The Art and Architecture of University Church
The Porch and Atrium
Officially known as Catholic University Church because it first served as the chapel for the Catholic University of Ireland, it became known as Newman University Church in the mid-20th century.
The Gathering Area
The baptistry was originally in the Lady Chapel but moved to the back of the church. The ambry holds the chrism oils. These oils (the oil of catechumens, oil of the sick, and holy chrism oil) are blessed by the bishop at the Chrism Mass during holy week and used throughout the year for Baptisms, Confirmations, and anointing of the sick. The 14 stations of the cross encircle the gathering area with the crucifix serving as the 12th station. The floor is paved with unglazed Staffordshire black and red tiles while the marble columns throughout the church have alabaster capitals composed of carved grapes, ears of wheat, passion-flowers, birds, shamrocks, roses, acorns, and oak leaves. The capital nearest the altar has grapes and wheat representing the Blessed Sacrament.
An alabaster communion rail separates the nave from the sanctuary. The high altar front is also alabaster with a Byzantine cross inset with nine images: Christ in glory in the centre surrounded by the four evangelists, John, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and four doctors of the Latin Church, Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome. The six candlesticks on the altar are handcarved wood gilded to look like metal. The baldacchino is surmounted by five small domes that lend a Byzantine appearance to the structure.
The semi-dome, inspired by San Clemente Church in Rome, was painted by John Hungerford Pollen. Its central image depicts Our Lady enthroned as Sedes Sapientiae - Seat of Wisdom. Above her head is a dove representing the Holy Spirit, a jeweled cross representing Christ, and brilliant coloured rays emanating from the hand of God.
The dome is filled by the coiled branches of a great vine and rondels bearing the image of a martyr with a palm in hand, symbolic of their victory in Christ. Various kinds of birds, insects, and animals are among the branches, including a pelican, deer, and rabbits. The insects and animals pay homage to the portion of creation which sin has not entered or which has been redeemed from it.
A delighted Newman wrote Pollen on 9 November 1856, “The apse is magnificent…” and in the postscript: “I have come from High Mass. The more I looked at the apse, the more beautiful it seemed to me-and to my taste, the church is the most beautiful in the Kingdom.” [is this right? I recall a reference to the three kingdoms.]
This impressive high pulpit rests on four pillars each of which bears the symbols and names of an evangelist - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Its prominence suggests the importance Newman placed on preaching and his hope to make Dublin a centre of religion and learning like he had experienced in Oxford. It was from here that Newman gave the last of a series of lectures which eventually became “The Idea of a University.”
The Ceiling and Lateral Walls
Pollen painted the flat roof painted with stylized branches of oak leaves and acorns in honor of St. Brigid of Kildare (which means church of the oak). The clerestory windows are glazed with knots of glass which as a means to save money were acquired from the Dublin Glass Bottle Factory.
Marble originating from each of the four Irish provinces cover the walls with the black marbles come from Co Kilkenny, the green from Co Galway, the red from Co Cork and the brown and grey from Co Armagh and Co Offaly.
On the walls, eleven arch-shaped panels painted by Pollen sit atop pilasters with alabaster capitals carved to depict the life cycle of birds. Each of these lunettes features a standing saint in the centre with an angel on either side. The lunettes in the sanctuary depict St Patrick and St Brigid, patron saints of Ireland, along with St Laurence O’Toole, patron of Dublin Archdiocese. The lunettes in the nave honor saints relevant to university life: St Dominic, St Anthony of Padua, St Philip Neri, and Blessed John de Britto. On the opposite wall are St Benedict, St Thomas Aquinas, St Fiachra (representing Ireland’s missionary activity in Europe and beyond) and St Ignatius of Loyola. Smaller images of Sts. Peter and Paul hang on either side of the pulpit.
In 2006, new paintings were installed high on the walls to replace a set that had so darkened over the years as to be indecipherable. The originals were copies of cartoons drawn by Raphael for tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. The paintings depict moments in the life of Peter and St Paul as found in scripture. These are interspersed with smaller images of the apostles based on Raphel’s paintings in the Abbey Church of Tre Fontaine outside Rome. On the right hand wall, we find The Descent of the Holy Spirit; The Conversion of St Paul; St Paul Preaching at Athens; Christ’s Threefold Command to St Peter; The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and The Death of Ananias. On the left hand wall can be seen The Stoning of St Stephen; St Paul at Lystra: The Blinding of Elymas and The Healing of the Lame Man at the Beautiful Gate.
The Newman Bust
The bust of Newman was executed by Sir Thomas Farrell in 1892 and reads,
John Henry Cardinal Newman
Born 1801. Died 1890
Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland 1854-1859
The Lady Chapel
The Lady chapel, a gift from Justice William O’Brien, was added in 1875. A statue of Our Lady of the Assumption sits as the focal point of the chapel while the stained glass windows depict “the Nativity,” “The Adoration of the Wise Men,” and “Christ with the doctors in the temple.” The Taizé cross was created by Mona Maria Damien in 2017 and depicts Jesus with Saint Brigid and Saint Patrick kneeling on either side of him.