Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Stained-glass Windows in the Heart of Birmingham...

I recently rediscovered one of the most famous sets of stained-glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones 1833 – 1898, within the small cathedral in the heart of Birmingham city centre. I always remember the grounds of this site as being quite atmospheric, whatever the weather, with old dark gravestones engraved with ornate yet now barely legible inscriptions. The stonework of these graves has been worn away by time and blackened by centuries of grime since the consecration of the initial parish church of St Philip in 1715. Even as a child the place felt truly old, overlooked by tall trees which attracted the starlings at dusk that left a dank smell in the air. Far older again than the grand facades of the redbrick Victorian architecture in the city and perhaps more so than the cathedral itself but now I can see how they were indeed very much of the 18th century, when Birmingham began to thrive as the world’s ‘first manufacturing town’. These remaining graves, along with the majestic Georgian and Regency buildings that survived the devastation of the Blitz years and the ravages of post-war urban modernization reflect the years of the Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution when industry and trade transformed the Black Country, making Birmingham the ‘city of a thousand trades’. As the population grew in line with commerce, so too did the number of parishes and the obligation to have further administrative centres to cater to the growing congregation’s needs.
Designed by Thomas Archer in an Italianate style, the Baroque parish church of St Philip was named in honour of the benefactor who had donated the land on which it had been built. Not long after the town of Birmingham had become a city in 1889, it was decided to make this existing church a cathedral, as opposed to building an entirely new edifice for the purpose, as was the case in Liverpool and Truro. Of only 45 metres in length, St Philip’s is, as a result, one of the smallest cathedrals in the country, set in the Colmore Row district. Despite its modest proportions, it houses the three vast Burne-Jones windows that have been described as the greatest stained-glass works of all time. I am not sure you can ‘rate’ art in such a way, but these certainly are beautiful pieces, whether they are compared to others or not. When the initial church was enlarged in 1883-84, extending it eastward and producing a full chancel, the large central window required appropriate decoration, and Burne-Jones was commissioned for its design.
In fact, Burne-Jones had been born in Birmingham and baptized in this very church and therefore readily took up the commission. Furthermore, having studied theology at Oxford University and considered life as a church minister, it is not surprising that he accepted to depict scenes from the life and death of Christ. While he is said to have grumbled at the modest payment for the work rendered “ a flagrantly inadequate sum” , so admirative was he of his finished stained glass piece – The Ascension of Christ (1885) – that in 1887 he carried out the design for the other two windows, on the left and right; the Nativity and the Crucifixion, respectively. He later completed a fourth window, the Last Judgement, set in the western part of the church; the baptistry. The four works were therefore carried out over a twelve-year period between 1885 and 1897.
Burne-Jones was one of the founding partners, with William Morris, of the furnishings and decorative arts manufacturer and retailer Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co. He worked prodigiously in a vast array of the crafts, including the design of ceramic tiles, mosaics, jewelry, tapestries, and stained glass. I had seen his paintings and drawings well before any of his other work since many of these have been exhibited at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for all my life. He was a second-generation Pre-Raphaelite, likewise taking inspiration in Arthurian legend, medievalism and poetry and sharing the movement’s love of delicate, jewel-like colouring. I used to love looking at the elegantly elongated forms of his characters and their strangely serene expressions– especially in The Wizard (1898) and King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (1883), displayed in the museum. In fact, the same aesthetic is seen repeatedly in his art, whatever the medium, and his work is always populated with beautiful other-worldly figures of men or women, or indeed angels, whether they be on Earth or in heaven. The windows at St Philip’s are no exception, of course, although in their case, there is the added dimension of luminosity, as the light flows in through the intricate panels of vibrantly coloured glass.
Thanks to Burne-Jones the tradition of stained-glass art in Britain was revived, especially in churches and cathedrals, and I was stunned to see just how much of this work he produced in his lifetime. Although the photos I took during my recent visit do the windows no justice whatsoever, the mastery of the glasswork was incredible. The colours, forms and even the leaded cames are all used to create a flurry of movement, either tension or calm, so that the myriad of glass panels swirl above us to great effect. I just wish I could have got a little closer to get a decent photograph - however the link here provides many!

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