The ‘tradition’ of the Empty Frame

Week IV

There is no historical evidence that the Irish Madonna, or The Weeping Madonna of Gyor, was ever in Galway or in the Clonfert diocese prior to its final resting place in Hungary. Many people have tried to locate the picture in Galway’s St Nicholas’ Collegiate church, but there is simply no evidence that it ever saw the inside of that ancient building.

There is, however, no doubt that the picture, which miraculously wept blood on St Patrick’s Day 1697 in the Cathedral of Gyor, was the property of Bishop Walter Lynch, who was lucky to escape with his life following the surrender of the town to Cromwellian forces in April 1652. His final refuge on Inisbofin was lost when it surrendered shortly after. He, and the garrison there, were granted safe passage to Flanders.

From there he went to Brussels where, we are told, he lived in poverty until he was invited to Gyor by kindly bishop János Pusky, where he served as an auxiliary bishop, and was given a home. For eight years he worked among the faithful, and was obviously well liked. Following his death in 1663 the picture of the Madonna and Child was hung in the cathedral as a tribute to his…’life as a humble priest, who spent his income supporting the poor. The people of Gyor truly loved the foreigner for his generosity and devotion.’

Forty-five years later the miracle was witnessed by more than 1,000 astonished people. Not only was it known as the picture much loved by the late bishop, but the fact that the miracle occurred on St Patrick’s Day somehow cemented its association with the Galwayman from Ireland. The picture was then, and, as it is today, the object of great devotion by Hungarian Catholics. It is widely known, and prayed to as The Consoler of the Afflicted. It is magnificently installed at the centre of a spectacular Baroque-styled altar, which includes the gold-plated figures of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, watched by two further golden local saints. While overhead God, surrounded by angels and clouds, looks down from heaven at the picture.

The fearless canon

Where did Bishop Walter Lynch get this painting, which, with the exception of the crowns (added in the 19th century ), is in the style of the late Byzantine icon era, and would have been of some value? There is no evidence that it pre-existed in Galway. When Bishop Lynch arrived on the Continent we are told that he was impoverished; without the means, I assume, to buy such an excellent picture. Yet when he arrived in Gyor he had the painting with him.

People were tempted to speculate. The most popular speculation was robustly made by the late Canon George Quinn, who was not an historian of any kind, but a good man who, I remember, was passionate about social housing, and urged the local authority to adapt the attractive housing scheme in Clarecastle. And he was fearless when it came to explaining the origins of the Irish Madonna.

A new ‘tradition’

In October 1962 in an article entitled Our Lady Of Galway* Canon Quinn brought us into the Collegiate church, straight over to the Lynch’s chapel (also known as the Lady’s Chapel ), at its south transept, which contains the Lynch tomb. Pointing to a large stone frame, with the Lynch arms at its base, the canon announced that here, tradition tells us, the famous picture was placed by Bishop Walter’s forebears.

Was there written evidence of this? Canon Quinn said there probably was, but all the Lynch library was burned by the Cromwellians.** The canon proudly concluded that ‘We should now take greater pride in this miraculous picture and make it our own.’

Although the canon’s article was published in a local magazine, it took off internationally with amazing speed. The Word, a religious periodical with a wide circulation, reproduced the canon’s article as did the Irish Independent, all the local newspapers, and the Irish Digest. Emboldened by his unexpected success the good canon rewrote his observations for The Mantle, and added the heartening conclusion that a Hungarian visitor, who had come to Galway to seek the origins of the painting, was shown the stone frame and told that here, traditionally, the famous painting was placed. I can imagine her joy that her journey had been successfully concluded.

The Galway Advertiser took up the ‘tradition’ in January 1983. It advocated that as the city approached its Quincentennial celebrations, the picture should be returned, if only for a short period, so that we could all share in its miraculous story. Some excitement was added to the suggestion when on a visit to the Collegiate church, the late Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich, expressed great interest in the ‘Tradition of the stone frame’ and its miraculous painting. He was shortly to visit Gyor, and would make inquiries if the picture could be returned to Galway, on loan, and placed in its old frame. The Galway Advertiser blazed: ‘Everyone awaits the Cardinal’s news with interest.’

NEXT WEEK: The painting is genuine; but the tradition of the ‘empty frame’ was merely a figment of Canon Quinn’s imagination.

NOTES: *The article was included in a Centenary Record, published by the Patrician Brothers’ Past Pupils’ Union of St Joseph’s College, or the Bish.

** In fact an unruly mob, in disturbed religious times, burnt the Lynch library some years before Cromwell came to Ireland. But some books were saved, including an inventory of Lynch items, which was unknown to Canon Quinn.

Sources include the book, Consoler of the Afflicted, and the article The Empty Frame - Gyor and Galway, by Dr James Mitchell published in the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society Vol 40 1985/1986.


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