It’s so easy to walk past Birmingham Cathedral, but it’s open every day and inside there are plenty of surprises.
Chief among them, the breathtaking beauty of the stained glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a locally born Pre-Raphaelite artist on Bennetts Hill just opposite what is now a JD Wetherspoon pub and hotel – named after the series of four The Briar Rose, eight-foot paintings.
Installed between 1885 and 1897, Burne-Jones designed four windows for the cathedral and they are now the subject of a £900,000 restoration project called Divine Beauty.
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To learn more about the windows, we used a BirminghamLive Facebook Live tour to allow readers to take a tour of the cathedral led by its Head of Learning, Jane McArdle.
Seeing is truly believing when it comes to understanding the quality of window craftsmanship at William Morris & Co, a company founded in his own name by another leading figure in the Arts & Crafts movement who had met Burne- Jones at Oxford University.
Jane, who can also be seen speaking to us directly on our video above, leads a tour most Mondays at 12:30 p.m.
Up to ten people can pre-book for free to hear his first-hand stories – including how St Philip’s was built as a church and consecrated in October 1715 when Birmingham was still a city.
The statue outside the cathedral’s main entrance is of Charles Gore who became the first Bishop of Birmingham in 1905, but it’s inside that the windows that have already been installed magically come to life.
If you can’t make it there yet, or want a taste first, where to start rather than with the video above and our photo report below showcasing the amateur photographer’s stunning shots of BirminghamLive art, Darren Quinton.
Birmingham Cathedral is actively seeking donations to help restore its four prized Burne-Jones windows – hence the decision to host the Christmas Market in Cathedral Square from November 17 to December 19, which included the Pigeon in the Park pub and a jumble near the main entrance.
The builders of the temporary village, Danter Attractions, promised to leave the premises as they found them – and they did.
The area covered by the helter skelter looked like a temporary “crop circle” once it was removed, but the pale grass has already returned to its usual verdant color.
In addition to individual donations, bequests and corporate assistance, another source of financial assistance will come from support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to facilitate a full National Lottery grant application.
Jane says: “Stained with metal oxides during the manufacture of the glass, the windows are in a very poor state of cleanliness. Even though their colors are still quite amazing, they are covered in a thick layer of dirt, so we have to carry a full conservation project to get them properly cleaned.
“We also hope to be able to replace the grilles on the outside – which we need for protection – with something nicer. Some aspects of the windows also need to be taken to a studio to be kept properly.”
The Dean of Birmingham, The Very Reverend Matt Thompson, was recently presented with a check for £2,000 by the Birmingham and West Midlands Victorian Society after a study day on the subject of Burne-Jones was attended by more than 130 delegates.
Mr. Thompson said: “The stained glass windows are a remarkable source of inspiration for visitors and worshipers around the world.
“The windows are among the finest examples of Birmingham art and feature prominently in the life of the city.
“The duty of this generation is to ensure that they are preserved and recognized for the future.”
Ideally, restoration work will start from March 2023 next year – long after the windows have been admired by visitors to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games
Doing much of the work on site will require erecting scaffolding inside the cathedral, which would cost an additional £123 per hour to stay open 365 days a year.
The good news, however, is that visitors may be able to use the frames for a unique chance to see the individual glass pieces in the windows up close and personal at eye level – instead of having to view them from a distance while looking up at the same time.
To reserve a spot on future Monday tours from 12:00 p.m., click here – places are free but donations are of course welcome.
Jane says: “We are currently fundraising and organizing tours and events, organizing activities with the community and interacting with schools to tell more about the wonderful art we have here at Birmingham Cathedral and the artists who created them.”
The four windows
During her tour, Jane carefully explains how the windows were removed during World War II and stored deep in a slate mine in Wales for safekeeping.
So much the better since the roof was hit by an incendiary bomb, which means that the windows would not have survived.
Add over 130 years of exposure to light and pollution and you’ll soon see why the windows need to be restored – with the inevitable promise that when finished they’ll look better than ever.
The Ascension was installed in 1885, followed by the Nativity and the Crucifixion two years later – earning Burne-Jones £200 per design.
At the west end of the church – and best viewed during a September sunset – The Last Judgment was installed as a memorial window to Bishop Bowlby in 1897.
Jane says: “It shows the people downstairs in a slight panic at the end of time, the impression in the middle is of a city in chaos with lots of buildings all at different angles to each other as if some kind of chaotic event had happened.”
To separate heaven and earth, each window is divided into two equal halves horizontally, while Burne-Jones’s art style elongated the bodies relative to the size of the heads.
Jane says: “The cathedral was designed by architect Thomas Archer in a Baroque style after taking part in a Grand Tour of Europe.
“But the real jewel in the crown are the four Burne-Jones windows, considered some of the finest Victorian stained glass in the world.
“They were made by Burne-Jones in the workshop of William Morris.
“With the Ascension window, if you look at the disciples on the ground, their faces are human and very recognizable.
“And then if you look at the angels above, they all have this similar ethereal quality – elongated figures with an amazing array of beautiful reds in the background.
“When Burne-Jones saw this window (in situ), he thought it was such a success that he said, ‘Let’s do two more windows.
“A member of the congregation, an heiress named Emma Villiers-Wilkes, paid for it, but she didn’t just sign the check for the money, she also wanted to have a say in the windows.
“She agreed that the subject should be the Nativity and the Crucifixion, but she didn’t want cattle/cows to be shown in the Nativity, that’s why we only have sheep in there, and she didn’t want not that blood is shown on the hands and feet of Jesus at the Crucifixion.
“So she had some really strong ideas. If you look very closely, some of Mary’s underwear is a William Morris design, so there’s a bit of product placement there as well.
“Burne-Jones had been to Italy to do a lot of sketching and he drew much of his influence from early Italian art and then designed (the Crucifixion window) in a much more Victorian way, emotional and impactful.”
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