002) (Unknown, n.d.).

In Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, many characteristics of Neo-Gothic Architecture, many of which are picturesque and romantic qualities. There wasn’t a huge importance put on the structural possibilities of the buildings, but focus was put on the feeling of the building. Neo-Gothic buildings are usually quite tall, ascending upwards as if they are reaching to the heavens. This feature is visible throughout St. Fin Barre’s cathedral, as it’s elegant spires extend high up. The use of flying buttresses allowed for higher buildings (Anon., n.d.).

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William Burges, the man responsible for the design of St. Finn Barre’s, was quite distinctive. The mark of Burges left is almost always unmistakable, not only on his designs but also from his possessions. The touch he has as a designer is also quite memorable, no matter where it’s found; be it “on a painted cupboard, a bronze door, or the slabs of stone surrounding a window” (Handley-Read, 1967). From items of his work, we can take and see the more obvious features: the reliance he has on the Middle Ages, the architectural play-acting and visual jokes he has, and his incredible love of an enormous scale. Burges credit to the thirteenth century stand out in a multitude of his buildings, but is seen particularly in his translation from High Gothic into High Victorian (the foundation of his popular renown), from his work for Lord Bute (Handley-Read, 1967). Burges was a quite a scholar, and considerably relied on the past for many of his ideas, yet despite this his imagination could explode with unique fantasy, which would then be interpreted into his work like St Finn Barre’s Cathedral (Handley-Read, 1967).

Extreme romanticism was not the focus of all his work, nor was he embracing Gothic simply because of its beauty and elegance of its associations. Burges had the ability to meet the demands of his day, without the tools and technology of today, in straightforward terms which allowed him to build well designed, relatively cheaply buildings typically proven in small church’s like St. Fin Barre’s (Handley-Read, 1967). Burges was a perfect candidate to design the Cathedral, as he saw and utilized how Neo-Gothic architecture could entice people from not only looks of elegance and romanticism, but he saw how he could use this functionally to serve as a method of drawing people into the Cathedral and gaining attention for the cathedral in both regards.

Some could say Burges was indebted to his engineering background. An adequate grasp on construction is to be seen in the vast majority of things he built, which allowed him to not be at a loss when it came to the execution of his designs, even the most elaborate – like several of the internal roofs or ceilings (Handley-Read, 1967). An example of this is to be seen in St. Finn Barre’s, where ribbed vaulting was used.

Burges was articled to Edward Blore in 1844, which could potentially be where “he first became seriously interested in Gothic” (Handley-Read, 1967). Burges also went to assist M.D Wyatt in 1849, whose three publications up to 1849 were based on the subject of medieval mosaic (Handley-Read, 1967). For Burges, the interest in the applied arts would have been very pleasing, as it contained qualities / interests similar to his own, and it is important to remember he made many features of mosaics in his own buildings, which can be seen in St. Fin Barre’s, where mosaics of sea creatures among others are depicted on the.

Ribbed Vaulting

First and foremost, ribbed vaulting was developed, which consisted of intersecting barrel vaults, whose stone ribs supported a vaulted ceiling of thin stone panels (Unknown, 2002) This new design not only significantly reduced the weight and as a result the outward thrust of the ceiling vault, but it also now transmitted the vault’s weight along a distinct stone rib, in place of transmitting it along a continuous wall edge. This could also be channelled from the rib to the other supports, like vertical piers or flying buttresses. This eliminated the need for solid, thick walls. (Cork, n.d.) Ribbed Vaulting relates to Gothic architecture and neo Gothic architecture, as it allowed for the Church’s and / or Cathedral’s to distribute the weight of the building across evenly, which allowed for thinner walls to be incorporated into the Cathedral, enhancing the elegance as they could now build up higher than before, which fed into the relationship of being closer to the sky and in turn, closer to God and the heaven’s.

Flying Buttresses

Until Gothic architects revolutionized building design, the entire weight of the roof fell down on the supporting walls, this resulted in the heavier the roof was or the higher that it scaled, the more downward and outward pressure it applied on the walls, so they had to be thicker in order to support this weight and stay upright. For example, a Romanesque cathedral would have massively thick and continuous walls to support the weight, which in turn took up a vast amount of space creating dim, small interiors. This contrasted with the new techniques in Gothic design. The weight of the roof was channelled along the ribs of the ceiling, across the walls to flying buttresses and down the vertical supports/ piers to the ground. As result, the roof no longer had to be so shallow. Thus the walls of the cathedral could be built up higher, along for more design, stained glass windows which allowed for a brighter interior, as well as images depicting Biblical art for the congregation, and they could be made thinner allowing more space for the interior of the cathedral.

Flying Buttresses are beams that are at an angle coming from the walls of a structure, in this case the Cathedral, and extends to the pier in order to support the weight of the roof, dome or vault. They were built in order to take away the pressure of outward thrust off of the buildings and redirect it into the ground. The purpose of flying buttresses in both Gothic and Neo-Gothic architecture was to allow for the structures to be built taller, and allow for more elaborate, elegant designs to be made. It aided in the romanticism of Neo-Gothic architecture as it allowed more stained glass windows to be incorporated into the buildings, enhancing their beauty and giving a sense of warmth to the interior.

Pointed Arch

Pointed arches are the most common identifiable element of Neo-Gothic architecture. They were used for a vast multitude of things, like windows and doors, and were also used for decorative elements such as porches, dormers and roof gables. This architectural element was again used in order to reduce the pressure of the roof down on the windows and surrounding area. The pointed arch allowed for the pressure not to only be distributed downwards like before, but it also allowed it to be distributed outwards, reducing the risk of outward thrust damaging the structure.

The above Gothic turned Neo-Gothic architectural elements allowed for an emergence of a new, exquisite type of interior to Cathedrals. It allowed for Cathedrals who’s walls were now tall and thin, giving off the persona of ascending to the sky vertically, as if in direct communication to the heavens; this was enhanced by the multi-coloured light that poured in through the massive expanses of stained glass, as more stained glass windows could now be incorporated into the buildings structure. (Cork, n.d.)


Sculptures were also often utilized in Cathedrals to portray a particular mood or atmosphere, as many people were illiterate; in order to communicate key messages and / or stories, they turned to sculptures to do so. They were used as people could see the expression and emotions being portrayed by the Cathedral (and the messages the Church’s wanted to portray) from the visuals of the sculpture. Burges thought of himself as an ‘art-architect’, meaning that he was aware of the furnishing and decorating of the structure as well as the architectural aspects. He had studied in tremendous detail the great medieval churches of the early Gothic period in France. Using this as a basis for his Cathedral, Burges simplified and adapted architectural elements in order to have them fit the needs of the nineteenth-century Church of Ireland. (Richard Wood, 2006)

Likewise, Burges chose imagery that was well suited to the Victorian beliefs and tastes of the times, which included a sort of elegance and grace, along with extreme romanticism, showcasing the vast knowledge Burges had on French Gothic programmes. An example of his excellent knowledge on the topic would be Burges’ design of the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgement. During the middle ages, these scenes would typically take place on the western entrances, as they would be lit by sunlight in the evening. The original design Burges came up with for this scene showed newly-risen naked bodies, which was a common depiction of them during the medieval period, surrounded by flames that threatened to engulf the Damned: the figures on the right hand side. Fitting to the times however, some people saw this type of imagery as offensive as it went against the elegance and romanticism of the times, so Burges had to alter it appropriately.

As a result of these changes, the final tympanum removed the element of flames engulfing the Damned, and also clothed’ the figures as opposed to having them nude. (Richard Wood, 2006) This in turn reflected the publics interests as it removed the harshness that was associated with this imagery from medieval times, and applied the Gothic Revival movement so the public would be more inclined to receive the imagery.

Through the architecture Burges used for the Cathedral, I believe it is clear that Burges utilized Gothic Revival architecture to benefit the Cathedral and correlate it with the times. Through visual techniques throughout the structure such as ribbed vaults within the interior, pointed arch’s, certain approaches to the sculptures etc., I believe it shows how Burges used the style to reflect the publics interests, making the Cathedral lavish with romanticism and elegance, from everything down to the smallest details like sculptures on the tympanum as mentioned above. I believe that with Burges personal interest with Gothic and Gothic revival, it played a major part on the influence of the style used on the building; shaping into what it became today.

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