In June of this year I went on a tour of St Fin Barre‘s Cathedral in Cork. This was an amazing experience. During the tour the symbolism and the meaning behind the carvings and statues of the building was explained and in turn I saw the building in a very different light. I was so impressed by the tour that I asked my guide Martin Dier the Cathedral Administrator to write a post about the Cathedral. So I am delighted to introduce this guest post by Martin which focuses on the central doorway of the west gable of the building.
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral the western portico doorway
The Cathedral of St. Fin Barre is a masterpiece of engineering. It was created by the famous British architect William Burges and built-in the Neo-Gothic style and completed in 1879. The current building is the latest in series on the site, with early Christian roots going back 1400 years to the year 606AD. Tradition holds this was the site of an early monastic settlement of St Fin Barre.
The current building was built-in the style of the French Gothic structures popular in medieval times. The Cathedral is unusual on many levels and importantly all of its designs spring from a single mind giving a uniformity of style, which few other Cathedrals can boast. Everything from the super structure to the stained glass, the door hinges to the communion table are all from Burges.
Symbolism and hidden meaning
The secret language of symbolism is built into the fabric of the building and every part of the Cathedral is placed there for a reason, nothing is as it seems, nothing is random. There are several iconographic themes running throughout the building and the front of the building contains a wealth of symbolism that can be read like a book.
Looking at the magnificent western portico the eye is initially lost in the carvings, the tracery and the sculpture. However, if one pauses certain images will seem familiar and one thing leads to another which can lead one on a spiritual exploration of one’s own soul.
This post explores the central doorway in the western wall of the Cathedral which tells the tale of the five wise and the five foolish virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) which relays the story of how living the wise and prudent life is rewarded in eternal life.
This was a very popular story during the medieval period and had several mystery plays, carvings and works of art associated with it. The wise virgins all have their heads covered as a display of their purity and hold their lights aloft in flame. They are on the right hand side of the bride groom, the side associated with strength, virtue and favour.
In contrast the foolish virgins are bare headed and look despondent after wasting all their oil for their lamps.
The Virgins all stand on decorated pedestals. The decoration in turn contains symbolism connected to the story. Beneath the feet of the first wise virgin the doors to the wedding party/heavens doors are open.
In contrast the first unwise virgin (on the left hand side of the bride groom) stands on a pedestal which depicts the same doors but this time it is closed. Indicating those who do not prepare for death and live just lives may find the gates of heaven closed to them.
The next niche on the side of the wise virgins depicts a phoenix rising from the flames a symbol of resurrection and ever lasting life.
In contrast on the left hand side of the bride groom the flames are crossed and inverted.
Then on the side of the wise you have the organ whilst on his left you have the music of the lute which is a frivolous “pub” type music, leading one away from salvation.
Next on the side of the wise you have the pelican who in medieval mythology became a symbol for Christ as it was thought to prick its own breast to feed its blood to its offspring so that they might live.
This is contrasted with a locked treasure chest showing us that the way of the foolish leads us to the place where we become locked out of the treasures of heaven.
And finally on the side of the wise you have the cup of eternal life, the eternal spiritual food contrasted against the earthly bread and wine that when consumed do not satisfy the soul.
Standing between the wise and foolish virgins is the figure of the bridge groom who symbolises Christ. His face is turned away from the foolish virgins.
The imagery of death and judgement is again picked up in the tympanum above the door with the dead rising from their graves and being met with life ever lasting on the side of the wise virgins or damnation on the side of the foolish. Notice the angles are helping those on the right rise to heaven while pushing those on the left into hell.
The original idea by Burges was that the dead would be naked and that the fires of hell would be extending half way across the façade, but Victorian prudishness forced the fires of hell into a whisp of smoke and the dead to be fully clothed before judgement.
The place of this doorway in the west is also significant as the west-facing aspect of the carvings is also the direction in which the sun sets every night thus linking the idea of death and rebirth to the rhythm of the daily cycle.
The journey of the wise soul continues inside the building in an almost linear progression with the narratives in the windows from the old and new testaments illuminating the path to heaven which culminates at the high altar. Here the image of the fishing net is used to signify that heaven is like a net cast into the sea that gathers all types of fish/people (Matthew 13:47). The stylised fishing net not only shows the fish but the different classes of man from rich to poor.
So the exploration of ones soul progress from the outside to the inside and from judgement to salvation happens symbolically at the Communion Table through Christ who is again referenced in allegorical form as the fish.
The above text was written by Martin Dier.
This post highlights just one of the many hidden themes that run through this stunning building. If you visit here and I hope you will, do consider taking a guided tour as it will really bring the building to life. Below are the opening times and contact details for the cathedral.
Thanks for that fascinating deconstruction, everything so full of symbolism. I thought I might see you at Gougane Barra yesterday 🙂
Martin Dier is the one to thank he did all the hard work writing the post and I think he did a great job. would have loved to be in Gougane Barra but unfortunately wasnt to be life is too busy at the moment. Hope your keeping well .