THE HOSTING of an exhibition, ‘Patrick Pye at Eighty’, in Westport’s Custom House Studios is appropriate not only because two of his major works in stained glass – Christ the King and Mother and Child – are in St Mary’s Catholic Church, Westport. It also happens that Patrick Pye, one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary stained-glass artists, has a long association with Clare Island.
At the recent launch of the exhibition, Fr Pat O’Brien spoke lyrically of that association in the Custom House Studios at Westport Harbour. “For me, this part of west Mayo is the place where I first encountered Patrick Pye. In my first few years as a priest on Clare Island, Patrick was almost the next-door neighbour for times of the year. I say ‘almost’ carefully. To get to each other’s residences we had to pass the house of Bernie Winters and the old Cistercian Abbey. Both sacred places!”
Fr O’Brien continued: “Bernie keeps alive the ancient wisdoms of the sea, and the care for the redeemed earth, the deep mysteries of country butter and brown bread. He is also now the guardian of the restored abbey and the wall-paintings, whose horses and deer, and warriors and dragons and hounds and hares and organs and lyres and mythological beasts, eagles, fishermen, swans, cocks, pelicans, crucifixes, are vibrant witness to a medieval church which blessed all things.”
Pat O’Brien then evoked the iconic presence of the pyramidal mountain Croagh Patrick.
“From both our then houses on Clare Island we could see across the shifting tides of Clew Bay and the shifting western skies to Croagh Patrick. That strange triangular peak, which across the long centuries, millennia, must have invited onlookers to raise their minds in wonder. Easy to imagine why the great saint and mystic might have wrestled like Moses with the triune God on this triangular mountain.”
He noted that many critiques of Pye’s work alluded to his fascination with the circle, ‘that infinite ring of possibilities’.
“But in some of his most magnificent work, the figure of the triangle becomes the tent of God’s pitch on earth,” he observed. “I hope I am forgiven for seeing in that a mythic memory of the mountain which stands guard over this part of Mayo, and in a larger way that Irish Catholicism which includes all in an ecology of salvation.”
Referring to an earlier allusion that Patrick Pye was ‘a great colourist’, Pat O’Brien also spoke of his mastery of black – coincidentally like another great Irish painter, the late Tony O’Malley, some of whose forebears came from Clare Island.
“I have in my possession one of [Pye’s] darkest works, The Remorse of St Peter. To the best of my memory it was created on Clare Island and the broken, bitterly weeping denier is in the shadow of a building. You can feel the remorseless sea in the distance and the pain of humanity in the torn face.”
Another key characteristic of Pye’s work is that he constantly returns to ‘the figures and insights and breakthroughs of the Hebrew Bible’, he pointed out.
“The roots of his embodied thinking go back through the art and theology of southern Europe, to the story of Jesus and deeper into the mind and spirit of a people who dared the reality of One God,”
Pat O’Brien concluded that while ‘honouring the 80th birthday of a major painter was important’, being in a position to honour a painter of Pye’s vintage who's still producing great work was even more important.
“My hope in opening this Westport exhibition of the work of Patrick Pye is that all who view it will climb the mountain of his work, pilgrimage its steep paths and find themselves transfigured by the beauty revealed.”
‘Patrick Pye at Eighty’ is on show daily at the Custom House Studios until Monday, August 3.
BORN in Winchester in 1929, Patrick Pye was raised in Dublin. He started painting in 1943 under the sculptor Oisín Kelly, and later studied at the National College of Art, Dublin, and the Jan Van Eyck Academy in Holland.
Over the ensuing decades, Patrick Pye has completed many major commissions on religious themes, including commissions in Glenstal Abbey, County Limerick; Church of the Resurrection, Belfast; and a triptych illustrating man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden at Bank of Ireland headquarters (1981).
In 2005, he was given an honorary doctorate by Maynooth University. He is a founding member of Aosdána.