This continues my series of blogs on my favorite English cathedrals—buildings and communities from which I drew inspiration for my novel The Lost Book of the Grail, published by Viking on February 28.
This week’s choice is a complete departure from all that has come before—Durham, Winchester, Salisbury, and Wells were all fine medieval building, whereas Coventry Cathedral was built between 1956 and 1962, but therein lies a tale. Coventry was the site of a medieval cathedral, built as a parish church in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and raised to cathedral status in 1918 when the Diocese of Coventry was created. But that St. Michael’s Cathedral, created during wartime, would only last until the next war.
On the night of November 14, 1940, the Nazis bombed Coventry in a massive attack destroying over 4300 homes and leaving the cathedral in ruins. The next morning, the Ministry of Home Security issued a statement that read, in part, “The people of Coventry bore the ordeal with great courage.” These words, spoken of a people whose city had been indiscriminately bombed and lay in ruins, resounded for me. I wanted, in some small way, to pay tribute to the people of Coventry and their courage in the face of such destruction.
So, the first scene of The Lost Book of the Grail, set in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester, takes place on the night of a Nazi bombing. The next day, the local paper reads: “The people of Barchester have borne their ordeal with bravery.” It was my little tip of the hat to Coventry and all it has suffered.
But don’t let all this make you think there is nothing to see at Coventry. On the contrary, a visit to the new cathedral is a moving experience. Begin outside the west end of the cathedral, where the ruins of the original medieval building still stand. These remains are now a memorial to peace, and throughout the memorial and the cathedral itself, you will find many reference to peace—in its rebuilding Coventry has become a symbol of hope. One of my favorite works of art in the peace memorial is a sculpture called Reconciliation. It shows two people leaning against one another’s shoulders. An identical sculpture stands in the peace garden at Hiroshima.
Inside, the new Coventry Cathedral looks nothing like its medieval predecessors, but I like that. I have been in some modern cathedrals, Guildford for instance, that more or less follow the pattern of the medieval churches in a more modern way, but, in my opinion, leave something to be desired. They feel neither ancient or modern. But Coventry is unabashedly modern and I think the better for it. It is a vast open space that draws the eye upward and everything about it—the woodwork in the choir stalls, the stained glass windows, and the architecture itself—speaks of the best of mid-century design.
My favorite part of the cathedral is the monumental tapestry that hangs behind the altar. It is claimed as the largest tapestry in the world made in one piece and is about the size of a tennis court. It was made by war artist Graham Sutherland and depicts Christ in Majesty. The image is so large that it is clearly recognizable from the far end of the cathedral—unlike typical stained glass windows over high altars that often cannot be deciphered without standing quite close. The green background and the yellow highlights provide colors not often seen in medieval cathedrals, and I have to wonder if this was intentional. I find the effect of the tapestry breathtaking—from afar or from up close.
The dean of my fictional cathedral wants to build a modern lady chapel to replace the medieval chapel destroyed by bombs during the war. The inspiration for that structure came straight from Coventry, where artists, architects, and builders proved that beauty can grow even out of the worst destruction.