Thursday, 10 March 2016
Birmingham I - St Philip's Cathedral
To Birmingham Monday, to brilliant sunshine, a deep azure sky, and St Philip's Cathedral. This church, externally perhaps the grandest in the city, is the work of Thomas Archer (1668-1743). It was consecrated in 1714, although according to Anthony New in 'A Guide to the Cathedrals of Britain' (Constable, 1980) work continued until, at least, 1725. It became the cathedral for the new diocese of Birmingham only in 1905. It is a beautiful, monumental thing, its beauty enhanced by the use of the fine grained local sandstone. It is also one of the most Baroque buildings in the country - some the detailing is very idiosyncratic and none the worse for that. Of all the native Baroque architects such as Hawksmoor, Wren and Vanbrugh, Archer was the most influenced by the continental style, and this is reflected in St Philips, combining that with the native tradition as developed by Wren. In 1884 the chancel was enlarged by the local architect J A Chatwin, - the great-grandfather of the English novelist Bruce Chatwin - and he worked with incredible tact and sympathy, so much so that I doubt the many visitors or passersby would realize what was done. Like a good many Georgian churches the plan reflects the then interest within Anglicanism in the Patristic church. St Philip's is essentially a basilica with vestries - in origin the 'Prothesis' and the 'Diakonion', also known as pastophorys - flanking the central apse on the pattern of the architecture of the Early Church. (I wrote that last week and have since found out that I was mistaken: the present vestries were constructed by Chatwin out of the aisles - either by chance or design he reflected both the Early Christian model and its revival in the Georgian period! Both Hawksmoor's St Alphege, Greenwich and Christchurch, Spitalfields reflect this interest in the planning of Early christian churches.) The interior is calm and serene; there are number of wall memorials (some of the placed on the piers to the detriment of the architecture), but the treasures of this church are the original altar rails by the Derbyshire smith Robert Bakewell and the four great stained glass windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who was baptised in the church and lived as a child in the nearby Bennets Hill.