St Philip’s Cathedral Birmingham – Burne-Jones Stained-Glass

This visit to Birmingham Cathedral provided another sense of an ending for the course and unified some of the elements. Towards the beginning of this course one of the annotations was of the Rose Window at Chartres, one of my final pieces of work was the essay on the religious paintings of Edward Burne-Jones.

I remember commenting at the time of writing the annotation of the Rose Window about the difficulty of doing such an exercise when using images from a textbook rather than seeing the original work. When studying stained-glass windows, the experience of standing in front of the window is immeasurably greater than simply studying a photograph. Visiting Birmingham Cathedral confirmed this view in five distinct ways.

  • Stained-glass windows are predominantly installed in religious settings and it is only by observing them in such settings that you get the full effect of what the artists strive to convey. Waters (2009) says “the images fit that context like an illumination on a mediaeval manuscript”.
  • The colours of the light passing through the glass changes as weather conditions outside change and this cannot really be conveyed in photographic images.
  • The scale of the work can only be experienced by physical presence.
  • In some cases (e.g. Birmingham Cathedral) several images are portrayed together in different windows. When this is illustrated on a page, it is of such small scale that the overall effect is lost. In the case of Birmingham at the east end of the Cathedral three separate windows portray The Nativity, The Crucifixion and The Ascension. The experience of observing these three together cannot be replicated in a book.
  • The shape of the image cannot be conveyed only experienced. In the east wing of Birmingham Cathedral the central window portraying The Ascension is flat, but the windows flanking it on either side, portraying The Nativity and The Crucifixion are curved and this gives a different sense to how you perceive the image.

The window at the west end of the cathedral portrays The Last Judgement and Waters (2009) states that it “displays the pinnacle of Burne-Jones achievement and claims its place among the masterpieces of stained-glass”.

It was really interesting to see these images as a final aspect of completing my essay on the religious paintings of Edward Burne-Jones. The first window The Ascension was installed in 1885, The Nativity and The Crucifixion were installed two years later. The sketch for The Last Judgement was prepared in 1889. For my essay, I looked in particular at The Star of Bethlehem which was commissioned in 1887 and completed in 1891.

The designs of the stained-glass windows are perhaps more intricate, the notes in the Cathedral point out how each is divided horizontally representing heaven and earth. There are great similarities between the watercolours, oils and stained glass work that Burne-Jones produced at this time. This can be seen in the portrayal of the tall, thin figures and the expression on their faces.

Waters (2009) quotes Burne-Jones “I couldn’t do without mediaeval Christianity. The central idea of it and all it has gathered to itself made the Europe that I exist in.” He also states of Burne-Jones “not believing in the damnatory and judgemental aspects of the Christian church, he concentrates on universal salvation and the forgiving aspects of the Christian dogma”.

I think that, as I found in my research into Burne-Jones paintings of religious scenes, so too the stained-glass images picture the aesthetic beauty of the scene and convey his own inner religious beliefs rather than “damnatory and judgemental aspects”.

 

WATERS, B., 2009. Edward Burne-Jones: Pre-Raphaelite glass in Birmingham. 2nd rev. edn. Abbots Morton: Alastair Carew-Cox.