Coventry and a Tale of Two Cathedrals.
The ancient town of Coventry could well have been one of Britain's most prized heritage towns.
With it's roots in the middle ages and it's history dominated by the Benedictine monastry and Coventry's first cathedral of St Mary's - which was around at the time when Lady Godiva rode naked through it's streets upon a horse - and which is now in ruins after Henry VIII's dissolution of the monastery act.
The town grew up around it's thriving cloth industry, hailing it the most important town in the land during the middle ages, a town which was graced by city walls, a motte and bailey castle, a priory and a cathedral.
Years later it's ancient architecture and medeival cobbled streets would be further graced by the building of one of the biggest churches in the land. During the reign of King Richard III the construction of a beautiful Gothic church was begun, which would become a fitting centrepiece to this already eminent town.
The town then gained it's highest accolade when, in 1918, the grand, medieval house of worship dedicated to St Michael and sporting the third highest steeple in the country, became elevated to that of a cathedral.
The ancient, walled city of Coventry now held it's place in the history books, even surpassing - in historical importance - that of the fine city of Chester.
The interior of Coventry's old cathedral
And thus, the city remained, until on the night of November the 14th 1940 when Luftwaffe bombers dropped 500 tonnes of high explosives upon the city's ancient cobbled streets.
Sixty thousand ancient buildings were lost, as many as 1,000 souls perished and the town's beautiful cathedral lay in ruins, leaving only it's magnificent steeple and outer walls standing.
As the residents of Coventry surveyed the destruction of their beloved town and looked upon their cathedral in dismay, the church bell tolled just once.
Obviously the wind had caught the great bell as it hung in a draught in the belfry of the 300 foot high steeple, but to the shellshocked people of Coventry this was a sign, a sign that would go on to inspire them to see their town rise from it's ashes and to also create a new cathedral borne from the ruins of it's predecessor.
Bomb damage in Coventry.
With the end of the war came economic chaos for Britain, there were far more important buildings to replace before the country could even consider it's lost heritage and ancient history.
Therefore it wasn't until 1956 that the town planners of Coventry were able to replace their long lost cathedral.
The new cathedral would be the work of the winner of a competiton, of which whose entrants had to take into account certain aspects that the people of Coventry wanted to be considered, one of which was that the old cathedral remain untouched, it's ruins would remain as a symbol of the town's once proud and ancient history.
The winner of this prestigious competition was architect Basil Spence who in 1950 beat 2,500 entrants with his design for the long awaited new cathedral.
What town planners liked about Spence's plans were that the new cathedral would be accessed by way of the ruins of the old and it's interior would be graced by symbols of hope and most importantly, forgivness towards the forces who destroyed the city's main landmark.
The reason forgivness was an important factor was that on the night of November 23rd 1943, bombers from his majesty's Royal Airforce destroyed the Protestant Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church in Germany's capital city, Berlin.
Strangely these two acts of destruction would see the two cities became friends after making one another a cross of nails for each others new cathedrals, both of which stand pride of place in their respective, new cathedrals to this day.
Today the cathedral which was built by John Laing from Hollington sandstone, whose foundation stone was laid by non other than the Queen Elisabeth herself on the 23rd of March 1956, is a grade 1 listed building which earned it's designer Basil Spence a knighthood.
.As one walks around this vast and beautiful building one is ever surprised by it's sheer size, unique architecture,interior opulence and the amazing stories that pertain to each and every aspect of the building.
SPECIAL FEATURES OF COVENTRY'S CATHEDRAL
THE BURNT CROSS.
During the clearing up of the ruins of the old cathedral, a stonemason found two pieces of roof timber lying across one another in the shape of a cross.
He found some rope and bound the two large pieces of wood together and laid it upon a pile of rubble in the grounds of the old cathedral.This wooden cross is now kept in St Michael's Hall in the new cathedral, with a replica housed outside in the ruins of the old cathedral. it is positioned infront of the words ' Father Forgive'.
THE STALINGRAD MADONNA.
The Stalingrad Madonna is a charcoal sketch of the Madonna and Child by German staff physician Kurt Reuber.
He drew the sketch in a wartime trench during the Battle of Stalingrad in December 1942.
The original drawing hangs in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church in Berlin, with copies both at Coventry and the cathedral at Stalingrad ( now Volgograd).
The picture is symbolic to all three cathedrals for what each city endured together during the war years.
A large boulder was found up on the hillside outside Bethlehem and carved insitu into the shape of a large shell by German letter carver Ralph Beyer.
The giant boulder was then transported back to Coventry by way of several volunteers all from different nations and religions to signify friendship and unity between all people.
This giant boulder font is situated in front of the baptistry window. .
THE BAPTISTRY WINDOW.
One hundred and ninety five panes of coloured, stained glass panels make up the 80 foot high by 51 foot wide baptistry window on the cathedral's south wall.
The giant window, which catches the sunlight sending thousands of shards of coloured light across the cathedral's marble floor, was designed by John Piper and the glass panels made by master glass worker Patrick Reyntiens.
Opposite this window is a mosaic floor donated by the people of Sweden that depicts the nations of the world.
The unusual, modernist,bronze spire was hoisted into place by way of a helicopter.
In April 1962 the one and a half ton spire known as a fleche was lifted into place by helicopter. The manoeuver had been practised for weeks beforehand, but was actually performed on the day in under ten minutes.
The following morning Geoffrey Clarke's bronze Flying Cross was positioned onto the fleche in the same way.
THE CROSS OF NAILS.
The crosses of nails were made from nails found in the roof structures of both Coventry Cathedral and the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial Church.
On the morning after the bombing raid a local vicar picked up three of the large medeival nails that had once been part of the roof structure of the old cathedral.
He tied the three nails together into the shape of a cross and had them placed upon a pile of fallen masonry, he had positioned into a type of altar.
This symbolic act was the beginnings of what is now the Society of the Cross of Nails. (www.crossofnails.org)
The reverend later had this cross welded together and chrome plated and later presented it to the local provost.
The local provost had several more of these crosses made from the nails of the old cathedral and presented them to various world leaders as an act of unity.
One of these crosses was in turn donated to the church in Berlin destroyed by the British forces, and was delivered by one of the R.A.F pilots who had been present at the Berlin bombing raid.
This same pilot was also elemental in joining the campaign to restore the Berlin church, who also donated a cross of nails in return to Coventry Cathedral.
This tradition now occurs worldwide as a symbol of forgiveness when a country has a church destroyed by foreign invaders.
The memorial church of Kaiser Wilhelm was originally constructed in 1890 from a design by Franz Schwechten. Situated on the Breitscheidplatz, Berlin, the new church was constructed between 1959 and 1963 from a design by Egon Eiermann.
A 72 foot high tapestry of Christ In Glory by English artist Graham Sutherland graces the wall above the cathedral's altar..
It was made in France by 12 weavers who took 2 years to complete.
The tapestry depicts various figures explained by passages from the Bible's Book of Revelations.
STATUE OF ST MICHAEL AND THE DEVIL.
The statue of St Michael's Victory Over the Devil graces the exterior wall between the cathedral's entrance and it's iconic ' wave wall'.
The 70 foot high bronze sculpture was designed by American born Jewish sculptor Jacob Epstein in 1958.
The 45 foot wide image of St Michael and the devil lying beneath him was erected onto the cathedral wall in 1960, one year after Epstein's untimely death.
Epstein is famous for many large bronze or metallic statues, the most famous of which is his work on the tomb of Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise cemetery, Paris.
SCREEN OF SAINTS AND ANGELS.
Above the door of the main entrance to the cathedral is The Screen of Saints and Angels, designed by John Hutton.
The 70 foot high engraved window of various saints and angels also reflects the ruins of the old cathedral, something Sir Basil Spence was eager to implement in order to unite the two buildings.
LINE OF PENNIES.
Running along the floor of the north aisle is a Line of Pennies.
The pennies were embedded into the floor in order to guide clergy and choir members to walk in a neat procession and is made from pennies minted in 1962 the year the cathedral was consecrated.
from left to right - old cathedral ruins, the main entrance featuring the Screen of Saints and Angels,, the sculpture of St Michael and the Devil and part of Sir Basil Spence's iconic wave wall.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT COVENTRY CATHEDRAL
OTHER CHURCH ARTICLES BY THE SAME AUTHOR:
© D.B.Bellamy.September 2010.
All images courtesy of wikimedia commons, with special thanks to Steve Cadman, Tornad, Sanse and SnowmanRadio.