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Coventry Cathedral

Coventry, United Kingdom
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Sir Basil Spence is famous for his striking modern design for the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral. The original medieval cathedral was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on 14 November 1940 in an air raid code-named "Moonlight Sonata". The attack targeted Coventry's industry, but it was clear that collateral damage and civilian casualties would be considerable. At 20:00, Coventry Cathedral was hit. Volunteer fire-fighters extinguished the first fire, but as 200 other bombs hit the city they were quickly overwhelmed by a firestorm and the cathedral fell. Only the tower, spire and outer wall survived. The morning after, the leader of the cathedral, Provost Richard Howard, wrote in chalk on the sanctuary walls - "Father, Forgive." On Christmas Day 1940 the BBC Home Service broadcast Howard's message from the cathedral ruins, that when the war was over, he would work with those who had been enemies "to build a kinder, more Christ-child-like world."

Building's Restoration

Howard's gesture of forgiveness and reconciliation inspired Spence. In 1951, Spence was chosen from over 200 architects in a competition to design a new cathedral. Crucially, Spence was the only architect to insist that the ruins of the old cathedral should remain intact. Building started in 1955, and by the time the new cathedral was consecrated in 1962 it had become an international symbol of hope and reconciliation.

Entering the cathedral from Priory Street, the eye is drawn, to Sir Jacob Epstein's large sculpture of Archangel Michael triumphing over the Devil. Spence planned to use a large sculpture to show that this was the Cathedral of St. Michael and both buildings together were one. Spence proposed that Epstein should be the chosen artist. The Reconstruction Committee were initially sceptical, one member even protesting 'But he is a Jew!', to which Spence replied, 'So was Jesus Christ'. The main body of the new cathedral is built from red Hollington sandstone, in unity with the ruins of the old. A high porch links them. Zigzag walls with angled windows direct light down the nave onto the altar. The floor, like that of the Royal Festival Hall is of polished fossil stone. Large artworks commissioned by Spence include stunning abstract stained glass windows by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens and a tapestry behind the main altar by Graham Sutherland, thought to be the largest in the world.

The cathedral's other sculptures emphasise the theme of reconciliation, particularly The Charred Cross. After the bombing, cathedral stonemason Jock Forbes noticed two burned wooden roof beams had fallen in the shape of a cross. He tied them together, forming an altar which Spence preserved on the stairs between the new cathedral and the old. Provost Howard took three nails from the smouldering beams to make the Cross of Nails, which became the centrepiece of the altar cross in Spence's new cathedral. The Cross of Nails is more than a symbol of the cathedral; in September 1947 a Cross of Nails was presented to St Nikolai Church, Kiel, symbolizing peace between former enemies. Over 160 Cross of Nails centres were established across the world as part of Coventry Cathedral's ministry of reconciliation, wherever conflict has occurred from Berlin to Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Iraq. Each centre has its own cross of nails from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

Spence's design draws effectively from the cathedral's history and post-war mission. It's an uncompromisingly modern construction but also perfectly integrated with its past. Coventry Cathedral shows the visitor the waste and loss of war without flinching, but is not a forbidding structure. Wood is used to great decorative and functional effect, giving warmth and human scale to the nave and choir. The Gethsemane chapel highlights Spence's talent for juxtaposition and interaction: the visitor passes Spence's harrowing crown of thorns icon to enter a warm sanctuary beneath war artist Steven Sykes' dazzling angel mosaic in gold leaf and blue tile.

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scavluxx, March 22nd, 2019
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