Divine Beauty project

We are honoured to have four dazzling examples of some of the finest stained-glass work of pre-raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris in our cathedral.

Birmingham is the birthplace of Burne-Jones and he was baptised in St Philip’s in January 1834.

The windows were installed in the building over a twelve year period when it was still a parish church. Since then, the windows have attracted visitors from all over the world to see them in all their glory in our cathedral.

However, there is damage to the windows in a number of places and portions of glazing are now missing and cracked. We also need to consider carefully the best form of protection for the windows so that they can still be seen but are able to inspire visitors and enhance worship for future generations.

The Restoration of our beautiful Burne-Jones Windows

The Divine Beauty project will see the restoration of the stained glass windows as well as the other unusual windows in the cathedral made Birmingham glass firm Hardman.

We have now secured £641,200 in National Lottery Heritage funding to go towards this important restoration, with work due to begin next year.

The project will also provide important opportunities for updated interpretation of the windows and the chance to work collaboratively with partners across the city who also care for Burne-Jones’ work. This work will be starting this summer and run through until later next year.

The Ascension – 1885 

This was the first window that was installed at St Philip’s, in 1885. It depicts Jesus parting with his followers and ascending into heaven forty days after Easter. 

The window is divided into two halves, the top half of which displays Christ surrounded by the heavenly host. Six angels stand around Christ – three on each side of him. They have their hands clasped, as if 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. 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. 

This contrasts with the depiction of the disciples and followers of Jesus who are painted in bold, vibrant tones. 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 disciples display evident emotion in their expressions and gestures as they look up to Christ. They gaze up at him, surrounded by the angels in heaven – but their own feet are firmly planted on the ground. Christ extends his left hand towards them – but his right hand points towards his heavenly destination. The Ascension window was initially intended to be the only window in the Cathedral. However, Burne-Jones was so struck with its beauty that he was inspired to design two more, and so the Crucifixion and then the Nativity windows were installed in 1887

The Cruxifiction – 1887

The window displays the death of Christ. It is a powerful, emotive image. Christ’s arms span the width of the window as they are stretched out on the cross. 

Behind his 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. Burne-Jones conveys the different emotions and perspectives of the scene through his powerful use of expression. 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. 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. 

This is a dramatic scene full of turbulent emotion. The position of the window in the cathedral highlights the anguish of the events, as the window depicting Christ’s death is directly opposite the image of his birth.

The Nativity – 1887

The Nativity window – which was installed into the Cathedral in 1887, along with the Crucifixion window – represents the birth of Jesus.

The scene is set in a cave instead of the more recognised setting of a stable. There is some suggestion that this decision was inspired by Burne-Jones’s interest in medieval art in which the Nativity is more commonly represented in a cave. The cave divides the window in half, in a sinuous sweep which is mirrored by the curve of the group of angels above. At the feet of the angels is a flock of sheep, attended by a group of shepherds whom Burne-Jones has portrayed 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.

As in the other windows, Burne-Jones has used typically bright, vibrant colours. 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. 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.

Both the Nativity window and the Crucifixion windows were paid for by a wealthy Birmingham resident Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes. She specifically requested that there should be no oxen in the Nativity scene, as she considered them to be too brutish. She also required that there should not be any blood in the Crucifixion scene.

The Last Judgement – 1897

 The Last Judgement, completed in 1897, is viewed to be the finest example of Burne-Jones’ work in stained glass. It displays the return of Christ and his judgement on humanity. 

The window was a memorial to the Bishop Bowlby of Coventry who was Rector of St Philip’s from 1875 to 1802. Christ is surrounded by a mass of angels, as in the Ascension window; their vibrant red wings and draperies fill the top half of the window with bold red colour. As in the Crucifixion window, 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. He is sitting on a delicate rainbow which can be glimpsed behind the figure of Christ; beneath the rainbow is a wash of blue tones creating a watery sky. 

The Archangel Michael is in the centre of the composition blowing a trumpet which marks the end of the world. Below the feet of the angels is a contemporary city – the dark, murky buildings are collapsing and appears to be breaking apart and the highly fragmented section is one of chaos. As in the previous windows, a section divides the upper and lower halves of the window. Below the city, the risen dead stand on graves, with figures in the process of emerging and rising up from the ground. Many figures look up to the heavenly realms with expressions of distress and confusion, a small child grips his parent’s cloak, and some shield their eyes from the light. Burne-Jones has overlapped the many figures creating the impression of a great crowd of people, all waiting in apprehension at the end of time.

He has included meticulous details such as the elaborate gold crown worn by the figure clothed in red on the right of the window. The angels hold a range of beautifully intricate objects such as the leather-bound Book of Judgement and the key to the gates of heaven. Artistic depictions of the Last Judgement commonly display scenes of terror, here, the artist has designed a more compassionate account.

Latest project updates

  • Funding awarded to restore historic Burne-Jones windows

    Funding awarded to restore historic Burne-Jones windows

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