SCULPTURES AT GALWAY CATHEDRAL
Galway Cathedral is one of the most impressive and iconic buildings in Galway. Built between 1958 and 1965, it is the youngest of Europe’s great stone cathedrals and the last to be built in this style. The cathedral combines elements of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, creating a unique and harmonious blend of tradition and modernity.
One of the most striking features of the cathedral is its rich collection of sculptures, which adorn its exterior and interior walls, doors and windows. These sculptures reflect the religious and artistic heritage of Ireland and the Catholic faith, as well as the personal vision of the artists who created them.
The statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the focal point of the high altar. It was carved by Imogen Stuart, a German-born Irish sculptor who is widely regarded as one of the leading figures in contemporary Irish art. The statue is made of limewood and painted in blue and gold, symbolizing Mary’s purity and royalty. It depicts Mary standing on a pedestal, surrounded by six angels holding candles. She holds a lily in her right hand, representing her virginity, and a rosary in her left hand, representing her devotion. Her face is serene and compassionate, inviting the faithful to pray to her.
The statue was inspired by a medieval icon of Mary that Stuart saw in a museum in Cologne, Germany. She wanted to create a statue that would appeal to both children and adults, as well as to reflect the Irish character of the cathedral. She said: “I wanted to make her very Irish, very simple, very young – not sophisticated at all.”
The statue was unveiled in 1965 by Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, who donated $50,000 towards its cost. It has since become a beloved symbol of Galway Cathedral and a source of inspiration for many pilgrims and visitors.
The tympanums are the semi-circular spaces above the three main doors of the cathedral. They are decorated with stone reliefs that depict scenes from the sacraments of baptism, matrimony and ordination. The reliefs were designed by John Coll, an Irish sculptor who also worked on other parts of the cathedral, such as the Stations of the Cross and the baptismal font.
The tympanum above the west door shows the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. The Holy Spirit descends as a dove above Christ’s head, while angels watch from above. The scene symbolizes the initiation into the Christian faith and the cleansing from sin.
The tympanum above the north door shows the wedding feast at Cana, where Christ performed his first miracle by turning water into wine. Mary stands beside Christ, while six stone jars are placed on a table. The scene symbolizes the sanctity of marriage and the presence of Christ in family life.
The tympanum above the south door shows the ordination of St Stephen as a deacon by St Peter and St John. St Stephen holds a book and a palm branch, while St Peter holds the keys of heaven and St John holds a chalice. The scene symbolizes the ministry of service and sacrifice in the Church.
The reliefs are carved in a simple and stylized manner, reminiscent of early Christian art. They convey a sense of dignity and solemnity, as well as a connection to the history and tradition of Christianity.
The third set of sculptures are the bronze doors with reliefs, also located on the north side of Galway Cathedral. There are four doors, each dedicated to a former bishop of Galway: Patrick Fallon, Thomas O’Dea, Edward Doorly and Michael Browne. The doors were designed by John Hinde and cast by Leo Higgins.
The doors depict scenes from the life of Jesus and the early Church, such as:
– The Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
– The Nativity, where Jesus was born in Bethlehem and visited by shepherds and wise men.
– The Presentation, where Jesus was brought to the temple and recognized by Simeon and Anna as the Messiah.
– The Baptism, where Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River.
– The Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert.
– The Transfiguration, where Jesus revealed his glory to Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor.
– The Last Supper, where Jesus instituted the Eucharist and washed his disciples’ feet.
– The Crucifixion, where Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
– The Resurrection, where Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.
– The Ascension, where Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after his resurrection.
– Pentecost, where Jesus sent his Holy Spirit upon his apostles and followers.
– The Conversion of Paul, where Paul encountered Jesus on his way to Damascus and became his apostle.
– The Council of Jerusalem, where the apostles decided to admit Gentiles into the Church.
The doors are intended to narrate the story of salvation, from the Incarnation to the birth of the Church, and to honour the memory of the bishops who served Galway and contributed to its spiritual and cultural development.
Galway Cathedral is not only a magnificent building, but also a treasure trove of religious art. Its sculptures are expressions of faith, beauty and creativity.
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