Creativity from Destruction, or Peace and Reconciliation: Coventry Cathedral

I was talking with a friend recently about creativity coming from destruction, and Coventry Cathedral popped into my head.  So I googled it (because what else would you do?), found the Coventry Cathedral website, and was immediately deeply moved. Just last weekend they dedicated a new sculpture in the cathedral ruins in celebration of the Golden Jubilee, or 50th anniversary, of the “new” church.  (Stay with me — I’ll give you some images and history in a sec.)   The sculpture, Choir of Survivors, was made by a German soldier and is “dedicated to civilians killed or injured in aerial bombing during wars past and present,” particularly German civilians.(1)  They talk a lot at Coventry about their Peace and Reconciliation Ministry, and it seems to me that they’re really living it.

The Choir of Survivors, Helmut Heinze, Coventry Cathedral, Coventry UK (http://wikimapia.org/30288176/The-Choir-of-Survivors-Coventry-Cathedral)

So. Some history.  Coventry Cathedral was built in the 16th century (according to the Coventry website, or the 14th-15th centuries according to Wikipedia) as a parish church dedicated to St. Michael, on the site of an earlier church, but not consecrated as a cathedral until 1918.  During World War II, on November 15, 1940, the town of Coventry was bombed because it was a major munitions center and produced 25% of all aircraft British aircraft during the war.  (Coventry was bombed so badly that Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Minister of Propaganda) used the word “Coventrated” when discussing similar destruction.)  The church was bombed and burned during Operation Moonlight Sonata,(2) and the next day they decided to rebuild.  Rather than razing the ruins of the old church, though, they built a new, very modern building next to it.  The new portion was consecrated in 1962, and together they form “one living cathedral.”(3)

That any of the old building still stood after Coventry was “Coventrated” is in itself amazing, and that the tower and steeple still stand, almost unbelievable.  Here are the ruins in 1940:

And today:

Coventry Cathedral, 16th century ruins, Coventry, England

And the tower/steeple:

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England

Here’s the newer cathedral:

Coventry Cathedral, consecrated 1962, Coventry, England

And the two together (with the ingenious connector):

Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, England

Isn’t that sculpture (on the exterior of the newer part) of St. Michael great? I remember being here when I was 10 years old or so, and after having been to what felt like 1,000 cathedrals (I know, poor me), Coventry was unique and exciting and modern!  I remember being particularly taken with the big modern stained glass window and the abstract baptismal font:

Coventry Cathedral, stained glass and baptismal font, photo by Marilyn Whiteley

And a close-up of the baptismal font (a rock from Bethlehem):

Coventry Cathedral, Baptismal Font, Coventry, England

Apparently not everyone was as taken with the modernity of the structure.  Architect  Basil Spence said that when his plans were made public, 80% of the letters he received the next day were rude, and 20% were very rude. (4)  It seems that people have come around in the last 60 years!

Another powerful moment in the old church: “Shortly after the destruction, the cathedral stonemason, Jock Forbes, noticed that two of the charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross.  He set them up in the ruins where they were later placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall:”(5) Although my religious beliefs don’t necessarily coincide, I’m moved.  Again.

And finally, making the peace and reconciliation efforts even more powerful, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, Germany, which was also heavily bombed during World War II (so heavily that the tower that still stands is all that remains on this busy shopping square), is also dedicated to peace and reconciliation.  Attached to the remaining tower is a modern church (which was also controversial) that was consecrated on the same day as the new Coventry Cathedral, and inside it is the Cross of Nails from Coventry (made of nails from the old church after its destruction).

King Wilhelm Memorial Church, 1891-95 and 1962, Berlin Germany

King Wilhelm Memorial Church, interior, 1962, Berlin, Germany

Although I don’t know when they began to consider consecrating the two buildings on the same day, it had to have been only about 15 years after the end of World War II.  To conceive of such a thing, between two countries who recently had been trying to destroy each other, is in itself beautiful.  And then you add in the ruins, the new architecture, the glass, and the sculpture, and you get, well, creativity from destruction, and maybe even more rare, maybe even peace and reconciliation.

A couple of Coventry Cathedral interactive experiences:

360cities.net: click and drag to see the baptistery window up close and the surrounding building

Coventry Cathedral virtual tour

(1) http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/news-and-events/?id=328

(2) All Coventry Blitz info in this paragraph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventry_Blitz

(3) http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/about-us/our-history.php

(4) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/architecture_cathedral_01.shtml

(5) http://www.coventrycathedral.org.uk/about-us/our-history.php

2 thoughts on “Creativity from Destruction, or Peace and Reconciliation: Coventry Cathedral

  1. This is so interesting Karen,

    I have not seen either and they were not on my list of places to visit but after reading this I have to put them on my list now.
    This is a great example of Art as something that connects and heals people, places and history.

    • Thanks for reading, Sedef! I haven’t been to the German site, but Coventry is definitely worth a visit, in my opinion. I love that it’s such a moving memorial at the same time that it’s an active community. They could so easily have torn it down and rebuilt, and the fact that they decided not to, in 1940, simply amazes me. Hope you get to visit sometime!

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