Monday, October 18, 2010

Edward Burne-Jones' Stained Glass Windows

Edward Burne-Jones: The Ascension
After a busy day of teaching last week in Birmingham, England, I sought some quiet time in the Cathedral of St. Philip, set in a small park in the centre of the city’s busy business district. Surrounded by Victorian buildings that house law offices, and a stone’s throw from the brashness of fast food stores and shopping centres, it provides a surprisingly restrained, Baroque haven. Skateboarders and winos hang out between the ancient gravestones. Tall obelisks mark the triumphs and heroic losses that yesterday’s imperial armies found on foreign battlefields.

The church was designed by Thomas Archer and consecrated in 1715.  Built in the Italian style, it is remarkable for its simplified forms and what impressed me the most is its human scale. It is this that makes it the essential example of English Baroque. In the late 19th century the beauty of this space was enhanced with the addition of four windows designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by William Morris and Co. Burne-Jones was a local lad and had been baptized in this very church.

Above the simple altar we see Christ’s Ascension.  He stands on a cloud of blue, surrounded by the saints as he rises above his apostles below. While the saints in heaven are almost Byzantine in their stiffness and other worldliness, Burne-Jones has made the apostles look full-bodied and earthy.  A scene of the Nativity and the Crucifixion flanks this window.

Edward Burne-Jones: The Last Judgement
At the other end of the church, facing Christ’s Ascension is the Last Judgement. A white Christ sits majestically above the world surrounded by angels and archangels.  The archangel Michael sounds the trumpet that marks the end of the world while below him the people, young and old alike, look up in distress, as well they might.  Just beyond the humans we catch a glimpse of their blackened cities crumbling. In a style that echoes the facial gestures of Giotto’s paintings, Burne-Jones has captured the anxiety that surely comes when humankind realizes that its time is up, that the moment for atonement has passed, that judgement is imminent.

For more on stained glass windows see my post on Sigmar Polke


  1. Very interesting. Thank you.

    You reminded me of entering St. Elizabeth's in Marburg, Germany and sitting in awe of virtually everything. The silence had a quality which markedly set it apart from the outside world.

  2. Thank you Chris. I haven't been to Marburg yet, but hope to visit it someday.

  3. Birmingham has some lovely surprises, these days :)

    The decoration of churches was a very important part William Morris and Co's workload. So it should not surprise us that the Cathedral of St Philip would select that company for its stained glass.

    What might surprise us is that a church full of simplified Italianate forms would go for long, colourful gothic looking windows.

  4. Good point Hels. The church is most certainly Post-Raphaelite!