Divine Beauty at Birmingham Cathedral

There are four dazzling examples of the stained-glass work of Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris in our cathedral. They are some of the most exceptional pieces of art in Birmingham.

Birmingham is the birthplace of Burne-Jones. His was baptised here in January 1834, when St Philip’s was still a parish church. The stained-glass windows display a medieval influence from the hight of Burne-Jones’ influence as an artist, using simplified forms and shapes, and enhanced by the use of bold colours. They are also particularly impressive owing to their size and shape. There are no stone tracery divisions in the windows, only the rectangular iron ferramenta between the sections of glass.

The windows date from between 1885 and 1897.

“I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philip’s Church (may I mention parenthetically that in that very church at the tender age of a few weeks I was enlisted amongst the rank and file of the Church Militant( struck, I repeat, with admiration at my own work (a naïve confession which all artists will condone) I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side with compositions which I hoped, to make worthy of my former achievement.”

Edward Burne-Jones

What will the conservation of the windows involve?

Initial funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund has enabled detailed investigation into the condition of the windows to take place, which has uncovered significant damage. This includes missing and cracked glazing in a number of places, which requires significant work to repair and conserve. We have secured a further £641,200 in National Lottery Heritage funding to go towards this vital conservation, due to begin in summer 2023.

From Summer 2023 onwards, work will begin to fix cracks, failed leading and paint loss. There will also be removal of a substantial build up of debris, to enable the installation of new protective grilles on the outside of the building. Visitors will be able to see this work as it happens from an accessible platform.

Explore our windows

Our four windows depict key moments from the life of Christ, which provides an accessible and understandable way for people to learn about these stories. This kind of art and imagery is incredibly powerful for those who are unable to read the stories in the Bible for themselves.

The Ascension was the first window to be installed in 1885. The scene depicts Jesus parting with his followers and ascending into heaven forty days after Easter. The Ascension window was initially intended to be the only window in the Cathedral. The beauty of the window inspired Burne-Jones to design two more.

The Nativity and The Crucifixion were the next two windows to be installed in 1887. They were paid for by wealthy Birmingham resident Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes, and depict the birth and death of Jesus. She requested that there should be no oxen in the Nativity scene, as she considered them to be ‘too brutish’. She also asked that there should not be any blood in the Crucifixion scene. These windows, positioned directly opposite each other in the cathedral, highlight the anguish of the events. These two curved windows measure 2.4m across.

The Last Judgement is widely recognised as the finest example of Burne-Jones’ work, dating from 1897. The scene depicts the return of Christ and his judgement on humanity. The window is a memorial to the Bishop Bowlby of Coventry. He was Rector of St Philip’s from 1875 to 1894.

The Ascension

The Nativity

The Crucifixion

The Last Judgement

The Ascension window
Christ ascends into heaven The space between heaven and earth The disciples watch on

Christ ascends into heaven

The top half of the window shows Christ, with three angels on each side of him; their hands clasped in prayer
They are draped in long flowing fabric in various pastel shades which, in certain strong lights, can appear almost neon.
Above the heads of Christ and the angels, the tops of many halos are just evident through the mass of feathers which flood the top of the window with vibrant red. If you look closely, you will see that one of the angels has blue wings.
Like many of Burne-Jones’ figures, the angels have proportionally small heads and long bodies which heightens the impression of the angels as other worldly beings.
They have serene and placid expressions  Barefoot and clothed in red and blue, Christ stands on the clouds and looks tenderly towards the people below. Wearing sandals, angels hold their hands in gestures of prayer.
Jesus is reaching out his hand to those below in a blessing. This gesture can also be seen in the Last Judgement window.  The open hand is also a sign of welcome.
Some observers often ask about what looks like an England flag in Christ’s halo, which could symbolise Christ's victory over death.
Burne-Jones said that he wanted to depict heaven starting six inches above our heads 'as it really does'.

The space between heaven and earth


The deep blues of the sky which divide the two halves of the window emphasise this contrast and symbolise the separation between the earthly and spiritual realms. The Ascension window is divided horizontally by a dark blue band of sky with oval- shaped clouds in pale blue. Above the clouds, Christ ascends into Heaven surrounded by angels. Below, a crowd of onlookers gaze upwards.

Ascension – blue circles – could be sky or water -  oval shapes are a link / easy to pass through

The disciples watch on


The lower half of the window depicts the disciples and followers of Jesus, watching him ascend into heaven.

They are painted in bold, vibrant tones. These emotional onlookers contrast with the placid expressions of the angels in the upper half of the window.

Christ extends his left hand towards them – but his right hand points towards his heavenly destination.

The scene includes Mary, mother of Jesus and two disciples clad in white and two wearing blue. Their garments provide a visual link with the blue of Christ’s tunic in the upper portion of the window.

It is thought that the disciple St Philip is in the centre of crowd - shown as a clean-shaven young man.

The Nativity
Dark Wood The shepherds The cave Choirs of angels! Baby Jesus Visitors

Dark Wood


Set against a winter scene of grey, skeletal trees and a black sky, the upper part of the window depicts a mass of angels with red wings. They illuminate the nocturnal scene and observe three shepherds who are guarding a flock of sheep.

The most prominent angel greets the men. The two shepherds in the foreground, wearing yellow and purple robes, gaze at the angels and shade their eyes from the light.

A third man wearing blue, the oldest of the three shepherds, grasps his staff and looks intently at the angels.

The shepherds


At the feet of the angels is a flock of sheep, attended by a group of shepherds with expressions of shock and fear. Two of the three shepherds shield their eyes from the brightness of the angels.

The trees behind the shepherds are painted in intricate detail and the leafless branches indicate the scene is set in the winter months.

The Nativity window was paid for by wealthy Birmingham resident Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes, who specifically requested that there should be no oxen in the Nativity scene, as she considered them to be too brutish.

The cave


The Nativity scene here is depicted in a cave, as opposed to the more modern interpretation of the story which sees the baby Jesus being born in a barn or stable.

There were many caves in the hills surrounding Bethlehem, many of which may have been used to house animals.

Choirs of angels!


The angels form a sinuous curve echoing the shape of the trees and the rock.

Baby Jesus


The figures curve inwards, framing the delicate depiction of baby Jesus who is the focal point of the work.

Swaddled in cloth, he is positioned on a stone above a shallow pool of water which heightens the vulnerability of the scene. The white of the cloth and halo of the Christ child contrast with the dank, dark interior of the cave, drawing attention to the purity and innocence of the infant.

The infant Christ sleeps on the rocky floor of a cave. His hands are tucked under his chin and his body is wrapped in white bedclothes. His halo is white and patterned with fleur-de-lys. Mary, in a deep-blue gown, kneels on the left before her baby. Her hands are clasped and she wears a patterned veil. Her red halo stands out against the dark interior of the cave.



Joseph and three angels stand to the right, bowing in reverence. Joseph, her husband, depicted as an elderly man, leans on a staff. He is dressed in a red garment and his white cap is surrounded by his red halo.

He gazes at the child with his hands together as if he is praying. Three angels stand behind him their hands wide apart in a gesture of adoration.

They wear robes of different colours and are shown with wings and red haloes.

The Crucifixion
Jesus on the cross Mary mother of Jesus Mary Magdalene Apostle John Roman soldier Circular clouds City walls of Jerusalem

Jesus on the cross


The window is dominated by an image of Christ who hangs lifeless from the cross. He is framed by a deep blue sky and a mass of red Roman banners, which reflects patterns also found in The Ascension window. The colours link the image of Christ with the onlookers and soldiers who are also clad in blue and red.

Floral patterns can be seen in Christ's halo and on his loincloth. Jesus is nailed to a large cross which directs the eye of the observer from the foot of the image to the head and arms of Christ and the letters INRI. These are the initials of the Latin words which Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, had placed on the cross over Christ’s head when he was sentenced to crucifixion by the authorities. In translation, the words mean Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Christ wears a crown of thorns and a loin cloth with a foliage design. His halo is also patterned with flowers.

Mary mother of Jesus


The onlookers include three standing women. Mary, the grieving mother of Jesus gazes towards her son. She wears a delicately patterned blue dress and her head is framed with a red halo. A second woman in a white veil provides comfort. A third supports the second and holds a piece of brown cloth.

Mary Magdalene


The most striking image in the lower section of the window is the mourning figure of Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross, dressed in a peach-coloured robe. She kneels beneath the feet of Jesus at the base of the cross, cupping her head in her hands in a gesture of deep sorrow.

The green stones on which she kneels are the same colour as the walls of Jerusalem in the centre of the window. Mary Magdalene’s striking pose, her downward gaze and the bright colour of her garments contrast with the figure of Mary, who stands erect and fixes her eyes upwards on her dying son.

Together, they are the dominant images in this part of the window

Apostle John


The disciple John gazes at Christ and presses against the cross. He wears green and has a green patterned halo.

Roman soldier


A crowd of people inhabit the rear of the scene. They wear turbans and direct their eyes towards the cross and the Roman soldier who stands behind John and aims his spear at Christ’s side.

A second soldier on the other side directs his lance towards Christ. Other soldiers hold the banners which frame the figure of Christ. The walls of Jerusalem rise above the heads of the onlookers.

Emma Villers-Wilkes, who funded the window, specifically requested that there was to be no blood in the scene.  While this is the case, there is a sea of deep and vibrant reds in the flags of the Roman Soldiers surrounding Christ.

Circular clouds


The clouds are represented as circles and connect visually with the turbans of the onlookers at the foot of the cross. This depiction of a 'heavenly firmament' can also be found in the scene of The Ascension window.

City walls of Jerusalem

The Last Judgement window
The Archangel Michael Christ judges humanity The city is collapsing Heavenly Host Below the city

The Archangel Michael


The Archangel Michael is robed in red with powerful red wings sweeping from his right shoulder. He is depicted moving across the window, blowing a long golden horn.

Scripture often refers to the Archangel Michael as a 'chief prince', who will play a significant part in end-time events. Michael is not merely one of the angels but the head of a battalion of angels.

Long Gold horn may have some significance relating to use in the temple as well as Revelation reference

And war broke out in heaven: Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer.

Revelation 12: 7 - 8

Christ judges humanity


Christ is depicted at the very top of the window, seated on a hidden rainbow. He is clothed in white, wears a green crown of thorns and has a deep red halo. One of his hands is points upwards to heaven and the other to the rainbow. This is the blessing also depicted in other windows.

In Hebrew, blessing means smile

It is understood that the rainbow has been included to symbolise God’s covenant with Noah that he would never wipe out the population of the world again.

Both of Christ's hands show the stigmata - the wounds made by the nails that were driven into his palms during his crucifixion.

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.

Revelation 20:11-13

The city is collapsing


Below the feet of the angels is a contemporary city – the dark, murky buildings are collapsing and appear to be breaking apart into many different directions.

This scene provides a clear distinction between the upper and lower parts of the window.

Birmingham Town Hall thought to feature in city – Town Hall was built the same year that Burne-Jones was Baptised at St Philips – other cartoons of the window don’t show it (may have originally been designed for another church)

Now the great city was divided into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell. And great Babylon was remembered before God, to give her the cup of the wine of the fierceness of His wrath.

Revelation 16:19

Heavenly Host


Christ and The Archangel Michael are framed by a host of angels wearing red. They are distinguished by the different colours of their haloes and wings.

It is believed that the faces of the angels were inspired by Burne-Jones' daughter Margaret, with whom he had a close relationship. Margaret can be seen in a number of portraits he produced, and there is a very strong resemblance between the two.

One angel holds a golden key and a double chain which refers to binding of the dragon in Revelation 20.

Another angel holds the Book of Life; which is understood to serve as a testament to those saved who will enjoy eternity with the Lord.

You can also count seven vials (or bowls) - believed to refer to the seven bowls of god's wrath described in Revelation 16.

First Bowl: Loathsome Sores

Second Bowl: The Sea Turns to Blood

Third Bowl: The Waters Turn to Blood

Fourth Bowl: Men are Scorched

Fifth Bowl: Darkness and Pain

Sixth Bowl: Euphrates Dried Up

Seventh Bowl: Hail

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand.

Revelation 20:1

Below the city


The lower portion of the window is equally striking. A fearful, apprehensive group of people fill the scene below the doomed city. No serpents or dragons or devils – reflects belief in love and forgiveness

The sense of anticipation, for good or ill as they await judgement is enhanced by their gestures. They face in different ways. Two fearful women, standing on a tomb, clasp each other.

A husband comforts his wife who holds holding a baby. A barefoot, red-robed man with his back to the viewer twists in the foreground. He wears an elaborate crown 0 showing that Jesus is returning to judge both the rich and poor. His pose connects with that of the Archangel Michael above him. There are also those who appear to be the dead emerging from graves at the very bottom of the scene - rising up from the ground.

An anxious child wearing a delicately patterned white robe, stands between his father and mother, clutching his father’s red garment. William Morris patterns can be seen in the robes and sandals of the people below.

Divine Beauty at Night

Divine Beauty at Night is taking place thanks to generous supported from National Lottery players, via The National Lottery Heritage Fund.