Saturday, May 17, 2008

Coventry and its cathedrals

Yesterday I was in Coventry looking at its cathedral - or cathedrals. Basil Spence's modern cathedral is actually the third that the city's has had.

The first, which will be familiar to Time Team viewers, was the Norman St Mary's, which was also a Benedictine monastery and for that reason did not survive the Dissolution. The page I have linked to will show you what remains today.

Coventry's second cathedral was St Michael's, built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It only became a cathedral in 1918, with the creation of the Coventry Diocese.

Sadly, this building is best known for its near destruction in the German Blitz on the city. As a site devoted to the Coventry air raids tells it, St Michael's:
was hit by so many incendiaries that the four fire watchers could not put them out fast enough. Many began to puncture the lead roof and fall onto the wooden ceiling below. Once there they were very difficult to reach and smother. Eventually, due to the large number of incendiaries and the lack of sand, it became obvious that only the fire brigade could now fight the flames. The local fire fighters were already bravely fighting hundreds of fires and could not attend. When fire fighters finally arrived all the way from Solihull, the water supply failed and nothing more could be done.
Basil Spence's design was the only one of those considered for the post-War rebuilding of the cathedral that Incorporated the remains of the old St Michael's. And this was his master stroke - to move from those ruins to the reborn cathedral is an intensely moving experience.

They stand today much as you see them in the photograph above, where Churchill is visiting Coventry after the bombing. I happened to walk past as someone from the cathedral staff was showing a school party around those ruins and heard him say how hard it is too keep them standing as they do. Without continuous attention they would have collapsed long ago.

Inside, with its light and space and use of modern materials, the third Coventry cathedral reminds me of the post-War primary schools in Hertfordshire where my education began. But the new Coventry's glory is its fittings. There is Jacob Epstein's sculpture of St Michael and the Devil outside - I have written about Epstein before, after visiting the new Walsall art gallery.

Inside, as well as John Hutton's great west window, you will find a tapestry designed by Graham Sutherland and stained glass by John Piper. I find this era of British art - still figurative and conscious of tradition, but chastened by two wars - very appealing. It is fitting that Britten's War Requiem should have had its first performance in the new Coventry cathedral.

What the Luftwaffe began, the post-War planners finished. Even so, there remain in the streets immediately around the cathedral a few remains of Medieval Coventry. Particularly notable is Holy Trinity and its "Doom painting" - a mural of the Last Judgement dating from the 1430s. It is a sign of Coventry's wealth that two such fine Medieval churches as St Michael's and Holy Trinity should stand almost side by stand.

Some of the older buildings in this quarter of Coventry are built with pink stone. One of them has a window jettied out over the street. The underside of that window is stained black - a reminder of the firestorm caused by German bombing on the night of 14 November 1940.

1 comment:

NS said...

All very intersting stuff. Iwent to Coventry Uni (right over the road opposite the Cathedral) and had my graduation inthe new cathedral whcih I personally found rather soulless.