Controversial REVAMP

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, University Church in Dublin commissioned a replacement of its 19th-century copies of Raphael's Sistine Chapel cartoons. Conservation experts are unimpressed and there is confusion as to whether they are temporary or permanent. William Laffan and Emma Somers report. Pictures by William Hederman

The controversial replacement of a set of 19th-century paintings in Newman University Church on St Stephen's Green in Dublin has divided opinion among conservationists, Board of Public Works officials and the parish authorities. There is also controversy surrounding the planning permission obtained for the replacement paintings.

There is confusion as to the purpose of these replacement pictures and it is unclear what their status is in relation to planning law. As the church is a protected structure, parish priest Fr Walsh sought an exemption from planning controls. This was granted by Dublin City Council, but the declaration under Section 57 of the Planning Act only granted temporary removal of the canvases, subject to particularly strict conditions regarding their safe storage and restoration. The declaration clearly states that the new paintings, which cost €130,000, are only to be temporary replacements and City Council officials have confirmed that, unless the old paintings are reinstated within three years, Fr Walsh will be in breach on the planning agreement.

The timing is also puzzling. The declaration was only sought on 28 April this year, after an inspection by the council on 21 April, but the date of issue of the declaration is 5 April. This is a clerical error according to the Council – the correct date being 5 May. Whatever the case, it is clear that the paintings were commissioned and executed long before a waiver to planning requirements was even sought. And instead of going through a formal planning procedure, which would have given conservation bodies the opportunity to object, a temporary exemption was given instead.

The clear intent of the Council's declaration is that the pictures will be reinstated after three years. However, in his speech at a special viewing of the paintings Bertie Ahern said: "Looking at the new but faithful copies of the originals and contrasting them with the blackened images opposite, I think that there can be no doubt but that a correct decision has been taken." But what was that decision? His office has said the Taoiseach "was fully supportive of the project" based on "the considered opinion of the National Gallery and the Office of Public Works (OPW) art advisor that the 19th-century copies were beyond repair". However, Dublin City Council have only granted permission for their temporary removal, subject to repair.

A spokesman for the University Church has confirmed that restoring the paintings would be "next to impossible" and said that the matter of planning would be revisited when the time came, ie after the three-year period.

The University Church was opened 150 years ago this month as an integral part of Cardinal Newman's Catholic University, now UCD. Newman commissioned copies of Raphael's famous Sistine Chapel cartoons for the church and, as part of its anniversary celebrations, the church commissioned new copies to be made by Turkish artist Levant Tuncer in New York. The original copies had been darkened dramatically, perhaps after being varnished too quickly upon completion and were judged by Andrew O'Connor, former conservator at the National Gallery of Ireland, to be beyond repair.

Having approached the Taoiseach's office, parish priest Fr Pearse Walsh secured €120,000 to fund the project and the work was carried out through the Office of Public Works. The first half of the panels have now been installed and Pat Murphy, former chairman of the Arts Council and art advisor to the OPW, commented, "People will be stunned when they see the new panels – they're so bright."

Stunned they certainly were, though not perhaps in the way intended. "A garish, vulgar travesty," commented Desmond Fitzgerald, president of the Irish Georgian Society. There has been consternation in conservation circles that this has been allowed to happen on the watch of the OPW and Dublin City Council. A particular complaint is that public money has been employed in what, to many, seems an act of vandalism to one of the most beautiful church interiors in the city. "This was a laudable exercise in principal but carried out without proper research," Desmond Fitzgerald continued. "The pictures should never have been painted in acrylic. They are totally out of kilter with the setting."

The controversy highlights the difficulty of reconciling the ethics of conservation policy with liturgical practice. This is a particularly topical dilemma given the outcry surrounding the proposals to rearrange the sanctuary at St Colman's Cathedral, Cobh to better suit the saying of Mass, post-Vatican II. Fr Walsh stresses the fact that the University Church is not a museum but a busy place of worship and the Taoiseach, in his speech to mark the reinstatement of the first of the copies, noted that Newman "chose these paintings not only for their great beauty but also for the religious story they tell. That is why it is so important that they are being made readable again."

However, the conservation lobby is more concerned not that Sublet and Soulacroix's works (the 19th century paintings) were in themselves paintings of great beauty, as the Taoiseach claims, but that they were an important part of the fabric of the church. Current conservation thinking argues strongly that the history of a building and the changes wrought to its fabric over time are an intrinsic part of its value and should be preserved as far as is possible.

"Perfectibility is a dream," Newman wrote in a rather different context, and whether he would have approved of these brash, clumsily painted images is far from clear. There is a certain high-handed arrogance in ignoring the years of history these murals have witnessed and trying to make the historic interior sparkling and new. Certainly, these must be amongst the most expensive copies of copies ever commissioned. If they are to be only temporary, the cost seems even higher. p


University Church

A small entrance porch sandwiched between two Georgian buildings marks the Newman University Church on the south side of St Stephen's Green. Commissioned in 1856 by Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), the church celebrates its 150th anniversary this month. Newman, an Englishman, was an Anglican priest before converting to Catholicism in 1845, and was the author of a number of influential theological works. He came to Dublin in 1854 at the invitation of Archbishop Paul Cullen to preside as rector of the new Catholic University of Ireland – now University College Dublin. One of his first responsibilities was the provision of a university church.

Funding the project out of his own money, Newman began building the church almost immediately after purchasing the property at No 87 St Stephen's Green in June 1855. His old Oxford friend, John Hungerford Pollen – who had designed and painted the ceiling of St Peter-le-Bailey Church in Oxford and that of the Chapel of Merton College – designed the church in the Byzantine style because of Newman's dislike of Gothic. It is the only continental basilica-style church in Ireland.

The richly decorated interior, lit by small windows set under the roof, includes an ornate baldachino over the altar, an arcaded gallery and an elaborate pulpit. Newman insisted on using Irish marbles, expressing a wish to "develop the natural resources of Ireland".

The Romanesque porch leading into the church was erected a few years later, above which is a small belfry, supported by the two Georgian buildings on either side. The church, measuring 100 feet in length and 36 feet in width, seats an impressive 1,200 people and was often used as a lecture theatre for the university in addition to performing its religious functions.

In 1864 the trustees of the university purchased the University Church from Newman. It was given to the parish of St Kevin, Harrington Street and in 1974 became the church of a newly-constituted parish in the area.

Today the church is still very much in use. Loreto College and CUS (Catholic University School) students are confirmed in the church every year and it remains a popular choice for weddings in the city.

Emma Somers