Posted on 14/11/2017
This September, I finally experienced the glory of Pre-Raphaelite art in Gloucestershire and Birmingham. I had known of the Birmingham’s connection to the Pre-Raphaelites for a while, but never had the opportunity to visit. Staying with my Grandparents in Cheltenham, the city was accessible and we embarked on weekend of Pre-Raphaelite splendor. Travelling to Birmingham Museum via the small hamlet of Selsley, I learned a great deal about stained glass windows, the PRB and the Arts and Crafts movement.
Set deep in the Cotswold Hills stands All Saints Church in Selsley; calm and majestic, it overlooks rolling hills and houses several stained glass windows provided by Morris & Co. (1861-1875) and its Pre-Raphaelite partners. George Frederick Bodley designed the architecture, and it was his series of commissions that led to the formation of Morris’ firm in 1861. The company not only produced stained glass windows, but also designs for furniture, textiles, carpets and other handicrafts: triggering the foundations of the Arts and Crafts movement that fully emerged in 1880.
Interior & Exterior of All Saints Church
Morris' windows show the significant influence of Pre-Raphaelite, specifically Ruskin, ideals and modes. The windows progress in the medieval style of basic story telling and precise naturalistic detail, with the figures generally adorned in fourteenth-century clothes. The most captivating aspect of these windows, however, is the bright, intense colours and rich palette used by the artists.
The picture above displays the rose window placed above the main West Door entrance to the church. The eight main roundels depict the creation of earth from Genesis, while the centre circle shows Christ seated above water with the inscription 'In In Ito' (In the Beginning) either side of him. While there is some discrepancy about the artists of the windows, they are usually credited to William Morris and Edward Burne Jones. I was struck by the vibrant blue, green and red, with the blue water symbolizing purity in the first half of the circle, progressing clockwise from the top to hues of deeper red and orange, suggesting evil and sin, after the fruit has been picked from the forbidden tree.
'The Visitation' and 'Sermon on the Mount'
'The Visitation' and 'Sermon on the Mount' are both by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 'The Visitation' depicts Mary and Joseph on a visit to their cousins, Elizabeth and Zachariah. The medallions on Mary and Elizabeth's breasts are Byzantine symbols of pregnancy, another reference to medieval modes and iconography. The tri-part window on the right displays 'The Sermon on the Mount', showing Christ surrounded by his close circle, with the wealthy to the left and the poor and sick to the right. The angel in the panel on the left appears to be condemning the rich by wagging its finger, while the angel in the panel on the right entreats the poor and sick to go forth to Christ. While originally the PRB did not have a political ideology, this social commentary in 'Sermon on the Mount' pre-empts a connection between Pre-Raphaelitism and socialism, as in 1884, Morris founded 'The Socialist League' where he calls for a social revolution. 'The Visitation' shows how Rossetti often used his sister, Christina Rossetti and his wife, Lizzy Siddall, as models for the Virgin Mary - recognizable by her long, curly hair.
After having visited this Victorian stained glass haven in the depths of the Cotswolds, we navigated national rail to Birmingham city for the next part of our Pre-Raphaelite adventure. Our plan was to go straight to the Birmingham Museum, but St. Phillip's Cathedral emerged out of the melee of streets and we decided to take a detour. The outside architecture of the Cathedral is grand in itself, but entering and viewing Burne-Jones' 'The Ascension' (1885) above the Alter is breathtaking. Our wonder was compounded by then turning and viewing 'The Last Judgment' (1897) at the West End of the Cathedral.
It was the sheer size and abundance of the windows that caused us to stand in silent captivation for a couple of minutes. In this amazement, I struggled to comprehend how these windows could have been produced by the same artists as those in Selsley. While the windows in All Saints Church were stunning, they didn't command the same amount of awe or amazement as these in the Cathedral. It became clear, however, that it was simply the size and scale of these windows that were so dazzling. Despite this first impression, there are actually, and somewhat surprisingly, plenty of similarities between the windows in All Saints Church and St Phillip's Cathedral that are worth noting, as they form a basis for an understanding of the style and technique of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows.
Firstly, and most basically, the purpose of both sets of stained glass windows remains the same: they were produced to enhance and promote religious experience. Secondly, the vivacity and vibrancy of the colours emanate across the windows of all sizes. In the Birmingham Cathedral, the bright reds and royal blues are specifically striking, yet in 'The Last Judgment' the use of the intense red appears to be emphasizing Christ's purity and holiness, as clothed in white he is placed amongst the sea of red. This effect of emphasizing Christ is also achieved in 'The Ascension', but the colours are reversed. Here, Christ is clothed in red while those surrounding him don robes of blue and white. These colours of red, blue and white are also prominent in earlier religious Pre-Raphaelite works, such as 'Christ in the House of His Parents' (1849-50) by John Everett Millais and 'The Girlhood of Mary Virgin' (1848-9). Nevertheless, in 'The Ascension' and 'The Last Judgement' the use of colour accomplishes the same result, and the enhancement of the religious imagery is achieved.
Thirdly, the precision and accuracy apparent in Pre-Raphaelite art as a whole is present in these stained glass windows. The detail, especially in Burne-Jones' designs, is unprecedented. The detail in the abundance of figures on this scale as well as in the number of glass fragments used creates a powerful image. The plethora of glass fragments is notable in 'The Last Jud
gment' in the construction of the angels' wings and Christ's garb. Despite the fact that only one color is used, the figures' limbs and positioning are clearly defined, and in the case of the angel, the glass actually enhances the feathered effect of the wings. The final similarity between the two groups of windows from All Saints Church and Saint Phillip's Cathedral is the medieval style and technique of stained glass art, most prominent in the elongated figures disproportionate head-body ratio.
Throughout this trip, I was astonished at the quantity of stained glass art that was produced by the Pre-Raphaelite artists. I had never known or fully appreciated the extent of their influence on this genre of Victorian art. After reading further on the PRB and stained glass windows, the connection between the two does make sense. The Pre-Raphaelites favoured medieval (or early-renaissance) art, as it was simpler, more natural and less opulent. The fact that stained glass is actually a medieval mode of artwork ties these Victorian artists to their favored historical style. The PRB used stained glass to react against industrialization and commercialization as a means to look to the past for simpler times. The Arts and Crafts movement also emerged out of these ideals, creating a domesticated strand of art as they took commissions for designs for homeware and interior design, including stained glass windows. Pre-Raphaelite art is clearly in abundance across the West Midlands, but I would recommend a specific visit and a close look at the stained glass windows in Birmingham Cathedral and in All Saints Church in Selsley, to appreciate not only the skill of the PRB artists, but also to understand further their ideals of art in context and in concurrency with the Arts and Crafts movement.