A Casket of Jewels: The Art and Architecture of Coventry Cathedral

3 min read  ·  14 Nov 2023

HENI Talks presents 'A Casket of Jewels: The Art and Architecture of Coventry Cathedral'

In the latest HENI Talks film, A Casket of Jewels: The Art and Architecture of Coventry Cathedral, art historian and BAFTA-nominated broadcaster Dr James Fox explores the visionary reconstruction of the historic cathedral, and the captivating artworks that it houses. It is, as Fox explains, not only a masterpiece of twentieth-century architecture, but also ‘a repository for major works of modern British art’.

Closely following the near total destruction of Coventry Cathedral during the blitz on 14 November 1940 by the German Luftwaffe, Fox explains that a decision was made to rebuild the cathedral, out of the ashes of war. Sir Basil Spence was named the architect for the reconstruction and made the decision to rebuild the new cathedral next to the old one. For the project, Spence commissioned countless works of art by some of the most notable painters, sculptors and craftspeople in Britain, and the cathedral was eventually opened in 1962.

In the film, Fox walks viewers around and through the cathedral, highlighting among its most important works of art and architectural features. Across media, styles and techniques, Fox notes how these works are united by their messages of hope and renewal, which are inextricably linked to the cathedral’s history.

Fox begins with Jacob Epstein’s cast bronze sculpture affixed to the building’s exterior, which depicts the Archangel Michael defeating the devil, a triumph of good over evil. He then moves inside the cathedral and stops at the West Screen, a large clear glass window which features the ‘ghostly’ and ‘translucent’ figures of 66 saints and angels, designed and hand engraved by John Hutton over the span of 10 years. This work connects the old cathedral to the new, linking the cathedral’s past with its present.

Noting features like the wooden ceiling and the ‘Tablets of the Word’, eight stone panels rendered in the cathedral’s unique font and carved in situ by Ralph Beyer, Fox takes the viewer into the nave, which is flanked by 10 stained glass windows. Designed by Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, the windows are rendered in a colour scheme requested by Spence to represent a pattern of growth from birth to old age. These windows culminate at the high altar, behind which is Graham Sutherland’s monumental tapestry 'Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph'. Designed to dominate the space from a distance but appreciated up close for its details, the work was once the largest single piece tapestry in the world.

From the nave, Fox ventures throughout the cathedral, noting its various chapels and works, such as the lectern eagle and a spiky sculptural structure which evokes the crown of thorns, before he arrives at ‘the pinnacle of this entire complex’: the baptistry windows. Designed by John Piper in collaboration with glassmaker Patrick Reyntiens, the window is actually comprised of a staggering 198 panes using variously sized pieces of glass, its various patterns creating an intensity of light and colour. Some have compared the window to the explosion that destroyed the old cathedral, Fox himself describes it as ‘like looking into a modernist sunrise’.

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