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Newman’s University Church: 150 years

30 November, 1999

Dr Eileen Kane was formerly a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art in University College Dublin. She has published extensively on French, Italian and Irish art both in Ireland and abroad. Her most recent publication is The Church of San Silvestro in Capite in Rome, (Rome 2005), San Silvestro is the titular church of Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin. Here she tells the story of Newman’s University Church on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

On 1 May 1856, Ascension Day, the Catholic University Church in Dublin, was solemnly blessed and opened. It was, in the words of its founder, Dr John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a “beautiful and imposing structure” which gave the University “a sort of bodily presence in Dublin”. It was built on the garden behind 87 St Stephen’s Green, next door to 86, now called Newman House, then known as the University House, seat of the new Catholic University.

Much has changed in the 150 years since that day. Though University Church is still there, the University to which it gave symbolic expression has moved on, transformed and translated into University College Dublin, on the Stillorgan Road.

The decision to establish a Catholic university in Dublin was taken at the Synod of Thurles in 1850. In 1851, Dr Newman, formerly Vicar of St Mary’s University Church in Oxford, a convert (since 1845) to Catholicism, and a priest (since1847) of the Oratory founded by St Philip Neri (1515-1595), accepted the invitation to come to Ireland as its first Rector. The new University opened on 3 November 1854. 

One of the Rector’s first thoughts was to provide a University church. It would be, primarily, a setting for University preaching. “I cannot well exaggerate”, he wrote, “the influence which a series of able preachers … will exert upon … the students of various professions …” It would also bring the University to the notice of the public, who would have access to it. Finally, it would “maintain and symbolize that great principle” of a Catholic University, the “union of Science with Religion”.

Very quickly, Dr Newman acquired a site, found a builder – Mr Beardwood, of Westland Row – and appointed an architect, or, rather, an artist, John Hungerford Pollen, to carry out his ideas. “I got acquainted with Mr Pollen”, wrote Newman, “and I employed him as my architect, or rather decorator, for my idea was to build a large barn and decorate it in the style of a basilica, with Irish marbles and copies of standard pictures.”  

Those words are the key to understanding and appreciating this unique little church. The early Italian basilicas, to which Newman was referring, have simple exteriors, but internally are richly decorated. That is true also of University Church. Almost all that can be seen of it from the street is the diminutive entrance porch, in red and navy blue brick. In plan, the early Italian basilicas are normally rectangular spaces, divided by columns into a nave and side aisles.

The nave usually terminates in a semi-circular apse. Newman’s church, too, is rectangular in plan, and the sanctuary area, which is raised above the level of the nave, has a semi-circular apse. Unlike its models, however, it is not divided into a nave and side aisles. There was not enough room for that. Instead, the visual impression of columns is conveyed in the decoration of the lower part of the walls by shafts of light-coloured marble, vertically grained, with bases and capitals carved in relief.  

Newman’s ‘Irish marbles’ cover the walls to a height of 15 feet. Green, black, red, grey and brown, they come from quarries in Galway, Kilkenny, Cork, Laois and Armagh. Above them are the “copies of standard pictures”, canvases, now much darkened by successive layers of varnish, painted in Rome by two French artists whom Newman commissioned especially for this work. (Those on the left wall have been controversially restored – Editor). The subjects chosen were copied from those illustrated by Raphael (1483-1520) for the tapestries he designed for the Sistine Chapel, scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, in which the protagonists are St Peter and St Paul. Between the scenes are figures of the apostles, copied from other paintings which, in Newman’s time, were attributed to Raphael.

A prominent feature of the church is the pulpit, handsomely faced with Irish marble and carried on four columns with carved capitals representing the symbols of the evangelists. Newman himself preached eight sermons from this pulpit in the months which followed the opening of the church.

Almost opposite is a narrow gallery, supported by marble columns, black and brown, like those under the pulpit. These, too, have carved capitals, with grapes, shamrock, passion-flowers etc. All these carvings, as well as the lattice-work and the candlesticks on the altar, were carried out under the supervision of John Hungerford Pollen.

Pollen’s own work may be seen on the ceiling, where he created a pattern of vine tendrils, on a light green ground, with the timbers painted in red. He also painted the 11 lunettes on the side-walls, each with a saint flanked by two angels, and some foliage. The saints in the sanctuary are Patrick, Brigid and Laurence O’Toole. In the nave, the saints have particular relevance to preaching and teaching. They include Dominic and Benedict, Thomas Aquinas and Anthony of Padua, Philip Neri and Ignatius Loyola.

Pollen’s masterpiece in painting is the semi-dome of the apse. There, against a gold background, the branches of a vine form a pattern of loops and circles, in which are saints, bearing palm branches. In the centre is the Sedes Sapientiae, “Our Lady Seat of Wisdom” – one of the titles of University Church.

By November 1856, all this decoration was complete. In November 1858, Newman ceased to be Rector of the Catholic University, and returned to England for good.

In May 1879, he was created Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII and he died in August 1890. After his death, a white marble portrait bust, by the Dublin sculptor Thomas Farrell, was set up in University Church. Looking at it now, we may perhaps reflect that not just the marble bust but the church itself is an image of the Catholic University’s first Rector. 

This article first appeared in The Word