England: Coventry Cathedral
by Jonathan Evens
Sir Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral, built beside 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 Reverend 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.”
After the destruction of the old cathedral, design proposals for a new one were solicited as part of a competition. Spence was the only architect in the competition to propose retaining the ruins, so as to create a literal and spiritual link between old and new. This is so right in terms of the ministry of reconciliation Coventry has modeled that it seems inconceivable that any other design could have been possible. This design decision then dictated several of the other significant features of the building, including its north–south axis, a vast translucent screen between the ruins and the new building, and a dominant image behind the high altar that is visible from every point within the nave and which sets the tone for the entire space.
Coventry Cathedral was the first major opportunity in Britain to combine contemporary religious art and architecture. Spence wanted the cathedral to be, in his own words, “like a plain jewel casket with many jewels inside”—that is, a simple framework that houses a trove of high-quality artworks, which he wanted done in a modern style. His approach to commissioning art for the church was synchronous with that of the Dominican friars Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey, who sought to revive Christian art in France by appealing to the independent masters of their time, as well as that of Canon Walter Hussey in Britain.
Hussey controversially kick-started the commissioning of modern church art in Britain by enlisting Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland to do work for St. Matthew’s. Both artists received further church commissions after St. Matthew’s: Moore at St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. Stephen Walbrook, and Sutherland at St. Aidan’s East Acton as well as at Coventry and Chichester Cathedrals.
Some of the artists Spence commissioned for Coventry Cathedral had featured in the Festival of Britain, a government-organized exhibition held in the summer of 1951 to demonstrate the nation’s recovery after the war, especially its drive for modernity in rebuilding. (Spence was involved in the festival as an architect.) As a result, Coventry Cathedral has been described as “the apotheosis of the Festival” and “the Festival of Britain at prayer.”
The task of reconstruction dominated the postwar years in 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 one can find, in addition to their interest in modernity, 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 from 1945 to 1975. However, the commissions at Northampton and Coventry were about engaging not with an alternative culture but with the mainstream of contemporary art: Henry Moore, Graham 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 Couturier and Régamey were advocating in France.
While the casket of Coventry Cathedral contains many jewels, those which shine the brightest are Sutherland’s Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph (the largest tapestry in the world), the abstract baptistery window by John 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 be viewed only from a distance and at height, the lower panels can be approached and appreciated close up.
Each abstract panel in the baptistery window is an abstract expressionist work in its own right, enabling the window to be appreciated as a whole from a distance and in part close up.
Sutherland’s tapestry of Christ in Glory is designed to dominate from a distance but reveals hidden depths of detail when one approaches it more closely, including a chapel with its own altarpiece formed by the lowest panel of the tapestry, which shows the Crucifixion. To image the foundation for Christ’s exaltation as his suffering on the cross is to profoundly visualize the early Christian hymn quoted in Philippians 2.
While visiting the cathedral, I spoke to a churchwarden who had recently been in Rome. He said that despite the many jewels inside Coventry, the space to him still seemed minimal when compared to St. Peter’s. Similarly, Spence himself 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 use of the creations of Hutton, Piper, Reyntiens, and Sutherland.
The stained glass nave windows are the work of Geoffrey Clarke and Keith New, discovered at the Royal College of Art, with Lawrence Lee their teacher. Spence decided to angle these windows to ensure that the primary focus would be 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 colored light. When one turns to look back down the nave, sudden ruptures of color are revealed in the plainness of the brick and concrete.
Other jewels include the Chapel of Unity glass (set in concrete) by Margaret Traherne and the lectern and pulpit designed in Spence’s office by Anthony Blee, with a bronze eagle by Dame Elisabeth Frink.
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.”
 Adam Kossowski: Murals and Paintings (London: Armelle Press, 1990).