Coventry Cathedral

On the night of 14 November 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe. The Cathedral burned with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices.

The decision to rebuild the cathedral was taken the morning after its destruction. Rebuilding would not be an act of defiance, but rather a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. It was the vision of the Provost at the time, Richard Howard, which led the people of Coventry away from feelings of bitterness and hatred. This has led to the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, which has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world.

Her Majesty the Queen laid the foundation stone on 23 March 1956 and the building was consecrated on 25 May 1962, in her presence. The ruins remain hallowed ground and together the two create one living Cathedral.

Ralph Beyer carving the foundation stone for Coventry Cathedral.

© Historic England Archive, John Laing Photographic Collection.

Coventry Cathderal

The new Cathedral was itself an inspiration to many fine artists of the post-war era. The architect, Sir Basil Spence, commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ralph Beyer, John Hutton, Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink and others – most still to reach the peak of their artistic careers.

St. Michael and the Devil on the southern end of the east wall. It was sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein, who, sadly, died in 1959, and therefore didn’t live to see his masterpiece mounted on the cathedral wall a year later.

Entrance to the cathedral is through the Screen of Saints and Angels – it is seventy feet high and forty five feet wide and is supported by a bronze framework hung by wires from the roof for added strength.

This unique screen formed part of Sir Basil Spence’s first vision for the new cathedral. As he stared out from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, he saw the shape for the new church through a screen of saints. This transparent wall would link the old and new – making each mutually visible from within each other. Provost Howard set out to draw up a scheme consisting of all the saints who were responsible for the bringing of Christianity to Britain. As John Hutton began to make initial designs, he soon realised that row upon row of saints would need to be broken up in some way, and suggested that angels be inserted between the saints.

The eighty one foot high Baptistery Window containing a total of one hundred and ninety five lights of stained glass in bright primary colours designed by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, with the Stone of Bethlehem for a font just in front. Each individual window contains an abstract design, but the overall effect is breathtaking. Basil Spence himself designed the stone containing the glass.

Study for the the seventy two foot high tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland – collection of The Herbert Art Gallery

The great tapestry was another example of a re-think in design. Basil Spence’s original intention was to depict the Crucifixion but Provost Howard suggested that the subject be Christ in Majesty and from there on, this idea prevailed

Altar cross and crown of thorns by Geoffrey Clarke, large ceramic candlesticks by Hans Coper.

Chairs by Russell Hodgson and Leigh.

The Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane is approached by following the aisle from the Baptistery window towards the altar which is at the north end. The mosaic depicts the Angel of Agony by Steven Sykes and becomes more impressive when seen from a distance through the wrought iron crown of thorns designed by Basil Spence.

A short passageway takes you through to the Chapel of Christ the Servant – also known as the Chapel of Industry due to the view of Coventry workplaces from its narrow windows. 

Monumental inscriptions to walls and floor by Ralph Beyer

Stained glass to aisle walls by Lawrence Lee, Geoffrey Clarke and Keith New.

At the far end of the aisle, opposite the Baptistery Window is the Chapel of Unity, with its detailed mosaic floor, donated by the people of Sweden, representing the nations of the world and lit by shafts of light from the narrow stained glass windows around the circumference of the star shaped chapel. 

This design was Basil Spence’s vision of a chapel representing the star which began the story of Christ – from the outside it appears shaped similarly to a Crusader’s tent.

The chapel is intended for prayer by all denominations, not just Anglican, and for this reason was purposely built with no view of the great altar. 

Historic Coventry

St Catherine of Sienna – Sheffield

Sir Basil Spence 1958-62. . Brown brick. Roof not visible. Slate cladding to entrance block of parish hall. Rectangular nave sweeping around into a semicircular apsed sanctuary .

EXTERIOR: entrance to liturgical south-west and parish hall to liturgical west with vestry. Carved words “The Church of St Catherine” to left of recessed entrance. Tower linked to liturgical south-east, and comprising two convex slabs forming a sacristy at ground level and linked by concrete beams above. Patinated bronze sculptural group with crucified Christ affixed to its east side.

INTERIOR: aisleless with vertical slit windows to north and south walls and roof sloping upwards towards chancel, on laminated timbers beams, so that roof deck is separated from the walls by a narrow glazed strip. Light is thrown onto the east wall by a concealed window at the east end of the nave. Sanctuary is raised two shallow steps, and altar was originally raised on two further steps against the east wall. It has now been moved forward. Altar is a black painted metal framed table with a varnished timber top. Font of polished limestone with fossils is in the original position to liturgical south side of sanctuary. Timber lid with schematic metal dove. Large timber cross behind altar, comprising two pairs of overlapping beams, penetrated symbolically by large nails. Timber sedilia on metal supports. Laminated timber pews. Organ above entrance to sacristy . A strongly sculptural design with a powerful presence.

British Listed Buildings.

St Catherine Sienna is a fine church, sited impressively and standing imperiously on the Sheffield outer ring road, high above the city. Brick curves, a tall detached tower and open for business, serving the outlying post war housing estate of Woodthorpe with regular services and a firm foundation of community activity.

Lit delicately from side slatted windows and higher apertures, the main body is calm and assured, the scale and proportion in harmony with the simple Spence seating and slightly raised altar. The detail of the wooden roof grid perfectly balancing the warm austerity of the walls.

My thanks to Father Phillip for his time and a fine cup of tea.

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St Paul – Ecclesfield/Sheffield

High above the city on Wordsworth Avenue, Eccleshall, built to serve the large Parson Cross post-war social housing estate, stands St Paul.

On the day of my visit, more than somewhat windswept and sleet lashed, almost imperious, the church stood steadfast set against the elements.

It is however registered as at risk by Historic England.

Designed by Sir Basil Spence and built by Charles Price of Doncaster Ltd. the church was completed in 1959 and consecrated on24th January 1959.

A large open brick steel and concrete structure, glassed and open at each end, a curved roof with vaulted detail, a detached tower is connected by a concrete cloister. There is an elegant simplicity to the body of the church, which is elevated by the staggered supporting walls.

A plain altar is complemented with ornaments, the gift of Spence, decorated by a frontal designed by Anthony Blee and an embroidered panel by Beryl Dean. A plain slatted wooden screen masks the window to the rear.

The pews – also the work of Spence were not costed in the original proposal, additional funds were found and they remain in use as an integral part of the scheme and worship.

The organ, sited in the gallery, is a later addition of 1962, puchased for £100 from Mount Tabor Church, Holland – integrated into the overall design using slatted wood.

My thanks to John Roch, church organist and lifelong member of the congregation, having attended Sunday School at St Paul on the first day of its opening, for his time and erudite instruction.

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