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Posted on Mon 24 Jul
An ambitious project to restore four acclaimed stained-glass windows in Birmingham Cathedral is not only giving the building a boost but has become a visitor attraction in its own right. Rebecca Preece, the cathedral’s head of communications, explains more...
Consecrated in 1715, Birmingham Cathedral - also known as the Cathedral church of St Philip, or St Philip’s Cathedral - holds the distinguished title of being the oldest building in the city still used for its original purpose. It’s an honour that comes with a natural downside, of course; after more than 300 years, the structure can hardly be expected to look its best.
A variety of restoration work has been carried out over the course of those three centuries, but the latest undertaking, involving the cathedral’s four stained-glass windows, is one of the most significant. Called Divine Beauty, the £900,000 project will involve around 3,000 hours of work to remove debris build-up and repair areas of cracking, failed leading and paint loss on the four windows, all of which were designed by Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. The windows, which depict four scenes from the life of Christ, were installed between 1885 and 1897 and are regarded as some of the best stained-glass in the world.
Some sections of the windows have needed to be removed for cleaning and repair, but most of the restoration work is being carried out on-site, which means scaffolding has been erected inside the cathedral. Rather than put people off visiting, the work has become an attraction in its own right, with visitors given the chance to check out what’s going on at close quarters from a specially erected viewing platform. The cathedral has also organised guided tours and workshops, to enable people to learn about the windows, their significance and heritage.
The initiative to engage the public has been a huge success so far, according to Rebecca Preece, the cathedral’s head of communications, who says the move was partly prompted by the way the project has been financed.
“The main funder is the National Lottery Heritage Fund,” she explains, “and as part of that funding we’re not only looking at doing the physical restoration but also financial support for engagement activities and trying to make the windows interesting for people of all ages.
“So there’s two strands to what we’re doing - fixing them up, cleaning them and making them look nice, as well as looking at any repair works to the building while the scaffolding’s up, but also trying to raise awareness and understanding about the windows themselves.”
As well as attracting schools and special-interest groups, Rebecca says the cathedral has been keen to reach out to all types of potential visitors, not least people who walk past the building every day.
“There are so many different audiences. There are people who already know a lot about the windows and want to learn more, people who don’t know anything about them but are really into pre-Raphaelite art & history - and then people who are just curious to know what’s going on.”
It’s evidently more interesting than watching a window cleaner wielding his chamois.
“Yes, definitely! The big thing with the scaffolding is getting as close to the windows as you can, and that’s been something really special. You can look at them from a distance, but being able to get really close and see what needs doing - and is being done - is really exciting.
“I thought they’d just be up there with some brushes doing some cleaning, but we did a staff visit to the workshops where the panels were being taken apart, cleaned piece by piece, and put back together with new lead put in. When you look at windows that size, it’s a huge undertaking.”
Independent conservation centre Holy Well Glass has been carrying out the work. One of its experts suggested that working on a Burne-Jones window was the equivalent of a painting conservator working on a Van Gogh or Monet.
“These are really high-profile windows, and we have people coming from all over to see them,” says Rebecca. “We say our windows are the finest artwork in Birmingham and some of the finest stained glass in the world - especially The Last Judgement window, the window on to the tower, which is considered one of Burne-Jones’ finest pieces of work.”
The other three windows depict the Ascension, The Nativity and The Crucifixion. But while the imagery is obviously religious, Rebecca is at panes [sorry, couldn’t help it!] to point out that the beauty and attraction of the windows goes beyond what they actually portray. As proof, she cites the sell-out popularity of Divine Beauty At Night, a moving light & sound show presented by artistic collaboration Luxmuralis that took place in January and brought the windows and their history to life in a spectacular way. The 15-minute show played on a loop and featured imagery from the windows projected all round the inside of the cathedral. Accompanied by an original music score, it produced a uniquely immersive experience, according to Rebecca.
“It was fantastic and really popular with all ages, from small children to the elderly. Although a lot of the imagery is religious, people can still appreciate it and enjoy it and feel the emotion of it. That was a really inclusive element of something like the light show - we’re using these religious scenes but it’s actually touching people in different ways.
“People were sitting down or lying on the floor and totally experiencing it. You could stay as long as you wanted, but most people stayed for about two runs of it before they started to get disoriented and wanted to get out!”
Rebecca says the event’s popularity means it’s been a no-brainer to get Luxmuralis back next year. Shows will take place from 4 to 6 January - by which time the windows should be restored to their former glory.
Rebecca expects the scaffolding to be down in good time for the Christmas market in Cathedral Square. And although she’s looking forward to its completion, she admits she’ll miss the building being such a hive of activity while the work has been carried out.
“It’s been great to have people coming in, asking questions, giving us feedback. We really want to learn what people think we’ve done well and what they’d like to see in the cathedral - it opens up all those conversations, which is really exciting.
“Part of it is giving people a reason to come in to the cathedral, and then saying there’s a million reasons why they could come back, whether it’s for a service, an event, a candlelight concert or to hear our choir. Or even if it’s just to sit in the nave, look at the beautiful windows and have some time out in their day. We’re here for that as well.”
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