Fulfilling a higher purpose

19Jul09

Coventry_Cathedral_Baptistry_windowTwo days after D-Day, on 2 June 1944, a young English soldier was dug into the ground for protection, just off the beaches of Normandy. Just before he fell asleep, an army comrade beside him asked him what his ambition was. The young man – an architect by profession – replied, “To build a cathedral.”

Earlier that day, he had witnessed a scene that appalled him. The Germans had placed snipers in the towers of two beautiful Norman churches. In order to take the snipers out, allied tanks blasted away at the buildings. The sight left an enduring image on the mind of the architect.

Four years previously, Coventry Cathedral had been destroyed in a nighttime air raid. When, in June 1950, a competition was launched to raise it from its ruins, the architect – whose name was Basil Spence – had the chance to fulfil his long-held ambition: to build a cathedral.

“The Cathedral is to speak to us and to generations to come of the Majesty, the Eternity and the Glory of God,” read the conditions of the competition, “God, therefore, direct you.”

Spence believed that instead of re-building the old Cathedral it should remain as ruins and that the new one should rise alongside them. His vision realized, the building was consecrated on 25 May 1962.

Coventry Cathedral is remarkable for many reasons – the staggering altarpiece tapestry of Christ, designed by Graham Sutherland, is huge and haunting beyond imagination. The Baptistry window by John Piper, consisting of 195 panes of stained glass, saturates the eye with every hue, ranging from white to dark, deep blues. In fact, just about everybody who was somebody in British art was brought in to pay attention to Coventry Cathedral’s décor and furnishings. Aside from the Sutherland tapestry and Piper windows, there are giant ceramic candelabra by Hans Coper and sculptures by Elizabeth Frink.

“All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose when showing forth the praise of God.”

The notion of art fulfilling its highest purpose in the praise and glorification of God is not a new idea – churches and mosques have been a testament to this concept for thousands of years. Some times, great artists have even disowned their work feeling it should be attributed to a greater Creator. “”I do believe I have seen all of Heaven before me, and the great God Himself,” Handel exclaimed on completing his Messiah.

Earlier today for a few minutes – and again for a quarter of an hour yesterday – I had the opportunity to pop inside Coventry Cathedral, this hymn to the Glory of God. What always strikes me, as I step quietly beneath its high-canopied nave, is that it was built in the aftermath of the most devastating war in history, during an era when humanity’s belief in God was in decline and hope was shattered like the burnt out remains of the adjacent ruins of the old Cathedral. How did Britain in the mid-20th century achieve such a feat? It’s unimaginable that such an edifice could be conceived, let alone built, today. And where are the artists and craftsman who could embellish such a jewel?

Basil Spence’s soaring phoenix arose from the flames he saw enveloping two churches in Normandy. “As an architect,” he wrote, “witnessing the murder of a beautiful building, I felt that other ways should have been found to remove those snipers, for I firmly believe that the creative genius of man, the spark of life that he carries while on earth, is manifest in his efforts, and that once this is lost through the destruction of great works, the world is the poorer, for that particular light has been put out for ever.”

Certainly the world is the richer for the light that Sir Basil Spence left us in the form of Coventry Cathedral. This is not just a house of worship, for the praise of the Glory of God. It is a temple of art, art achieving its highest purpose – the visual embodiment of the divine.

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One Response to “Fulfilling a higher purpose”

  1. 1 Noel Broomhall

    A wonderful reminder of our visit to Coventry in 1998, when we almost accidentally found ourselves beside this wonderful site; paused to explore before we’d even managed to find ourselves a B&B for the night.
    This brings those images back to be re-examined; it’s good to see it from your perspective!
    With loving greetings,
    Noel


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