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Monday, 2 June 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: Coventry Cathedral

Basil Spence's Coventry Cathedral, built side by side with the ruins of the old Cathedral (bombed in 1940) and integrated with them has become an icon of God's power at work in the world to reconcile and renew. The current Dean, The Very Revd. John Witcombe, has written that, "The narrative of chaos and destruction being taken and offered back to God, issuing in resurrection and new life, is one that speaks into the reality of the lives of many of our visitors, and many of our communities.”

Spence was the only architect in the competition to design the new Cathedral to propose retaining the ruins of the old Cathedral and therefore create a literal and spiritual link between old and new. This is so right in terms of the ministry of reconciliation which Coventry has modelled that it seems inconceivable that any other design might have been possible. This design decision then dictated several of the other significant features of the building including its north-south axis, the concept of a vast translucent screen between old and new, and a dominant image behind the high altar visible from every point within the nave and setting the tone for the entire building.

Coventry Cathedral was the first major opportunity in Britain to combine contemporary religious art and architecture. Spence described his intention for the Cathedral as being "like a plain jewel-casket with many jewels." The artworks it contains are the jewels in the casket. In this respect, Spence was building on the commissioning undertaken by Canon Walter Hussey at St Matthew's Northampton and the style exemplified by the Festival of Britain. His approach was also synchronous with the work of the Dominican Friars, Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey, as they sought to revive Christian art by appealing to the independent masters of their time.

Hussey controversially kick-started the commissioning of modern art by the Church in Britain with commissions for Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland. Both received further church commissions following their acceptance of Hussey's invitation to create work for St Matthews; Moore at St Paul's Cathedral and St Stephen Walbrook, Sutherland at St Aidan's East Acton plus Coventry and Chichester Cathedrals. Some of the artists Spence commissioned for Coventry had also featured in the Festival of Britain, where Spence had also been involved as an architect. As a result, Coventry Cathedral has been described as "the apotheosis of the Festival" and as "the Festival of Britain at prayer."

The task of reconstruction dominated the post-war years. The Festival of Britain showcased the drive for modernity in the rebuilding of Britain. New churches and commissions replacing what had been destroyed during the war were part of this process of transformation and Coventry came to stand as a symbol of what was being achieved. Scratch beneath the surface of both the Festival and Cathedral artists though and as well as their interest in modernity one can also quickly find a preoccupation with British tradition and a focus on the land. That many of the key Festival and Cathedral artists were neo-Romantics combining modernism with ruralism was symptomatic of this reality.

Benedict Read has written of an alternative artistic culture provided by church commissions as a result of an almost unprecedented campaign of church building and decoration throughout the thirty years after 1945. The commissions at Northampton and Coventry were not about engaging with an alternative culture but the mainstream of contemporary art; Moore, Sutherland, John Piper and Jacob Epstein were the independent masters of their time in Britain. What Hussey and Spence were doing was, in effect, the British equivalent of the approach that Couturier and Régamey were advocating in France.

While the casket contains many jewels, those which shine most brightly are Sutherland's Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (undoubtedly the largest tapestry in the world), the abstract baptistry window by Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, and John Hutton's Great West Screen. These are major statements and huge achievements both conceptually and technically. Yet the immensity of each is also managed through position and purpose to enable our scaled engagement. Hutton's screen can be viewed inside and out and from the steps leading to the old Cathedral as well as from the ground. While much of the screen can only be viewed from distance and at height, the lower panels can also be approached and appreciated close-up. Each abstract panel in the baptistry window is an abstract expressionist work in its own right enabling the window to be appreciated as a whole from distance and in part when close by. Sutherland's tapestry is designed to dominate from distance but reveals hidden depths of detail when near-by, including the hidden chapel with its own altarpiece formed by the lowest panel of the tapestry. To image the foundation for Christ's exaltation as being his suffering of the cross is to profoundly visualise the early Christian hymn quoted in Philippians 2.

While visiting I spoke to a churchwarden who had recently been in Rome. Despite the many jewels in its jewel-casket, when compared to St Peter's, Coventry seemed to him like minimal space. Similarly, Spence described the simple brick-built rectangle that is the nave in terms of the plainness of a jewel-casket. Both restraint and surprise are built into his clever design, as we have already seen in his engagement with and use of the creations of Hutton, Piper, Reyntiens and Sutherland.

Angling the nave's stained glass, as Spence does, ensures the primary focus looking down the nave is Sutherland's Christ in Glory. Continuing down the nave the eye is drawn to Ralph Beyer's carved textual panels, which, in their monochrome simplicity, would otherwise be overwhelmed and overlooked if bathed in coloured light. Relentlessly maintaining these foci then ensures surprise and delight as one turns to look back down the nave revealing sudden ruptures of colour in the plainness of the brick and concrete.

Among the many other jewels in the casket:

“The nave windows are the work of Geoffrey Clarke and Keith New, discovered at the Royal College of Art, with Lawrence Lee their teacher. Their skills combined to produce the modern windows with bright rich colours and strong design that Spence wanted. The Chapel of Unity glass is by Margaret Traherne whose thick abstract glass set in concrete impressed Spence.

There are many other inspired works. These include the lectern and pulpit designed in Spence’s office by Anthony Blee with the bronze eagle by Dame Elisabeth Frink and also tablets on the walls with lettering by Ralph Beyer.”

Sir Basil Spence was “the co-ordinator of the whole operation of commissioning artists and craftsmen with the skills to create a variety of elements, including glass, congenially juxtaposed and working together as a whole”:

“Spence believed that the architect, as leader of the team, should collaborate at the earliest possible stage with his engineers and artists. With the art in progress there was also a reduced risk of it being lost in any subsequent budget cut. He was therefore careful to commission work from the outset. Artists were sought to suit each project and the artist’s freedom was maintained.”

The result was, an “alchemy of art and architecture” which contains, as Spence stated, “understandable beauty to help the ordinary man to worship with sincerity.”


Graham Kendrick - For This I Have Jesus.

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