Starts 1 December…
Find out more about our exciting conservation work and our remarkable stained-glass windows as we count down to Christmas!
Why are the stained-glass windows at Birmingham Cathedral so special?
The four stained-glass windows at Birmingham Cathedral are some of the finest in the world.
They tell the story of four key moments in the life of Jesus, and have taught generations of worshippers, as well as providing a focal point in the cathedral for aiding, prayer and reflection.
They were designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made in the workshop of William Morris. Birmingham is the birthplace of Burne-Jones and he was baptised in St Philip’s in January 1834, when Birmingham Cathedral was still a parish church.
In many of his other pieces, Burne-Jones had to adapt his designs to fit smaller windows, or Gothic-style tracery. Here, he had much more space, which he used to outstanding advantage. Burne-Jones aspired to create artworks that enhance ordinary people’s ability to connect with Christ and he said that he wanted to create large works for vast spaces and for common people to look and say ‘oh and only oh!’.
Why Divine Beauty?
The project to conserve the four stained-glass windows at Birmingham Cathedral is called Divine Beauty. The name was chosen to reflect Burne-Jones’ own words when refers to his own work:
“I mean by a picture a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be – in a light better than any light that ever shone – in a land no one can define or remember, only desire – and the forms divinely beautiful.”
The importance of protecting the windows
During The Second World War, the four stained-glass windows in Birmingham Cathedral were removed, courtesy of Birmingham Civic Society, and placed in a slate mine in Wales for safekeeping. The foresight was remarkable as the cathedral suffered considerable damage caused by an incendiary bomb dropped in October 1940.
By 1948, Birmingham Cathedral had been restored and rededicated. The Divine Beauty Project will ensure the four beautiful windows are preserved and recognised for the future.
Stained-glass windows are created using tiny pieces of coloured glass joined together by lead and enhanced with a variety of artistic techniques including, hand painting, silver-stain and double plating.
Although Burne-Jones was the designer, the completed windows at Birmingham Cathedral were the product of a larger and highly skilled team.
The process of producing the stained-glass windows in Birmingham Cathedral included:
- Step 1: The cartoon. Burne-Jones normally made a monochrome design.
- Step 2: Scaling up. The design was made to the actual size of the window, either by a studio assistant or for the later windows, photographically.
- Step 3: Colour selection. During his lifetime, this was always done by William Morris. He had an outstanding eye for colour, as can be seen in his textile and tapestry designs. By the time The Last Judgement was being produced, this was done by Burne-Jones following Morris’ death.
- Step 4: Manufacture. This was originally done in Morris & Co’s workshop in Birmingham, and by the 1880s, this was done at Merton Abbey, south London.
A working relationship
Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris were great friends and creative partners, who left a lasting legacy on British Art. At the heart of this professional collaboration was the friendship of the two men, who met at Exeter College at the University of Oxford
After Burne-Jones’ design for the stained-glass windows at Birmingham Cathedral was agreed, William Morris advised on colour.
They admired the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who wanted a restore the freshness and closer to nature style of early Italian art.
The story of Christ – told by music and art
Come and experience a spectacular performance of Handel’s most famous oratorio this Christmas at Birmingham Cathedral!
Enjoy this iconic music whilst admiring four remarkable Burne-Jones stained-glass windows, also depicting the life of Christ.
Birmingham Cathedral Choir and soloists will be conducted by David Hardie, with the organ played by Ashley Wagner and accompanied by a professional orchestra.
Saturday 10 December – doors open at 1800 for a 1900 start.
Funding the Divine Beauty Project
The Divine Beauty Project has been made possible by National Lottery players, and an award of £641,200 from by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
This money will be used, not only for the physical conservation work, but also to increase engagement and understanding of the windows, so that they can be enjoyed and appreciated by a new audience.
This work will include:
- Cleaning a thick layer of grime, dust and debris from the windows inside and out
- Repairing paint loss, cracking and poor leadwork.
- Replacing the grilles with a more sympathetic and equally protective alternative
We still need to raise around £160,00 to complete the project, so will be undertaking various fund-raising activities throughout 2023. If you would like to donate, you can support the work of the cathedral by donating online.
An Italian influence
Edward Burne-Jones was influenced by early Italian art. He travelled to Italy and visited the Sistine Chapel and his work reflects scenes from the frescoes covering the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
These frescoes are now celebrated as the pearl of the Early Renaissance. Commissioned by the wealthy Enrico Scrovegni to atone for his sins of money-lending, Giotto’s chapel is a masterpiece of storytelling and human emotion.
The Ascension window
The Ascension window was the first to be installed at Birmingham Cathedral in 1885, It depicts Jesus’ Ascension into heaven watched, in awe, by his disciples and followers. Burne-Jones was paid £200 for his design.
He said that he wanted to show “heaven beginning six inches over the tops of our heads, as it really does”.
The window was initially intended to be the only stained-glass window in the cathedral. However, on seeing the window in position, he suggested that St Philip’s install two further windows; ‘I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side’.
Halos and Angels
Above the heads of Christ and the angels in The Ascension window, the tops of many halos are just evident through the mass of feathers which flood the top of the window with vibrant red.
Like many of Burne-Jones’ figures, the angels which surround Christ have proportionally small heads and long bodies which heightens the impression of the angels as other worldly beings.
They have serene and placid expressions and appear two-dimensional. Christ’s halo in the Ascension window contains some tiny floral details, they are daisies known as stars of Bethlehem. The Star of Bethlehem watercolour is part of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art.
Divine Beauty at Night.
Birmingham Cathedral’s remarkable stained-glass windows will be lit up in dazzling colour this January as part of an immersive light and sound experience to make visitors “say WOW!”.’
World-renowned light and sound projection company Luxmuralis will be bringing our four historic Burne-Jones windows to life, in a spectacular performance suitable for all ages. The use of light and sound will tell the story of the Victorian stained-glass, in way that will engage a new audience.
Divine Beauty at Night will be a series of special one-off immersive events that sees imagery from the stained-glass windows projected, floor to ceiling on the inside of Birmingham Cathedral. For three evenings from 12-14 January, visitors will be welcomed into a world of vivid colour, to not only gaze on the beauty of the windows but also to learn more about these precious treasures in the heart of the city.
Luxmuralis have a passion for taking art onto the streets and providing access to visual artwork in unexpected places. Their collaborative team combines artists from different backgrounds and artistic disciplines – creating works across multiple media and presentation formats. Their previous artwork has included many similar experiences within cathedrals across the UK.
Tickets can be purchased from the Birmingham Cathedral website.
If you want to find out more about the history of Birmingham Cathedral’s beautiful stained-glass windows, you can join one of our free guided tours.
Divine Beauty guided tours are led by our knowledgeable volunteer heritage guides, and last around 30 minutes.
Taking place most Wednesday’s at 1130, these are a great way to join an informal talk about our windows and ask any questions you might have.
We also run free heritage tours of our building every Monday at 1230, which also include some information about our windows.
You can book these tours online or just turn up and meet outside the main entrance to the cathedral.
The Crucifixion window
The Crucifixion window depicts the death of Jesus, and is positioned opposite The Nativity window in the cathedral, highlighting the contrast of the two events. Both these windows were both paid for by wealthy Birmingham resident Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes, who specifically requested that there should be no blood in the scene of Christ’s death.
A group of women stand huddled at the foot of the cross comforting each other. Jesus’ mother, Mary is clothed in a characteristic blue robe, looking up in anguish at her dying son. Mary Magdalene, a close friend of Jesus, is at the foot of the cross, bent over in grief with her head in her hands.
Christ in the Crucifixion window
Behind Christ’s head are the partially concealed initials of a sign scorning his claim of being the son of God. The crown of thorns also mocks him as the ‘King of the Jews’. Christ’s head is encircled with an elaborately detailed halo, painted in cream and yellow tones which, during the day, shines with a strong white light. The tortured state of his body is emphasised by the sharp fragmentation of glass over the expanse of Christ torso.
The sky in the top of the window begins as a deep, rich navy and fades into a paler shade as the window descends. The vibrant blue of the sky contrasts with the vivid blood red of the flags, which fill the space under the cross and Christ’s outstretched arms.
The harsh features of the stern Roman soldiers’ contrast with the distress and grief of Christ’s followers and the curious faces of the onlookers – all set against the serenity of Christ’s own expression.
Some early production placement is evident in the Crucifixion window with the inclusion of Willowbough, a popular William Morris design. Today, this design can be seen in everything from paper, to clothing, home accessories and art prints.
The Last Judgement window
The Last Judgement window was the final stained-glass window to be installed at Birmingham Cathedral in 1897. It depicts Christ’s return to judge humanity in the final days. It was installed the year before Burne-Jones’ died and so he would not have seen the finished piece – although it is considered his greatest work.
The window was a memorial to the Bishop Bowlby of Coventry who was Rector of St Philip’s from 1875 to 1902.
A personal reflection on The Last Judgement – by Revd Canon Andy Delmege.
The Last Judgement is an outstanding work of art which is in the place for which it was designed. It is in a ‘living building’, a cathedral, which has its own life and priorities, rather than a gallery. (I have been very taken by the contrast between the cathedral and Ikon Gallery’s recent Carlo Crivelli Show, where the Renaissance religious paintings are very deliberately exhibited in a white cube), where viewing the art is the primary focus of the space. Is there a best place for works of art to be placed? What difference does the situation of the artwork make to how it is seen and used? Who sees it in different places? What does this demand of us?
A small and busy cathedral is a contested place. At its’ heart – and before and after all else – is the daily rhythm of Services and liturgy. People come into the building for all sorts of reasons – quiet prayer, sanctuary, to have a warm, for events, to see the windows, (but busyness, of course, means you can’t always see them). A city centre church with open doors means it can on occasion be lively, but there is a quick return to peace, to the sanctuary.
Although the windows were put into the building after it had been built and extended, it does feel as if it was designed to hold them. An interesting feature is that you can’t see two of the BJ windows at the eastern end until you advance far into the Chancel. They are designed so that you approach the high altar to receive communion, under the gaze of Christ in the Ascension. When you come close, you see the Christian story told through the Nativity and Crucifixion Windows. Having received, you turn around and face The Last Judgement.
This is fascinating in terms of what the work of art might demand of the cathedral, notably in terms of the biblical story it represents. I won’t need to remind you of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 where Jesus comes at the end of time to judge everyone. The final criterion for eternal life is how you treated ‘the least of these’, for when you fed or clothed or visited them, you did it to me. In the faces of homeless people we see Jesus (a slight diversion, but I’m very taken by an angel’s face from the Ascension Window at the cathedral’s East End with it’s crack and dirt – in the upcoming restoration, the crack will be repaired, but still there – people, like works of art, carry their scars with them, and that is one of the ways we recognise the Risen Christ). The role of the artwork, of The Last Judgement is to remind us of who we are, of our fundamental identity as Christians, of our vocation as a small, new urban cathedral in the twenty first century.
The close correlation between artwork and welcome to homeless people can be disruptive. Several times a week, I experience the beauty of saying Mass in the quiet early mornings facing the window, seeing the changing light in it as I look up at the Elevation. It would be easy to stay there, in the immediate beauty. The artwork and the world both demand that I step away, look to meeting people, addressing their needs, helping both them and myself become more fully human. The Last Judgement shows the cathedral to be a place of profound liminality, where human and divine meet in ways that constantly surprise. We are called to reflect on where beauty truly is. I am reminded that St Laurence would tell us that the true treasures of the cathedral are the children and the homeless people.
I am aware that space means I have left out reflection on the dignity of homeless people, that there isn’t the ‘us and them’ this paper might imply. Homeless people are part of the cathedral, part of me, part of us. I haven’t spoken about co-production and how people can be built up and fulfilled, nor the human stories, the tears and the laughter, the failures and successes that take place under The Last Judgement. How all this speaks to and is spoken to by the window.
Cathedrals are fundamentally places of welcome, of sanctuary, of hospitality – The Last Judgement reminds us in its stark beauty of our obligations and inspires us to live them out.
Andy Delmege, June 2022
Angels in The Last Judgement
The Archangel Michael is in the centre of The Last Judgement scene, blowing a trumpet which marks the end of the world. Below the feet of an army of angels is a contemporary city – the dark, murky buildings are collapsing and appears to be breaking apart.
Edward Burne-Jones said: ‘I want big things to do, and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh!, only Oh!”
He is also known for his depiction of female figures in his artwork. Burne-Jones’ daughter Margaret is inspiration for the other angels shown in The Last Judgement window.
Light pours through the stained-glass windows
From inside Birmingham Cathedral, the four stained-glass windows are lit up in a stunning colour throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.
In the morning, light pours through the Ascension, Nativity and Crucifixion windows, filling the choir stalls with colour.
In the evening, The Last Judgement window is best viewed in the afternoon sun. Its position at the back of the cathedral makes this window the main focal point for visitors.
As day turns to night, the bright red tones from all four windows can become visible from the outside of the cathedral too. Once the Divine Beauty conservation work is completed, there will be new protective grilles installed on the windows which will improve their visibility from the outside during the day.
Nine Lessons and Carols
The four Burne-Jones stained-glass windows at Birmingham Cathedral provide a stunning background for traditional Christmas Carol services, as people from across the region gather to worship during the festive period.
All are welcome to join the congregation at the annual Nine Lessons and Carols services, which take place on Saturday 23 and Sunday 24 December at 1700.
This beautiful services in the days just before Christmas tell the story of God’s encounter with humanity, through Bible readings and carols. The music for this service includes some carols sung by Birmingham Cathedral Choir, and some sung by all. This service will include the boys and lower voices on 23 December and girls and lower voices on 24 December.
There’s no need to book and you can just turn up.
The Last Judgement scene
In the upper half of the Last Judgement window, the gracious Christ sits on a hidden rainbow. He is surrounded by a mass of angels, their vibrant red wings and draperies filling the window with bold red colour.
Christ wears a crown of thorns and the stigmata, the marks of the nails from the cross are evident on his hand which is raised in blessing.
In the lower half of the last judgement window, a collapsing city is shown as men, women and children look on with concern. Burne-Jones reputation as a Pre-Raphaelite visionary is evident here – Burne-Jones reputation as an artist looking forward to C20th artistic styles.
The Nativity window
The Nativity window depicts the birth of Jesus in a dark cave. In the hills surrounding Bethlehem there were caves where animals were housed overnight. Over time artists have depicted the nativity in a variety of locations including caves and stables.
The Nativity window is positioned opposite The Crucifixion window in the cathedral, highlighting the contrast of the two events.
The figures in the Nativity are clothed in jewel tones adding great warmth to the image. Mary the mother of Jesus kneels before the Christ child. Joseph and three angels stand to the right, bowing in reverence. The figures curve inwards, framing the delicate depiction of baby Jesus who is the focal point of the work.
No Cattle in The Nativity
The Nativity and Crucifixion windows were paid for by generous benefactor Emma Villers-Wilkes. Emma had inherited money from a metal working family business, and she wanted to create a memorial to her brother.
Emma felt certain that no cattle should be shown in the Nativity window as she considered them too brutish. Instead, large numbers of sheep are pictured in the scene.
In the Nativity window, Baby Jesus is depicted in a cave, swaddled and sleeping on a stone above a shallow pool of water. This 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.
Divine Beauty is generously supported by National Lottery players, via The National Lottery Heritage Fund.