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Left: St. Fin Barre's Cathedral (variously spelt). William Burges (1827-81). Designed 1862-63; consecrated 1870; towers and spires 1879, Cork limestone, Cork, Republic of Ireland. Right: Resurrection Angel. [Click on images to enlarge them.] A cathedral has overlooked Cork from this spot since as early as the seventh century, but in 1865 the remains of the medieval structure, and its eighteenth century rebuilding, were demolished to make way for a new, larger and grander edifice. To win the competition for it, Burges had designed a compact yet impressive cathedral in the French Gothic style, narrow inside but soaring to a great height, with three spires — one at the crossing and two others at the west. He also designed a wealth of architectural sculpture, especially for the west front. Amongst other figures below the intricately carved rose window are those in the highly wrought resurrection scene of the tympanum, while the wise and foolish virgins (the latter dejectedly holding their empty lamps) approach the bridegroom on each side of the central doors (see Matthew 25:1-13). Numerous gargoyles and other embellishments can be seen throughout.

Left: Windows of the south transept. Right: Stone carving on the west door tympanum. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Rightly described as "one of the most coherent expressions of Victorian church architecture in Western Europe" ("The Present Cathedral"), this is the only one of the three cathedrals designed by Burges in which he could realise his vision for such a project: his designs for a cathedral in Lille were taken over by French architects, and another cathedral designed for Brisbane was never built at all (see Turnor 70). Here, however, he could put his heart and soul into the work. A mark of his commitment was his own gift to it, the "Resurrection Angel" made of copper covered with gold leaf, crowning the sanctuary roof. Like the use of gold leaf elsewhere in the external decoration, and the glowing colours of the stained glass (designed by Burges, mostly cartooned by H. W. Lonsdale, and made by Gualbert Saunders), this adds much to the dramatic impact of the building.

Left: West front. Right: Foolish Virgins by west door. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

The fine detail everywhere is rich in symbolic significance as well as in craftsmanship. For example, on the pulpit St Paul is depicted as "sitting on an upturned 'pagan' altar," while the brass reading-stand on the pulpit is supported by "a winged dragon which symbolises evil taking flight at the sound of the Word being preached" ("St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork"). Amid the "single iconographic scheme" of the stained glass windows (Williams 6), which progresses from the Old Testament at the west end to the New Testament in the ambulatory, is one erected by Alfred Burges to the memory of his eldest son, "Architect of this cathedral." Designed by Burges himself, it shows the King of Heaven presiding over the four apostles, who hold open the Word of God. As elsewhere in the cathedral, Matthew is shown in human form, while Mark is shown as a lion, Luke as an ox and John as an eagle. Below them flame the seven candles of Revelations 1:20, representing the seven churches of Asia Minor. Under the inscription is a simple shield and a small, worn-looking plaque with a mosaic surround, bearing Burges's entwined initials and name.

Left: Detail of tympanum. Right: Ironwork on the doors. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

However, everything here, including the church fittings, furnishings, mosaics, ironwork and stained glass, shows Burges's distinctive hand, making the whole cathedral a memorial to him and to his own distinctive style of "Burgesian Gothic."

Related material


Crook, J. Mordaunt. "Burges, Wiliam (1827-1881)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 23 August 2009.

"St Fin Barre's Cathedral, Cork" (welcome leaflet available in the cathedral).

"The Present Cathedral." (Cathedral website). Viewed 23 August 2009.

Turnor, Reginald. Nineteenth Century Architecture in Britain. London: Batsford, 1950.

Williams, Matthew. William Burges, 1827-81. Andover, Hants: Jarrold Publishing (Pitkin Guide), 2007.

Last modified 24 November 2023