Unabashedly Baroque, the Cathedral Church of St. Philip was initially a parish church, joining the Cathedral ranks only in 1905, and is one of the smallest of their number.
In the early 18th century, Birmingham’s burgeoning metal industry prompted building of a larger church to accommodate the rapidly growing population.
Local benefactor Elizabeth Philips donated the land, and the parish authorities returned the compliment by dedicating the building to St. Philip.
The architect was Thomas Archer, born in Birmingham and a student of the works of arch-rivals Borromini and Bernini of Rome.
Archer and his contemporaries in English Baroque architecture, John Vanbrugh (Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard), Christopher Wren (St Paul’s Cathedral) and Nicholas Hawksmoor, all served on the commission that built the Fifty New Churches following a violent storm in November 1710 that had devastated London.
Construction on St Philips commenced in 1711 and proceeded apace; it was dedicated in 1715.
Though St Philip’s short history saved it from the damage wrought during the religious tumult of earlier periods, it didn’t escape architectural interference with its original design. In the 19th century, a gallery was inserted behind the arcade in the aisles, slicing the windows in half and clumsily truncating the previously graceful line of columns.
Then the chancel was extended in the 1880s in anticipation of the parish church’s elevation to Cathedral status. Massive columns were inserted into the choir, disturbing the balanced interior.
Each generation has its preferences. The Georgians detested stained glass and were responsible for much destruction of medieval glass in older cathedrals—the ditches around Ely Cathedral bristled with discarded shards after the Georgians were through.
Most of Birmingham Cathedral’s glass is clear.
Conversely, the Victorians were not lovers of clear glass; it was all well and good to be replacing destroyed medieval stained glass with Victorian when the Gothic cathedrals were revitalized—it was stylistically consistent. But the addition of stained glass to Birmingham Cathedral? The jury is out.
Edward Burne-Jones, another Birmingham lad, had been baptized in the church. He designed and donated several windows, three of which are in the eastern addition, depicting the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.
Later in life, Burne-Jones’ figures took on proportionately smaller heads and larger bodies, which is noticeable once you look for it.
A fourth window, the Last Judgment, was added at the west end.
Like many cathedrals, the stained glass windows were removed in 1939 for safekeeping during impending Second World War; Birmingham’s were stored in a Welsh slate mine. And a good thing, too. An incendiary bomb dropped in October of 1940 inflicted considerable damage to the building, though fortunately, not on the scale of the Coventry Cathedral. By 1948 the Cathedral had been restored and rededicated.
The altar screen is 18th-century ironwork—particularly appropriate given Birmingham’s reputation for metalwork.
The pews and choir stalls are relatively plain, a nice offset to the opulence of the capitals on the pillars.
Parts of the organ from 1715 by Thomas Swarbrick remain, though it was moved from its original 1715 position in the gallery in the late 19th century when repairs were carried out.
Though diminutive, Birmingham is a gem of a cathedral. Of the 42 English Anglican Cathedrals, there are only a couple in the Baroque style, making it all the more special.