4. Tapestry notion
Sources of inspiration
The idea for a tapestry to be the dominant visual feature of the cathedral came to the cathedral's architect Basil Spence in response to the colourful interiors of European churches, where the aesthetic and spiritual effects result from a combination of stained glass windows and mosaics. As realised in Coventry, the impact of the tapestry is due to the unification of the notion of a colourful altar, illuminated through coloured glass, with Spence's main structural concept. The latter seems to have been inspired by the Cathedral at Albi, where the external walls rise as sheer as cliffs. The idea of colouring the interior through glass appears to have been inspired by Chartres.
The tapestry idea itself was a transcription of the internal impact of the east end of S. Apollinare-in- Classe at Ravenna;
"the exterior is a quiet invitation to enter but the impact of the interior is staggering. Outside simple brick, inside marble and mosaic with a half dome of glorious mosaic over the High Altar. These churches turn a casual visitor into a worshipper- here is architecture that functions."
Spence therefore planned a very simple exterior of pinky- grey stone similar to the original Cathedral, and a rich interior with a huge tapestry covering the full height of the walls behind the High Altar.
The need for the tapestry to be dominant over the walls which enclose its approach was reinforced by a dream in the dentists chair! This subsequently changed the plans so that the walls became subordinate to the tapestry.
Light and colour
Spence's first plans for the bays of the Cathedral walls were to have them curved "to give a feeling of great niches in the interior walls, with stained-glass windows in these niches. He relates how the walls came to be 'zig-zagged' as follows:
"I was working extremely hard during the winter of 1950. The Festival of Britain with which I was engaged had many crises and I was working late every night on the Cathedral designs after my day's normal work. I found solace and contentment working quietly on the design between 9 o'clock in the evening and into the early morning. The competition was a testing time for me for several reasons, and as usual in periods of stress and overwork, something went bad- I got an abscess on one of my upper teeth.
My dentist advised immediate extraction with a local anaesthetic. I hate injections and at best I feel queer, but now I was run down and exhausted and I passed out.
My dream was wonderful. I was walking through the Cathedral and it looked marvellous, with a light like Chartres. The altar looked tremendous, backed by a huge tapestry, but I could not see the windows until I went right in and turned half back- the walls were zig-zagged!
When I came to (I had been 'out' for quite a few minutes; the dentist had perspiration pouring from his brow) I told him of my dream. All he said was, 'I will send in a bill for that idea.'
As far as the present-day impact of the tapestry is concerned, the zig-zag design, which has the windows of the nave facing south-east and south-west, unifies altar and tapestry with subtle streaks and shafts of coloured light.
In Michael Sadgrove's meditation colour is the starting point. Under the influence of this large-scale directional lighting the interior glows and comes alive, prompting notions of 'clothing for the soul divine', magic flying carpets and a coat of many colours.
About the time the cathedral's design competition was announced, there was an Arts Council exhibition of tapestries created by famous British artists, all woven at the Bute family's Edinburgh Tapestry Company. Basil Spence was impressed by the brilliance of the colours and the intrinsic non-reflective quality of the tapestry medium, which he felt would have the effect of it being soaked in light from the windows. He was particularly attracted to the exhibit 'Wading Birds' by Graham Sutherland. He was already an admirer of Sutherland's work, particularly his 1946 painting of the Crucifixion at Northampton, which had made a long-lasting impact upon him.
On his first visit to the old Coventry Cathedral, Spence decided that if his bid were successful, he would ask Graham Sutherland to design the great tapestry behind the altar to be the biggest in the world, and invite the Edinburgh Tapestry Company to weave it. At this time the subject was to be 'Resurrection through the Passion', composed of the Crucifixion surmounted by the Risen Christ surrounded by the four beasts representing the gospels. In the latter stages of the competition this was changed, on a suggestion from the cathedral's Provost, to 'Christ in Majesty', This brought the tapestry in line with the site's main architectural messages. The Charred Cross was to be left as the dominant feature in the apse of old St Michael's. The ruin would represent the Sacrifice, and the new building would stand for the triumph of the Resurrection. Incidentally, the title of Basil Spence's book recounting the history of his project is 'Phoenix at Coventry'.
Biblical references
Spence's final input to the tapestry was a meeting with Graham Sutherland at Villefranche-sur Mer where he confirmed that the tapestry was to hang behind the altar to the full wall height of about 70 feet, and it was to be about 44 feet across
Together, they read the relevant passages of the Book of Revelation (Chapter IV, verses 2, 3, 6 and 7. And Chapter XII, verses 7, 8 and 9:)
"And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.
And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone; and there was a rainbow round about the throne in sight like unto an emerald.
And in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne were four beasts .. . and the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast has a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle".
This extract became the main theme of the tapestry.
The following extract Chapter XII, verses 7, 8 and 9 refers in the tapestry to St Michael hurling down the devil:
"And there was a war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world, he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him."
Later, a third extract of Revelation was brought into the picture; Chapter XII, verses 3, and 10, which refers to the chalice under Christ's feet
"Then another sign became visible in the sky and I saw that it was a huge red dragon&ldots;.
Now they have conquered him through the blood of the Lamb"
These biblical references were in fact the theological specifications for Sutherland to design the tapestry.
In retrospect Spence wrote in his book:
"I observed that in the traditional representation of the Beasts they are often shown without the many characteristics described in the Scripture- 'Full of eyes, before and behind', 'six wings', for example. I still feel that the representation of the Beasts in the final design is the most imaginative in the history of this subject in any medium, painting, sculpture or mosaic".
Even today, five decades after its conception, Sutherland's great tapestry presents an obscure imagery, despite the fact that 'modern art' has penetrated most corners of everyday life. Sutherland's images remain unique to his particular attitude to natural forms. They have not been adopted or developed as a 'school', and stand, like fingerprints, as personal testimonies to the power of the human imagination.
It is clearly not a picture as most people would define works of art in the European tradition. It is basically a sign saying 'Christians meet here to pray!'. However, with regards its complex interconnected imagery, it is also a powerful learning scaffold. With regard to possible starting points for meditation, some useful interconnected metaphors are that it is a guide to the spiritual world described in the biblical Book of Revelation; a maze encouraging the viewer to embark on quests for its centre; a model of space/time; and a picture gallery for contemplating the diversity of form in nature.