s you approach Coventry Cathedral, you are overlooked by the rather imposing bronze statues of St. Michael and the Devil on the southern end of the east wall. (Ecclesiastically speaking, the west end of the south wall.) It was sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein who, sadly, died in 1959, and therefore did not live to see his masterpiece unveiled by his wife, Lady Epstein, on the 24th June 1960.
The choice of Epstein for the work initially troubled various members of the cathedral's Reconstruction Committee. The phrase "But he is a Jew", plus the controversial nature of some of his previous work, were among the reasons put forward against his selection for the sculpting of St. Michael, the cathedral's patron saint. "So was Jesus Christ" was the simple retort from Basil Spence to the first accusation!
A visit to see Jacob Epstein by Spence and the Provost soon set things in motion - Howard was won over immediately by Epstein's charm and spiritual awareness - and by the time the head and shoulders had been sensitively moulded in clay some months later, all doubts had melted away, and soon, Epstein, whom Spence regarded as the greatest sculptor of the 20th century, had won over all who set eyes upon the huge group of St. Michael and the Devil.
Entrance to the cathedral is through the "Screen of Saints and Angels" directly opposite the steps that lead up to the old cathedral ruins, which are clearly visible in the reflection from the window. My photograph hardly does this magnificent creation justice.... it is actually 70 feet high and 45 feet wide and is supported by a bronze framework hung by wires from the roof for added strength.
This unique screen formed part of Sir Basil Spence's first 'vision' for the new cathedral. As he stared out from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, he saw the shape for the new church through a screen of saints. This transparent wall would link the old and new - making each mutually visible from within each other. Provost Howard set out to draw up a scheme consisting of all the saints who were responsible for the bringing of Christianity to Britain. As John Hutton began to make initial designs, he soon realised that row upon row of saints would need to be "broken up in some way", and suggested that angels be inserted between the saints. A short discussion with Bishop Gorton solidified this idea, and so the work began.
As with most great works, the design of Coventry's new cathedral evolved slightly as it moved towards completion. One such example of change is this giant screen, the original plan for which being a smaller screen that could be lowered into a slot in the ground, thereby enabling direct contact between the altar and the people of Coventry. Eventually, the present screen was decided upon, giving more space for Hutton's magnificent engravings.
Something which isn't necessarily apparent as you stare at this screen is the vivid reflection of the old ruins in the glass, especially on a sunny day.
The photo on the left demonstrates just how remarkable and clear the ruins are reflected in the new cathedral west window, echoing Sir Basil Spence's thoughts that the new building should be incomplete without the old.
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