Our stained-glass windows

Birmingham Cathedral is home to four exquisite stained-glass windows, designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edwards Burne-Jones. They are some of the finest pieces of art in the city, and considered by many to be some of the most precious stained-glass windows in the world.

The four windows were installed over a 12 year period between 1885 and 1897 – before St Philip’s was given cathedral status. They depict four key scenes from the life of Christ – reflecting the religious beliefs of their designer. The first window to be installed was The Ascension window – showing Christ ascending into heaven forty days after Easter. Either side of this window in the chancel are windows depicting Christ’s birth through The Nativity and death through The Crucifixion. At the west end of the cathedral is a glorious window showing the final days through The Last Judgement.

The colour and manufacture of the windows was undertaken in the workshop of William Morris – who was a close friend of Burne-Jones for many years. Burne-Jones had a deep connection with St Philip’s – being baptised here and spending his childhood nearby on Bennetts Hill.

The windows were removed for safekeeping in 1939 courtesy of Birmingham Civic Society, and placed in a slate mine in Wales for safekeeping during the Second World War. It is now the duty of this generation to ensure they are preserved and recognised for the future.

The Divine Beauty Project

Initial funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund enabled a detailed investigation of the condition of the windows to take place in 2015. Unfortunately, this work uncovered significant damaged in a number of places, including portions of glazing that were missing or cracked. The conservation of the windows took place in 2023, as part of the Divine Beauty project. This work was enabled with thanks to a grant of  £641,200 in National Lottery Heritage funding.

The work removed a substantial build up of debris and to repair areas of cracking, failed leading and paint loss. Visitors were able to see this work as it happened from an accessible platform and take part in a range of engagement activities.


The Windows

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The Ascension window

The Ascension window depicts Jesus parting with his followers and ascending into heaven forty days after Easter. It was installed in 1885 and was intended to be the only stained-glass window in the Cathedral. Inspired by it's beauty, Burne-Jones subsequently decided to design two more shortly afterwards.

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

Christ ascends into heaven

The upper part of the window shows Christ with three angels praying on either side. Above them, you can see a mass of vibrant red feathers, with the tops of many halos just peeking through. If you look closely, you'll notice that one of the angels has blue wings rather than red.

Burne-Jones depicted his figures with small heads and long bodies, making the angels seem even more like creatures from another world. Jesus is stretching out his hand, blessing the people below. Some people see what looks like an English flag in Christ's halo, which could represent Christ's victory over death.

The space between heaven and earth

 

The window is divided into two halves by a deep blue sky, dividing heaven and earth, with Christ moving effortless between the two. The oval-shaped clouds also resemble water. Burne-Jones wanted to portray heaven as he saw it - starting just a few inches above our heads!

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 colours, with emotive expressions.  The crowd includes Mary mother of Jesus, alongside Jesus' disciples wearing white or blue. It is thought that the disciple St Philip is in the centre of crowd - shown as a clean-shaven young man.

 

The Nativity window

My favourite thing about the windows is ‘The Nativity’ of Burne-Jones and it is magical Christmas timing. With the sheep behind the man-made brick cave and the shepherds looking nightward to the crimson-hued angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth floating above a giant forest. Which could have been a future thought to ‘The garden of Gethsemane’; and the shepherds dressed in gold for one of the gifts, scarlet for Frankincense and blue for Myrrh; perhaps. Burne-Jones and William Morris must have worked out, when the sun near Christmas lights up the window just before Advent-time. Mary herself dressed in blue looking down at Jesus with a crimson halo, and the multi-hued angels bowing to the heavenly saviour lying wrapped in the crib on the stone floor, the rock foundation of his church. Congregation member - 2023.

The Nativity window depicts the birth of Jesus. This is positioned opposite The Crucifixion window in the cathedral. This positioning highlights the contrast and anguish of the two events.

Wealthy Birmingham resident and congregation member, Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes paid for both these windows in memory of her late brother. She specifically requested that there should be no oxen in the Nativity scene, as she considered them to be ‘too brutish

The Nativity
Dark Wood The shepherds and their sheep The cave Choirs of angels Baby Jesus Joseph and the visitors

Dark Wood

 

The Nativity scene is set in winter with bare, grey trees and a dark sky - all painted in intricate detail. The dark wood depicted in understood to be based on the Burne-Jones painting by the same name - which is housed at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The shepherds and their sheep

 

>At the feet of the angels is a flock of sheep, attended by a group of shepherds. Two of the three shepherds shield their eyes from the brightness. A third shepherd holds his staff and gazes intently upwards.

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, which would have been a common place to house animals in the hills around Bethlehem.

Choirs of angels

 

A large group of angels fill the top of the window with their bright red wings. They bring light to the scene as they greet the shepherds who are taking care of their sheep.

Baby Jesus

 

Baby Jesus is the main focus of the scene towards the bottom of the window - shown delicately sleeping on rock surrounded by a shallow pool of water. He is wrapped in a white cloth, with a white halo, decorated with fleur-de-lys patterns. His mother Mary is dressed in a deep-blue gown with a patterned veil and red halo.

Joseph and the visitors

 

Joseph and three angels stand to the right of the scene, bowing their heads in reverence. Joseph is depicted as an elderly man leaning on a staff, with a red halo and 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 window

My favourite window is the Crucifixion window because of all the stories depicted, it is the one with the strongest historical evidence of what it might look like, so it feels very real. David Hardie - Head of Music.

The Crucifixion window depicts the death of Jesus and is opposite The Nativity window in the cathedral. This highlights the contrast and anguish of the two events. Wealthy Birmingham resident and cathedral congregation member ,Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes paid for both these windows in memory of her late brother. She requested that there should be no blood in the scene of Christ's death.

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

Jesus on the cross

 

In the centre of the window, Christ hangs lifeless from the cross. He wears a crown of thorns, and the letters INRI can be seen above his head. These are the initials of the Latin words which Pontius Pilate used in Jesus' sentencing. In English, the words mean Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The glass is cleverly used to show the chest of Christ is in disarray in place of any blood being shown.  This is quite abstract compared to most other pre-Raphaelite art. There are delicate floral patterns on Christ's halo and loincloth.

Mary mother of Jesus

 

Mary, the grieving mother of Jesus gazes upwards 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

 

Mary Magdalene is kneeling at the foot of the cross, dressed in a peach-coloured robe and cupping her head in her hands in a gesture of deep sorrow.

Apostle John

 

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

Roman soldier

 

The Roman soldier standing behind John aims his spear at Christ’s side. A second soldier on the other side directs his lance towards Christ.  Emma Villers-Wilkes, who funded the window, specifically requested that there was to be no blood in the scene, but we do see a sea of red banner surrounding Jesus on the cross. The walls of Jerusalem rise above the heads of the onlookers at the back of the scene.

Circular clouds

 

The circular clouds are thought to represent the heavenly realm, and can also be found in The Ascension window.

 

The Last Judgement window

The central angel blowing their trumpet seems to have no air of drama; the seated Christ, too, is calm and relaxed rather than triumphant or vengeful. Composers often like to portray the Last Judgement as little short of God throwing a violent tantrum; by contrast I think Burne-Jones wants us to understand that the chaos and despair would be – as it is now – of human origin. David - Lay Clerk.

The Last Judgement (1897), is widely recognised as the finest example of Burne-Jones’ work, depicting 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 1894.

There are 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.

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 wings and seen 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. The long Gold horn may have some significance relating to use in the temple as well it's reference in the book of Revelation.


"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 at the very top of the window, sitting on a rainbow. This symbolism reference God's promise to never destroy the world again after the great flood.  He is clothed in white, wearing a green crown of thorns with a deep red halo and blessing the world below (in Hebrew, blessing means smile). 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 which dived the window in two. The dark, murky buildings are collapsing and appear to be breaking apart into many different directions. Birmingham Town Hall is thought to feature in city. The Town Hall was built the same year that Burne-Jones was Baptised at St Philips. Other cartoons of the window don’t show it (the window 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 angels, 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

 

In the lower portion of the window, a fearful and apprehensive group of people try to escape the doomed city, looking in different directions. However, unlike many other depictions of the end times, there are no serpents or dragons or devils – reflecting Burne-Jones' belief in love and forgiveness. Some of the figures you can see are:

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 - showing that Jesus is returning to judge both the rich and poor.

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 wears a delicately patterned white robe, stands between his father and mother, clutching his father’s red garment.


Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris



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