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God manifest in stained glass

30 September 2022

A new project will conserve Edward Burne-Jones’s stained glass in Birmingham Cathedral, says Suzanne Fagence Cooper

Divine Beauty

Detail of the Ascension window

Detail of the Ascension window

TOWARDS the end of his life, the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones was asked about the purpose of his work. He was surprisingly clear. Through his designs, he said, he was “making God manifest”. He went on: “It is giving back her Child that was crucified to Our Lady of Sorrows.”

We should keep this stark and demanding claim for his art in mind when we consider a new project to conserve some of his last great works. In 1885, a massive Ascension window was installed in the chancel of St Philip’s, Birmingham, followed by a Crucifixion and Nativity in 1887, and, finally, Burne-Jones’s monumental Last Judgement in 1897.

St Philip’s, which became the cathedral of the newly created diocese of Birmingham in 1905, has now been awarded £641,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for their Divine Beauty initiative. They intend to raise awareness of these remarkable windows in the city centre, and to preserve them for future generations — or, as Burne-Jones put it, the “thousand ages of them that come after us”.

The stained-glass designs are extraordinary, unsurpassed in their scale as the images fill the huge arched windows, uninterrupted by tracery. They were the culmination of decades of experimentation, in Burne-Jones’s studio and in the Morris & Co. workshop, weaving together rich colours and the networks of leading.

The results are uncompromising and abstract, drawing attention to the fragmentation of figures and the landscape. They suit the subjects: holy encounters between the sacred and the earthly when the ordinary world is shattered by “God with Us”.

Divine BeautyThe Last Judgement viewed from outside the cathedral

Burne-Jones’s visionary art flourished when he imagined angels and saints. He used his exceptional understanding of Byzantine and Gothic art to create works that transcended the naturalism of his contemporaries. Burne-Jones said that he wanted show “heaven beginning six inches over the tops of our heads, as it really does”.

In each of the Birmingham windows, he made this idea visible: there are angels in the top half of the designs, and men, women, and children on the ground below. The space between heaven and earth is porous.

We can see this most strikingly in the designs for the Crucifixion and Ascension. Christ, high on the Cross, is lifted above his Apostles. Over his head are clouds shaped like rings or hoops. These are openings in the fabric of eternity. They appear again in the Ascension, when Christ has passed through to join the hosts of heaven. It seems as if the Virgin or St John could reach up and touch Christ’s feet.


BURNE-JONES had always hoped to present his art on this grand scale, in “public buildings and in choirs and places where they sing”. This project was a sort of homecoming: he was born in Birmingham in August 1833 and baptised in St Philip’s. Burne-Jones took the job here not out of a sense of nostalgia, however, but because he wanted to do “my best to illuminate the contemporary darkness” of his home city.

The renovation team wants to encourage some of the 20,000 people a day who usually pass by outside to step into the cathedral and see the gorgeous colours inside. Then they can start to understand the storytelling in the windows, and even get close to the conservators as they clean a century of grime off the glass.

There will be light displays, workshops for schools, and costumed interpreters, explaining how the subjects for the windows were chosen. (A local benefactor, Emma Chadwick Villers-Wilkes, put up the money for two of the windows, but she had strong opinions about the designs, insisting that there be no cows in the Nativity scene and no blood in the Crucifixion.)


THE cleaning and repairs will begin next February. The final celebration of the revitalised windows, with a festival of voices and outreach art therapy, is planned for the spring and summer of 2024.

Jane McArdle, head of learning at the cathedral, believes this is an ideal opportunity to build partnerships across the community. The team are already welcoming people from the homelessness charity Let’s Feed Brum, who meet under the great west window of The Last Judgement. And the windows allow volunteers and clergy to answer questions about the central stories of Christ’s life and death, ascension, and return at the apocalypse.

The cathedral’s scheme enables each visitor to enjoy “personal moments of reflection and inspiration” on their own terms. Burne-Jones himself encouraged an unprejudiced response to spiritual inquiry. He and William Morris had together begun their studies at the University of Oxford with the intention of becoming priests in the Church of England. They had a solid grounding in theology, which underpinned their designs for church decoration.

Both men moved away from the strict doctrines of their youthful training, however. By the time that he began to work on the Birmingham commission, Burne-Jones had come to see his art-making as act of witness to an undogmatic, inclusive spirituality. In his words: “If we believe that things as they are can be made better than they are, and in that faith set to work to help the betterment . . . we are, and cannot help being, children of the Kingdom. . .

“Of course, you can translate it into any religious language you please: Christian, Buddhist, Mahometan. Have you faith?” he asked his friends.


BURNE-JONES had plenty of opportunity to contemplate the connections between faith and creativity: he produced more than 700 designs for church windows during his 30-year collaboration with William Morris. (He wrote in his account book in 1872: “As I live! Another Nativity.”)

Divine BeautyThe Ascension window seen from inside the cathedral

Many of his commissions were images of the incarnation, meditations on Christ’s birth. Burne-Jones lovingly described this as “Christmas-carol Christianity”. It formed the backbone of much of his work, partly because of its connection with medieval art, and partly in response to “the enthusiasm and devotion” that it continued to represent.

His sacred works are not escapist or saccharine images, however. One Victorian critic put it very well: they are filled with “beautiful, disquieting figures”. Andrea Wolk Rager observes in her study The Radical Vision of Edward Burne-Jones that the “Adoration” subjects that he persisted in drawing are moments of contemplation of the Christ-Child and a glimpse of heaven-on-earth. These encounters between the human and the divine are witnessed by Joseph and Mary, by the shepherds, by the magi, and by us.

Rager argues that Burne-Jones’s designs demonstrate a “commitment to the underlying tenets of hope, equality and salvation”.

He was eager to share his vision by offering it to large congregations of all comers. The cathedral has chosen one of his most characteristic sayings as a jumping-off point for their own approach. Burne-Jones told a friend: “I want big things to do, and vast spaces, and for common people to see them and say Oh!, only Oh!”


THE team are working on new ways to highlight other examples of his art locally, through walking tours and podcasts. There are Burne-Jones windows in St Martin’s-in-the-Bullring, for example, as well as St Mary the Virgin, Acocks Green, and a posthumous crucifixion installed in St Bartholomew’s, Edgbaston.

There are also significant works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, including a magnificent watercolour, The Star of Bethlehem, more than 12 feet long. It shows the Adoration of the Magi, set in an English woodland, with briar roses and harebells at the Virgin’s feet. Burne-Jones was working on it from 1887, simultaneously with the cathedral windows.

Divine BeautyDetail of The Last Judgement

It can be seen as another episode in the story of the incarnation, to be read alongside the Nativity with the shepherds which was installed in St Philip’s that year. Burne-Jones was showing that the good news was brought to rich and poor, to travellers from near and far. These late works also demonstrated his constant willingness to experiment, even with well-worn subjects, and his ability to reach new audiences.

Burne-Jones’s productivity can sometimes make it hard to keep track of his output: he was a book illustrator, a jewellery designer, and a decorator of pianos and tombstones, as well as an influential oil painter. His wife, Georgiana, remembered him constantly working, even after supper, when he would stand at his easel, holding his little sticks of charcoal, to make the “large free drawings [for stained glass], which came out upon the paper so quickly that it seemed as if they must already have been there, and his hand were removing a veil”.

Until recently, it has been impossible even to contemplate a full catalogue of his work. How can we begin to collect every pencil sketch, every saint and prophet, every keepsake made for a friend? And yet there is now an online database, established by the specialist Victorian art dealers Peter and Renate Nahum, together with the Burne-Jones expert William Waters, which seeks to bring these things together in one place. It is still, inevitably, a work in progress. There are currently more than 10,000 objects listed.


BURNE-JONES’s ability to transform holy mysteries into tangible things formed of glass, paint, and canvas, or gilded wood, makes him a compelling figure today, as we wrestle with ways to tell the gospel to each generation. He insisted that art-making could be a vocation, and an opportunity to contribute to the betterment of our environment and our society.

When we stand beneath his Last Judgement, shoulder to shoulder with the bewildered figures in the window, and the earthly city fractures and falls above our heads, we can reflect on Burne-Jones’s own belief that the Day of Judgement is “a synonym for the present moment — it is eternally going on. . . It is just the line that has no breadth between past and future.”

Knowing this, he said, added urgency to his own work: “To me, this weary, toiling, groaning world of men and women is none other than Our Lady of the Sorrows. It lies on you and me and all the faithful to make her Our Lady of the Glories.”


Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a curator, lecturer, and writer. Her latest book, How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris, is published by Quercus.

The Burne-Jones online database can be found at www.eb-j.org. Information about the Divine Beauty project can be found at: birminghamcathedral.com

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