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From the archives: Coventry Cathedral

25 May 2012

5:25 PM

25 May 2012

5:25 PM

This was our cover piece 50 years ago today, celebrating the
consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral built following the bombing of the previous Cathedral during the Second World War.

The great barn, Kenneth J Robinson, 25 May 1962

As I stood just inside the glazed ‘west’ wall of Coventry Cathedral, beneath John Hutton’s gaily engraved angels — running, jumping and standing still — I was stunned
by the richness of John Piper’s baptistery window, the absolute rightness of the Sutherland tapestry which fills the whole wall behind the altar and the simplicity and serenity of the
‘great barn’ itself — Sir Basil Spence’s own words — in which, from the main entrance, they are the only immediately visible works of art.

It would have been shattering enough simply to see the live version of the building I had admired in models and drawings for several years; it was much more disturbing to hear it. Just by
chance, as I approached the cathedral it had been completed — by being filled with music. I cannot remember a more moving experience. With my hand still on one of the tiny bronze door knobs,
sculpted as a child’s head by Epstein, I was hit simultaneously by shapes, colours and sounds — the fourteen slender pillars of reinforced concrete which suspend the timber- and-concrete
vaulted canopy beneath the roof; the perpetual sunshine that bursts from the centre of deeper colours in the eighty-four-foot-high Piper window, and the familiar hymn tune which reached me —
as I reminded myself in an effort to keep emotion in its place — by courtesy of Mr. David Lepine (performing with four manuals and seventy-three speaking stops) aided by acoustic slabs of
cork and Weyroc, placed high above the vaulting, and the sound-absorbent surfaces of Sutherland’s Christ in Glory.


I half hoped that by turning my mind towards technical achievements of this kind I would suppress the urge to go away without having the impertinence to write a single word of adverse criticism
about the cathedral. So I tore my thoughts away from the simple beauty of the font (a scooped-out boulder from the Holy Land) and Ralph Beyer’s superbly carved lettering on the white stone panels
that flank the nave, and tried very hard to see the cathedral as an elegant box of functional tricks. But I had to give in. This is a great and humbling building — a building in which trivial
criticisms merely make the critic himself feel trivial. Of course it is a box of functional tricks; but every trick is inspired and designed to help the real user of the building. This is a machine
for Worshipping in — a cathedral built round the Communion service. As the communicant faces the altar from the body of the nave there is nothing to disturb the quietness of his mind.
Wherever he is he can clearly see the enormous stone slab of the altar (inspired by Leonardo’s Last Supper) beneath the Sutherland tapestry. The tapestry itself is designed so that it can
be appreciated just as much from a short distance, because of its separately panelled details, as it can from the back of the nave. And because of an incredible marriage of craftsmanship and
architectural imagination, anyone sitting at the back of the nave will find that the uncased and unfaked organ pipes flanking the chancel and facing the congregation match, in their proportions,
the ‘boxes’ on the tapestry. There is nothing here to jar or distract the eye. Not everyone will be won over at first glance to the ‘avenues of thorns’ over the choir stalls, which look
like migrating birds rising up in imitation of a Christmas tree above the bishop’s throne. But as I watched them at different times of the day and saw how they always form tiny high-lights because
of their brass tips and also throw artificial light on to the choir stalls at dusk, I realised that my earlier dislike of them had been nothing but an instinctive reaction against the
unconventional. At some hours they are surprisingly beautiful, and at all times they form canopies that never completely obstruct anyone’s view of the tapestry.

The communicant’s concentration on the altar is not distracted by the five pairs of stained glass windows (designers: Geoffrey Clarke, Keith New and Lawrence Lee) because these are set diagonally
in the saw-toothed nave walls and contribute to the uncanny effect of daylight being produced in an apparently almost windowless building and increasing in intensity around the tapestry, which is
flanked by windows of clear glass. It is only when the communicant turns away from the altar rail (where, incidentally, his closer view of Geoffrey Clarke’s gilt version of the famous charred cross
that stands in the ruins of the old cathedral will reveal it as a living thing, swooping and birdlike) that he will see the full glory of the ten windows. From this point the whole building changes
its character: it becomes a lantern of coloured glass, fascinating to study with a guide book, but so non-realistic in its subject matter that anyone can enjoy it without being troubled by its
symbolism.

I realised as I walked round the cathedral with its architect that neither words nor pictures will ever reveal all its secrets. As we approached the tiny Gethsemane chapel of private prayer,
screened by an iron cross of thorns designed by the architect himself, who also contributed the design for the delicate altar which stands in front of Steven Sykes’s gold mosaic and angel, Sir
Basil rushed ahead and switched off an erring spotlight. The effect of carefully graded daylight on the gold mural and the glinting mirror glass on the angel was more subtle than anything a film or
a photograph could ever reproduce. And other effects of lighting that I saw, both natural and artificial, made me realise this was a building which does exactly what the architect has said of the
little Matisse chapel at Vence: ‘the quality of light that goes into it completes the religious experience of those in- side.’ Sometimes the strong morning sunshine transfers the colours of the
Piper window on to the wall opposite. As the sun moves round and lights each window in turn it adds a hint of their beauty to the white textured plaster beside them. And before sunset the tapestry
is glowing with changing shapes of sunlight, which give it a new kind of life.

The artificial lighting is marvellously restrained. Although the cathedral is designed to be a television studio many times a month and is therefore riddled with hidden facilities for internal
floodlighting, its normal artificial lighting is soft and subtle. Spotlights from behind the timber vaulting bring an unglaring glow down to the congregation’s hymn-books; others set in the walls
pick out the words of Christ that are inscribed on the white stone panels normally lit during the day by the diagonal windows. The font can be picked out in the same way and so can the tapestry and
one or two of the organ pipes. Most important of all, the windows need not lose their glory at night; they can be illuminated from spotlights already built into the lawns flanking the building.

It is not only for its lighting that the building must be seen and not just believed. Its most remarkable feature, as I realised when at last I was capable of looking at it analytically, is the
scale of its various components — the size of the baptism boulder, poised on a brass shaft, in relation to the baptistery window; the unmonumental bronze eagle (by Elizabeth Frink) on the
lectern; the same sculptor’s gilded copper mitre over the bishop’s throne, and the Crucifixion, which forms the lower part of the Sutherland tapestry, and yet is complete enough in itself to form
the altar cloth of the Lady Chapel. All these things, though beautiful in themselves, can be really appreciated only when they are seen not in pictures but in their settings. It is part of the
genius of Sir Basil Spence that he envisaged the scale of all the works of art he wanted before commissioning his artists. For instance, he thought that the circular Guild Chapel, which has
enormous vertical slatted windows overlooking the industrial world it will serve, needed a hanging shape of considerable weight above its workmanlike altar. The shape has been provided by Geoffrey
Clarke in a hanging crown of thorns — visible to passers-by — linked to a cross pierced at three points by huge nails, representing industry.

The only feature of this great cathedral that really bothered me when 1 first saw it is the plate glass entrance to the Chapel of Unity, which adjoins the ‘north-west’ end of the
building and is shaped like a crusader’s tent. I felt this was a subconscious hangover from Spence the exhibition architect. But after a little thought I found it very logical that an approach to a
chapel for all denominations should, from the cathedral nave, give a view of the outside world, even if in doing so it gives a hint of shop-front architecture.

No doubt the nonconformists who use this Chapel of Unity will be relieved to see the outside world more clearly than the magnificent, man-sized altar candlesticks by Hans Coper, the vestments
specially designed in liturgical colours by John Piper and the ghostly flame provided by Elizabeth Frink and suspended over the Provost’s stall. But I wonder how many of them will understand the
meaning of the black cross hanging inside their chapel. ‘It is in mourning,’ says Sir Basil, ‘for the unity that is still dead. I hope one day it can be gilded.’


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