Northern Ireland news

A Belfast church and the mystery of the missing Edwin Lutyens altar

Fr Eugene O'Neill, Administrator of St Patrick's Church in Belfast, photographed in front of the triptych gifted in April 1919 by world famous portrait artist John Lavery. Picture by Hugh Russell
Marie Louise McConville

AN appeal has gone out to help solve the mystery of a priceless artefact gifted to a Belfast church 100 years ago - but which has disappeared without trace.

The 10ft altar accompanied a celebrated artwork by world-famous portrait artist John Lavery which was unveiled in the landmark St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street in April 1919.

Born in nearby North Queen Street, Lavery painted a host of key figures in his time including the British royal family and Winston Churchill.

In 1917, he contacted the parish priest of St Patrick's, Fr John O'Neill, to inform him that he would like to donate a piece of art to the church where he was baptised.

Following months of correspondence - and a railway strike which held up delivery - Mr Lavery's gift was revealed as a triptych - a painting on three panels, hinged together.

Called 'The Madonna of the Lakes', it depicted three images - Our Lady flanked by St Brigid and St Patrick.

The models for the figures were three women in John Lavery's life.

Painted centrally as Our Lady against a backdrop of lakes and mountains was his second wife, Hazel.

Another painting of the US-born artist by her husband would appear on banknotes in the Republic from 1928 until the 1970s.

The triptych piece, which included a side altar and candlesticks, was gifted to St Patrick's Church in Belfast by world renowned painter, John Lavery

St Brigid, meanwhile, was modelled on his daughter Eileen while his step-daughter Alice was used to represent Patrick.

It was also said that the artwork gave thanks that Hazel and Alice had converted to Catholicism.

It was displayed on an altar which was designed by Lavery's good friend Edwin Lutyens.

Lutyens, who played an instrumental role in designing and building New Delhi and was described as the greatest British architect of the 20th century, also designed a pair of metal candle sticks to sit on the altar in front of the painting.

On April 20 1919 the artwork was unveiled to the city of Belfast at St Patrick's.

The church is now preparing to mark its 100th anniversary but while the triptych still hangs on its walls, mystery surrounds the whereabouts of the altar and candle sticks.

Fr Eugene O'Neill, Administrator of St Patrick's Church in Belfast, looks through letters sent to the church by artist John Lavery. Picture: Hugh Russell

Administrator Fr Eugene O'Neill said the unveiling was a major occasion.

"It was a public gift for private reasons," he said.

"There was a lot of interest and Bishop McCrory blessed it

"There were crowds at Mass here, every Mass was packed. John Lavery was world-famous and knew everyone. He knew all the other artists and architects.

"He asked Edwin Lutyens to design an altar and to design the frame of the painting. If you look at the frame, it is the most beautiful Irish revival in twisted patterns in carved wood and gilded. You realise this is a work of craftsmanship and a masterpiece of beauty.

"The other thing Lutyens constructed was an altar. We believe it was marble or Portland Stone but we do not know. The whole thing was one piece. It was a triptych on top of an altar. It was the only work by Lutyens in Belfast or north of the border - it's immensely significant."

Over time, the painting darkened due to the candles burning in the candle sticks, made of metal in the shape of flowers to match the painting.

"It gradually became almost forgotten in the parish," Fr O'Neill said.

"Everyone knew about it but it didn't get much attention."

The 10ft altar and candle sticks were the work of architect Edwin Lutyens for his friend John Lavery

The altar was still there in 1977 but by the time of a fire in 1995, when a fireman who was a parishioner risked the flames to rescue the painting, it had disappeared.

"This is one of the most significant artefacts in the city of Belfast, in one of Belfast's most significant buildings. St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street is an icon in the city," Fr O'Neill said.

"Where did it go? It was only 40 years ago.

"Was it put into storage and someone has forgotten? We just don't know and we don't know what happened to the candle sticks. It's extraordinary because it is so significant. That's the mystery."

St Patrick's alongside the nearby Redeemer Central Church is planning a series of events to mark the centenary include art exhibitions and an art prize - and is hoping the altar and candle sticks can be restored to their rightful place.

"This church is the possession of all people of Belfast," Fr O'Neill said.

"The people of Belfast would have returned to them something significant by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and one of the greatest architects."

* Anyone who believes they may know what happened to the altar and candlesticks can contact Marie Louise McConville on 028 90408 362 or m.mcconville@irishnews.com

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