25 October 2021

Three sculptures in Coventry Cathedral:
1, ‘Ecce Homo’ by Jacob Epstein

‘Ecce Homo’ by Jacob Epstein in the ruins of the Old Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Coventry Cathedral earlier this month, Jacob Epstein’s triumphant bronze figures of the Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil were covered for repair work and was not visible.

However – apart from the effigy of Bishop Huyshe Wolcott Yeatman-Biggs by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft – three sculptures in particular drew my attention in the ruins of the Old Cathedral: Jacob Epstein’s statue Ecce Homo; a Statue of Christ by Alain John when he was an 18-year-old pupil at Blundell’s School; and the Choir of Survivors by Helmut Heinze, a gift from Dresden.

The statue Ecce Homo was carved by Sir Jacob Epstein from a single block of Subicao marble in 1934-1935, more than 20 years before he was commissioned to work at Coventry Cathedral.

Ecce Homo represents Christ before Pilate with his hands bound and a crown of thorns upon his head. The words Ecce homo are the words used by Pontius Pilate in the Latin Vulgate translation of John 19: 5, when he presents Christ to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s uncompromisingly brutal depiction of the suffering Christ contrasts sharply with the more delicate figures in bronze he created for the façade of the new cathedral.

Coventry Cathedral is a unique synthesis of old and new, born of war-time suffering and forged in the spirit of post-war optimism, and it is the most radically modern of Anglican cathedrals. Two cathedrals stand side by side, the ruins of the mediaeval building, destroyed by incendiary bombs in 1940, and the bold new building designed by Basil Spence and opened in 1962.

Saint Michael’s parish church, which dates mainly from the 15th century, became the seat of the new Diocese of Coventry in 1918. At the time, it was one of the largest parish churches in the England and it was upgraded to cathedral status without any real structural changes. It survived as a cathedral for just 22 years until it was burned to the ground in the Coventry Blitz in 1940, leaving only the outer walls and the magnificent tapering tower and spire. The extensive arcades and clerestories collapsed completely in the fire, when the roof reinforcement girders, installed in the Victorian restoration, buckled in the intense heat.

The new cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, was built in 1957-1962 beside the ruins. It was controversial because of its modern form, although some modernists argued that it did not go far enough.

Spence employed some of the greatest names in contemporary art to contribute to create his new cathedral. The exterior is adorned with Jacob Epstein’s triumphant bronze figures of Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil. At the entrance is the remarkable glass wall, engraved by John Hutton, with saints and angels ascending to heaven and descending. Graham Sutherland designed the great tapestry behind the High Altar with Christ in Majesty surrounded by representations of the four evangelists.

The stained-glass windows are the work of John Piper, Patrick Reyntiens, Lawrence Lee, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke.

Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) studied in New York and Paris and was an extremely controversial figure in his days. The result of his first major commission for the British Medical Association caused an outcry and resulted in very few public commissions for the next 30 years.

With the passage of time, Jacob Epstein is now seen as one of the foremost figures in British sculpture of the early 20th century. His major public commissions include: Christ in Majesty in Llandaff Cathedral (1954); Oscar Wilde’s tomb; the façade of the London Electric Railway headquarters; and the façade of the British Medical Association in the Strand, London, now Zimbabwe House.

He also created the sculpture in bronze in Lichfield Cathedral of Edward Sydney Woods, Bishop of Lichfield (1937-1953), completed in 1958, five years after the bishop’s death.

When Basil Spence commissioned Jacob Epstein to work in Coventry Cathedral, some members of the rebuilding committee objected. They said some of his earlier works were controversial. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected, saying Epstein was a Jew. To this, Spence retorted: ‘So was Jesus Christ.’

His earlier sculpture Ecce Homo was given to Coventry cathedral at the wish of Lady Epstein and was dedicated on 22 March 1969.

Jacob Epstein’s triumphant bronze figures of Archangel Michael vanquishing the Devil … now under coverings and being repaired (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tomorrow: The Statue of Christ by Alain John

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
149, Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Market Square … now The Hub at Saint Mary’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Today is public holiday in the Republic of Ireland. Before the day begins, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for this week is churches in Lichfield, where I spent part of the week before last in a retreat of sorts, following the daily cycle of prayer in Lichfield and visiting the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital and other churches.

In this series, I have already visited Lichfield Cathedral (15 March), Holy Cross Church (26 March), the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital (14 March), the Church of Saint Mary and Saint George, Comberford (11 April), Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell (2 September) and the former Franciscan Friary in Lichfield (12 October). The theme of Lichfield churches, which I began yesterday with Saint Chad’s Church, continues this morning (25 October 2021) with photographs from Saint Mary’s Church.

Inside The Hub at Saint Mary’s, facing the East Window of Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Saint Mary’s Church is a former city centre church on the south side of the Market Square in Lichfield. A church is said to have stood on this site since at least 1150. The present building dates from 1870 and is a Grade II* listed building. In recent years it has found new life as a library and arts centre, and I revisited the church earlier this month.

Plaques on the outside north wall of the church recall various martyrs who were executed in Lichfield at the Reformation, including Thomas Heyward, John Goreway and Joyce Lewis, who were burnt at the stake in the Market Square during the reign of Queen Mary, and Edward Wightman, who died in the Market Square on 11 April 1612 and was the last person in England to be burned at the stake for heresy.

These executions may have inspired the founding Quaker, George Fox, when he stood barefoot in the Market Square in 1651 and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield.’

Standing opposite the church, the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and Museum was the childhood home of Samuel Johnson, and the church register, dating from 1566, records his baptism 312 years ago on 17 September 1709.

The present Saint Mary’s is the fourth church built on this site in the Market Square. The first church on the site may have been built when Lichfield was laid out by Roger de Clinton, Bishop of Lichfield, ca 1150, although it is first mentioned in the 13th century.

A fire destroyed most of Lichfield, including its churches, in 1291, and Saint Mary’s was rebuilt in the 14th century. This mediaeval church consisted of an aisled chancel, an aisled nave, a west tower and a spire. The tower is believed to have been built in 1356.

Saint Mary’s acquired a special prominence in Lichfield at this time as the guild church of the Guild of Saint Mary and Saint John the Baptist, founded in 1387 by the amalgamation of two existing guilds. The guild chaplains were expected to help with the daily services in the church and to be present at the Mass of Saint Mary and the anthem Salve Regina each day. The guild continued to run the affairs of Lichfield until 1538.

From the 17th century, the north side of the church was the burial place of Anthony Dyott, who died in 1662, and later members of the Dyott family, who lived at Freeford Manor, south of Lichfield, and the chapel on the north side of the church became the Dyott Chapel.

The mediaeval tower and spire of the church had structural failings over the years, and the spire fell down in 1594 and 1626. Extensive repairs were carried out in the 17th century, but when the spire fell yet again in 1716 it was decided to rebuild the church. This church was designed by the architect Francis Smith of Warwick in the neoclassical style and stood from 1721 to 1868.

The new church building was funded by public subscription, the Conduit Lands Trust and the Lichfield Corporation, and the church was completed in 1721. These years of construction were probably witnessed by Samuel Johnson who spent his early childhood years in the house facing onto the church.

The church was built in brick while the mediaeval tower was retained, without its spire, and encased in stucco. The new church consisted of a chancel, an aisled nave with north, south and west galleries and a west tower.

Extensive repairs were carried out in 1806 and 1820 under the prominent Lichfield architect Joseph Potter the Elder, and the brick exterior was covered in stucco in 1820.

By the mid-19th century, there was a general feeling in Lichfield that a new church should be built in the Victorian Gothic style. A new church would also serve as a memorial to the former Vicar, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, brother of Bishop John Lonsdale, who died in 1851.

The tower was lowered in 1853 and remodelled in the Victorian Gothic style, complete with steeple under a design by George Edmund Street. Street also submitted a design for the main body of the church, but, due to the lack of funds, work on rebuilding the main church did not begin until 1868, when the body of the church was demolished.

The building in Derbyshire sandstone was completed in a Victorian Gothic style in 1870. The architect was James Fowler of Louth, Lincolnshire, who was born in Lichfield, but it is not known whether he used any of Street’s original designs. The completed church included a chancel, the Dyott chapel on the north side, an aisled nave of four bays, and the remodelled tower and spire.

Anthony Dyott, who died in 1662, and later members of his family were buried in Saint Mary’s Church. By the early 19th century, it was a tradition that these burials took place at night. The last burial of a family member at Saint Mary’s was that of Richard Dyott in 1891, after which the Dyotts were buried at Whittington.

However, there is no evidence that Saint Mary’s ever had a churchyard, and while there were some burials inside the church, parishioners were buried in the churchyards of Saint Michael’s and Saint Chad’s, which explains why Samuel Johnson’s family are buried at Saint Michael’s.

The Lonsdale family met much of the cost of the new building. The Vicar of Saint Mary’s, the Revd Henry Lonsdale, came from a clerical family that had Anglican clergy in at least four successive generations.

While he was living at Lyncroft House – now the Hedgehog Vintage Inn, where I stayed earlier this month – Henry Lonsdale proposed rebuilding Saint Mary’s in a Victorian Gothic style. The new church would serve as his memorial, and when he died at Lyncroft House on 31 January 1851 he was buried beneath the west tower of Saint Mary’s.

While Henry Lonsdale was the Vicar of Saint Mary’s, his brother, John Lonsdale (1788-1867), was Bishop of Lichfield (1843-1867). Bishop Lonsdale was the founder of Lichfield Theological College, a supporter of the abolitionist Wilberforce and a friend of the radical theologian FD Maurice. It was said at the time of his death that he was the best bishop the Diocese of Lichfield had ever had, the ‘perfect model of justice, kindness, humility and shrewd sense.’

The bishop’s son, Canon John Gylby Lonsdale (1818-1907), later became Vicar of Saint Mary’s (1866-1878), and oversaw the completion of the building programme. He was the father of Sophia Lonsdale, one of Lichfield’s great Victorian social reformers. In the 1880s, she declared that Lichfield’s slums were worse than anything she had seen in London. She was an active in demands for poor law reforms and her outspoken criticism eventually led to a slum clearance programme in Lichfield from the 1890s on.

Charles Bateman incorporated some colour decorations to the interior of the church in the early 20th century.

The city centre population in Lichfield declined from the 1930s as people moved out to the suburbs and shops and businesses moved into the city centre. This led to a decline in the congregation at Saint Mary’s and a large city centre church with a capacity for 900 people was no longer viable.

When a vacancy occurred in 1965, a priest-in-charge was appointed instead of a vicar because the future of the church had become uncertain. In 1979, the benefice was united with Saint Michael’s. The dean and chapter were the patrons, and the rector of Saint Michael’s, who was already priest-in-charge of Saint Mary’s, was appointed the first rector of the new benefice, with Saint Michael’s as the parish church and Saint Mary’s as a chapel-of-ease.

Meanwhile, a committee was formed in the 1970s to save the building from being abandoned and demolished. The proposal was to transform the space into a multi-functional building that would serve the wider community. Work started on transforming the church in 1978, with plans designed by Hinton Brown Langstone of Warwick, and a new centre opened on 30 May 1981.

The remodelled church had five sections: a social centre for senior citizens; a café; a tourist information office and gift shop; the Lichfield Museum and heritage exhibition; and the Dyott Chapel at the north end, which continued to be used as Saint Mary’s parish church.

In recent years, Saint Mary’s has seen an amazing transformation, with the City Library on the ground floor, while the first floor includes exhibition and performance space, as well as an access point for digitised archive collections.

The new library includes Wi-Fi, touchscreen tables, computer tablets and 3D printing facilities. On the first floor is a flexible open space, integrating a 140-seat area for performance, art exhibitions and workshops. The first-floor facilities include a multi-use, cultural space with photographic archive and gallery area plus access to digital local records. The new History Access Point gives people interested in local and family history access to archives.

The refurbishment has retained the High Altar and reredos and has incorporated many of the church’s original features, including 19th century columns, stained-glass windows, choir stalls, pews, the organ and monuments, including one to Bishop Lonsdale, another to Canon Richard Harrison (1638-1675), a former Vicar of Saint Mary’s who was also Chancellor of Lichfield, Prebendary of Alrewas, and Rector of Blithfield, and the Dyott family memorials in the Dyott Chapel.

One end of the first floor has a stunning balcony overlooking the level below. A flexible performance and exhibition space fills the central space.

This new Saint Mary’s was the winner of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Conservations Award two years ago (2019). Richard Winterton, the family firm of auctioneers that has been part of life in Lichfield for seven generations, has held weekly valuations here, giving free valuations, advice and help.

The former parishes of Saint Mary’s and Saint Michael on Greenhill have been joined to form a single parish with Saint John’s Church, Wall, and together they form a united benefice.

The refurbishment of Saint Mary’s has retained the High Altar and reredos and has incorporated many of the church’s original features (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 13: 10-17 (NRSVA):

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ 15 But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

A stained-glass window in Saint Mary’s depicting the Presentation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (25 October 2021) invites us to pray:

We thank God for those who laboured to give expression to the European Convention on Human Rights, and we pray for a continuing and enduring commitment to democratic values.

George Fox stood barefoot in the Market Square outside Saint Mary’s in 1651 and denounced the city: ‘Woe to the Bloody City of Lichfield’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The West End of Saint Mary’s, with the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (right), and the Guildhall in the distance on Bore Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org