18 May 2023

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (40) 18 May 2023,
Ascension Day

The Ascension Window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ascension Day and this is the Sixth Week of Easter. Eastertide continues throughout this week and next week, until the Day of Pentecost.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. As today Ascension Day (18 May 2023), I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Looking at a depiction of the Ascension in images or stained glass windows in a church or cathedral I know;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The top half of the Ascension Window by Sir Edward Burne-Jones in Birmingham shows Christ surrounded by the heavenly host (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ascension Window, Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham:

Four remarkable stained-glass windows in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, were designed by Birmingham born pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. They depict: the Ascension (1885), with the Nativity (1887) and the Crucifixion (1887) at the east end, and the Last Judgement (1897) at the west end.

These four windows were manufactured by the firm of William Morris & Co. Burne-Jones and William Morris also created windows for Saint Martin in the Bullring and Saint Mary the Virgin, Acocks Green.

Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was born in Birmingham on 28 August 1833 and baptised in Saint Philip’s. He once said he wanted to do ‘my best to illuminate the contemporary darkness’ of his home city.

Burne-Jones and William Morris (1834-1896) had together begun their studies at the University of Oxford with the intention of being ordained coming priests in the Church of England. This solid grounding in theology underpinned their designs for church decoration.

The stained-glass designs in Saint Philip’s Cathedral 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.

These windows demonstrate immense skill and the fine craftsmanship of William Morris & Co. They are known for their vibrancy, the life-likeness of the figures, their ability to tell a story and their inspiring and dramatic qualities.

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. He once said that he wanted to show ‘heaven beginning six inches over the tops of our heads, as it really does.’

The windows in the chancel were commissioned by Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes in memory of her brother. Her family were successful brass-founders, she worshipped in Saint Philip’s and lived in nearby Old Square. She maintained a strong interest in their subject matter and design.

Burne-Jones records, ‘it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side.’

These windows are characteristic of Burne-Jones’s later style, with elongated bodies that have small heads in relation to body length and designs that divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows.

The Ascension window depicts Christ parting with his followers and ascending into heaven 40 days after Easter. It was installed in 1885 and was intended to be the only stained-glass window in the Cathedral. But he later designed two more windows at the east end – the Nativity and the Crucifixion in 1887 – and subsequently added a fourth window at the west end depicting the Last Judgement (1897).

The top half of the Ascension Window displays Christ surrounded by the heavenly host. Six angels stand around him, three on each side, their hands clasped as if in prayer. They are draped in long flowing fabric in various pastel shades drapes that in some light appears almost neon.

Halos are visible among a mass of feathers above the heads of Christ and the angels. These feathers flood the top of the window with vibrant red. Like many of Burne-Jones’s figures, the angels who surround Christ have proportionally small heads and long bodies. This heightens the impression of the angels as other worldly beings. They have serene and placid expressions and appear two-dimensional.

Burne-Jones uses bold, vibrant tones to depict Christ’s disciples and followers. The deep blues of the sky that divide the two halves of the window emphasise this contrast, and symbolise the separation between the earthly and spiritual realms.

The disciples display evident emotion in their expressions and gestures as they look up to Christ. Gazing up at him, they are surrounded by the angels in heaven. Christ extends his left hand towards them – but his right hand points towards his heavenly destination.

Burne-Jones intended this to be the only stained-glass window in Saint Philip’s Cathedral. But, inspired by its beauty, he decided to design two more shortly afterwards: the Nativity and the Crucifixion.

The Last Judgement window, installed in the west end of the cathedral in 1897, is now regarded as his finest work in stained-glass.

Towards the end of his life, Sir 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.’ He died on 17 June 1898.

Saint Philip’s became the cathedral of the new diocese of Birmingham in 1905. There are Burne-Jones windows in Saint Martin’s-in-the-Bullring, Birmingham, as well as Saint Mary the Virgin, Acocks Green, and a posthumous crucifixion installed in Saint Bartholomew’s, Edgbaston.

His significant works in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery include a magnificent watercolour, ‘The Star of Bethlehem,’ more than 12 ft long. It shows the Adoration of the Magi set in an English woodland. Burne-Jones was working on it from 1887, at the same time as he was working with the cathedral windows.

His windows in Saint Philip’s were moved to a Welsh mine shaft for safe-keeping during World War II and they were returned in peacetime.

The cathedral has embarked on a project to conserve these windows, which are some of his last great works. The cleaning and repairs of the windows began next February. The final celebration of the revitalised windows, with a festival of voices and outreach art therapy, is planned for spring and summer next year (2024).

The disciples show emotion in their expressions and gestures as they look up to Christ in the Ascension Window in Saint Philip’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Acts 1: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over the course of forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

6 So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’

Luke 24: 44-53 (NRSVA):

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’

50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The Ascension Window by Sir Eward Burne-Jones in the chancel in Birmingham Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Ascension.’ USPG’s Global Theologian, the Revd Dr Peniel Rajkumar, reflected on the Ascension in the prayer diary on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Thursday 18 May 2023, Ascension Day):

Let us pray for each other on our journeys of faith. May we let go of things that impede our growing in faith and open our hearts to receive Christ in unexpected people and places.


Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

God our Father,
you have raised our humanity in Christ
and have fed us with the bread of heaven:
mercifully grant that, nourished with such spiritual blessings,
we may set our hearts in the heavenly places;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Ascension window by Sir Eward Burne-Jones seen from inside the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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

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