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Churches are normally built so that the congregation can face east towards the chancel and the altar. This was not possible in the restricted space available at the corner of Sir Thomas White’s Road and Hearsall Lane; so the church instead faces towards the south-southeast. Nevertheless, as we go around the church we will use the convention of calling the Chancel end the East, the main entrance the West, and so on.
1 – The Exterior
The first thing that strikes you as you approach is the blue roof, glinting in the sun or glittering in the rain. And indeed, St Mary Magdalen’s is known as ‘The Church with the Blue Roof’. This was intended from the very beginning; a newspaper report from before construction began predicted that it would become known as such, and one from after confirmed that this had indeed happened. It seems very likely that the architect – Herbert Jackson, whose first major project this was – wanted to draw attention to the building with a striking statement of modernity that also recalls the theology of the Oxford Movement which has influenced the church since its very beginning. It may also refer to the Coventry Blue dye which was once famous throughout Europe, and was invented in the nearby district of Spon End.
The tiles are of the cloister style, in a variety of shades of royal blue so as to present a pleasing variation – a subtle technique that Herbert also used on the exterior brickwork, where the random shades of red help to break up the monolithic nature of the walls while still being economical and weatherproof. Just below the roofline, they form a series of small arches that run down the length of the church – these are called machicolations, and are derived from military architecture. When found on castles, they often conceal holes from which defenders can pour boiling oil, excrement, quicklime and other unpleasant substances down on the heads of attacking forces. In this instance they’re purely decorative, though a few of them do conceal gratings for the ventilation system.
Clues as to the architectural style are immediately apparent, beginning at the very top with the cross on the roof above the east end: a Greek cross with all four arms of equal length (although the circle around it makes it look as much like a Celtic cross). And elsewhere there are further signs of a Byzantine or Romanesque influence, quite different from the native Perpendicular and Gothic styles of most English churches. The most obvious are the windows, which are topped with semicircular arches rather than the more common pointed arches. The detailing on them is stone, with a decorative cornice on the Apse and ornamental pillars on the windows below.
We can also see the outside of the hemispherical dome above the Apse, another unusual feature in an English church. This is made of concrete over a steel frame, and was originally meant to be blue to match the roof; but after repeated difficulties with weatherproofing materials bearing such interesting names as Tintocrete and Tricosal and Synthaprufe (including a lawsuit at one point!) it was left in cream and finally acquired a green patina after restoration work in the 1980s.
The south side of the church features a small porch, now partly obscured by the leaves and branches of a tree. This forsakes the curves of the rest of the building for a more square design, with a carved frieze above it depicting angels. A roundel above the porch shows a blue cross and cherub made of faience work – this is a kind of tin-glazed ceramic which we will also see used on the interior. Just round the corner from this is one of the original drainpipes, whose head is decorated with another cherub.
2 – The Magdalen Centre
The main entrance dates from 1986, when the Magdalen Centre was added to the west end of the church. But this was not the original intention. The funding for the church only allowed it to be three-quarters built, with a blank wall at the western end. Once further money had been found, the plan was to extend the building to the west, enlarging the baptistry and adding a tower with an octagonal belfry at the south-western corner. This tower would have featured four small semi-domes just below the belfry, in an echo of the one on the apse.
History intervened in the form of high explosive and incendiary bombs that flattened much of the city on the 14th of November, 1940. Though the church suffered relatively minimal damage, its completion was no longer a priority. A single bell was added to the roof over the vestry in 1960, in memory of Edith Ada Treherne, and inscribed ‘Edith Ada’ (and known as such). It was a substitute for the ones that should have hung in the belfry; but the decades continued to roll on and by the 1980s, it was clear that the original design could no longer be completed. And in any case, the needs of the church and its parish had changed by then.
So the Magdalen Centre, built in 1986, provides a glass-sided meeting space under an octagonal roof, along with modern toilet and kitchen facilities, and a glass-walled parish office. The West Porch – that the Bishop of Coventry once rapped his staff against during the ceremony of consecration – is now indoors, and replaced by glass doors that invite you within.
3 – Nave: South Side
Stepping through into the nave takes you from the decade of Thatcher to the years of the Great Depression, when the church was first built. The space within seems larger and brighter than it should, resembling a mediterranean basilica more than an English parish church. The nave was designed to overcome a common difficulty in older churches, where the pillars supporting the roof often block the view of the altar, leaving the congregation unable to see the service. But this is not the case here; the great pillars are moved to the side of the seating, while still allowing enough space for aisles running down the side of the building.
The walls are sided with yellow bricks in the usual variety of shades. In a few places, you can see a different colour of mortar where repairs were made to cracks caused either by wartime bombing or the settling of the building as it has aged. The rest of the structure is made of stone – but not stone that was cut from a quarry. This is reconstructed ‘Hall Dale’ stone, moulded from stone dust by the Croft Quarry in Leicestershire and delivered in five different shades (as is most obvious on the pulpit). This proved to be an excellent choice to achieve the impression required on a limited budget; even so, the stone was the single most expensive material – more than £2,000 out of a total £11,500 budget.
Three pairs of pillars rise to support the roof of Columbian pine, a timber that is naturally free of knots and has been left in its original colour of golden brown. Below, the floor is of Granwood, a kind of artificial wooden block – though today it is covered with carpet for health and safety reasons. The chairs are the same ones that were bought when the church was new, and paid for by members of the congregation. If you look up once more to the arches closest to the western end, you will note that the detailing stops abruptly behind the rear pillars. A final arch was meant to be extended westwards when the church was completed, but this had to be abandoned along with the plans for the tower. Instead, your eye will be drawn to the huge Magdalen Window – but we will return to this later, when we have a clearer view.
The area outside the parish office is the Baptistry, and here you will find the font, made of reconstructed stone and paid for by donations from Sunday School children of the 1930s. Beside it stands the Paschal Candle, lit each year at Easter, and then used on special occasions after that; you will see it adorned with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega and the year it was first lit. The stand is relatively new, cast by the artist George Wagstaffe to match the bronze statue to the north – but we’ll come back to that later. In the south-west corner, partly hidden by a pillar, is another addition made in the 1980s, but not one that was originally intended for this church. The Kenderdine Window shows Jesus Christ with a supplicant touching the hem of his garment in the hope of being healed. It was first installed in St Thomas’s Church in the Butts, which was once the mother church of St Mary Magdalen. St. Thomas’s was demolished in 1974 when the ring road reduced the size of its parish so much that it was no longer necessary; this relic was put into storage and then installed when the rest of the west wall was replaced during construction of the Magdalen Centre.
While there is no stained glass in the south wall, there are a number of decorations. Firstly, you will see a number of small sculptures between the windows, which continue along the northern wall. These represent the Stations of the Cross, depicting events on the day Christ was crucified. They were provided for the church by William Luckman in memory of his mother, Gladys.
Standing on a table is a larger wooden statue from the 17th century, depicting St John the Baptist; a lamb is at his side, representing Christ. Another statue depicts St. Anne, the mother of Our Lady, teaching Mary to read. The book they read from is inscribed Magnificat anima me Dominum – ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Also on the South side is an electric piano presented to the church by a member of the congregation in memory of his wife Pat Adam, who passed away in 2009.
At the end of the South wall is the South Porch, and beyond that the entrance to the Lady Chapel. Above the archway is the church banner, depicting St Mary Magdalen with the pot of ointment she used to anoint the feet of Christ. A latin inscription reads: ‘I have found He in which my soul delights’.
To the side of the porch is a lectern, mirroring the pulpit on the far side of the chancel. The lectern itself is carved wood, but not the eagle that would normally be expected – this lectern is supported by two elephants, recalling the arms of the City of Coventry. Unfortunately, some of the tusks are broken. A few of these have been lost in recent years, but one was snapped off almost immediately after installation – if you look carefully, you can see a hole drilled into the tusk where a bolt was once inserted to affix the tusk back onto its stump. This was requested by Herbert Jackson after he saw the damage, though the repair has sadly not lasted.
Between the lectern and the porch is another feature: look down and you will see a stone carved for the consecration of the church, and bearing the consecration cross that was traced on the wall by the Lord Bishop of Coventry, Mervyn Haigh, on the 21st of April 1934, and actually carved into the stone by a mason during the service itself.
The porch itself is dark, and used mainly to house a noticeboard and a curious table on which rests ornaments and pictures. This ‘table’, however, is nothing of the sort; it is actually a bronze umbrella stand which originally stood by the West Porch when the church was new, designed to match the bronze-faced alms boxes which were embedded in that wall. Those alms boxes have been replaced with something more modern and the need for an umbrella stand has faded – but nevertheless, it is good to see that a use has been found.
4 – The Lady Chapel
Walking into the Lady Chapel is best done on a bright sunny day around one o’clock in the afternoon, when the sun strikes the stained glass windows around its walls; the chapel is then a blaze of light and beauty. But you’ll almost certainly be distracted from another set of artworks – the pews and their carvings, almost hidden at the back of the chapel. These were made in memory of the Reverend Philip Arthur Morson, the vicar who had the church built, and who collapsed in the building one night in 1945. He was found the next morning suffering from a cerebral haemorrhage, and taken to hospital where he died a few days later. The carvings were presented to the church in 1952 and were made by the artist John Skelton, a chorister here when Morson was Vicar. You will find a dove, for Noah; a whale, for Jonah; a cock, for Peter; a ram, for Abraham; and a pelican, for Christ in the Sacrament.
But back to the windows, each of which depicts a female saint. From the back of the chapel heading forwards, we have:
- St. Bridget of Ireland, who was a companion to St. Patrick. A roundel at the top of the window also shows her as she tends to the sick, while panels at her feet depict Irish cattle.
- St. Joan of Arc, who is something of an unusual choice for an English church – especially given that the man who condemned her to death, Richard Beauchamp, is buried only a few miles away at the Collegiate Church of St. Mary in Warwick. A roundel depicts her burning at the stake, while panels at her feet show the arms of France. Perhaps appropriately for a warlike saint, this window was dedicated to the memory of a soldier: Geoffrey Wallace Godsell, who died at Kohima, Burma in 1943, fighting to halt the Japanese advance into India.
- St. Margaret of Scotland. This window is a replacement for one which was originally above the High Altar, but was destroyed in the Blitz. A roundel depicts the boat she used for her charitable journeys, while panels at her feet show an urn with crutches.
- St. Osburg is in the first window of the apse. She’s the only Englishwoman of the group as well as a local hero, having founded the first religious house in Coventry. A roundel depicts it burning after being sacked by the Danes, while panels at her feet depict arched windows.
- Our Lady, with Christ in her arms, occupies the centre spot in the apse. The roundel over her head depicts the dove of the Holy Spirit as it descends on her at the Annunciation, while crowns are shown in the panels at her feet.
- And in the final window is St. Mary Magdalen, patron saint of the church and the parish. A box in her hands and treasure chests at her feet represent the pleasures of the world being left behind. The roundel shows her washing Christ’s feet.
The style of the windows is deliberately unlike that of older English churches. Herbert Jackson refused to accept Gothic-style text in the dedication, and recommended that the artists pitching for the designs only display a Byzantine influence, if any.
The altar itself was not made for the Lady Chapel; it is in fact the old altar that was used in the corrugated-iron army hut that preceded this church, given by Huyshe Yeatman-Biggs, first bishop of the restored See of Coventry. Little else could be kept from what was known as the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ – the bell is upstairs in the organ loft, but unused. To the right of the altar you’ll see a small statue on a bracket on the wall – St Mary Magdalen with her ointment in her hands.
The altar rails are made with reconstructed stone, but this stone was made with Lapis Lazuli, a semi-precious rock of a deep blue colour which has been prized since antiquity. They were a gift to the church from the architect – which motivated the Croft Quarry to charge him at cost, a nice gesture in itself. The kneeler was made by Dorothy Brown in memory of her husband, who was a churchwarden for many years. It’s decorated with fleur-de-lys, a symbol we’ll see again when we go to the Chancel.
To the right of the sanctuary is the Aumbry, where the blessed sacrament is kept behind wooden doors overlaid with a curtain. The stone carvings around the edge were considered to be particularly fine when the church was built. In the tympanum at the top is a carving of the Last Supper, while the two sides are supported by pilasters – decorations made to look like columns. It was made by the same firm who produced the lectern with its elephant supporters, Robert Bridgeman and Sons, the one contractor for the church with whom Herbert Jackson was completely happy.
The front book-rest of the chapel is in the memory of James and Margaret Howes, and inscriptions to this effect can be seen on the ends of the front pews. One final detail as you leave is a painted plaster statue of the Virgin Mary and child, sitting on the credence table and given to the church by a Server before he emigrated to Australia.
5 – Chancel, Sanctuary and Apse
Leaving the chapel, we step into the Chancel, by the Sanctuary and High Altar. But first of all, look up. You’ll see the inside of the dome, coloured the same shade of blue as the Chancel ceiling, which is itself curved like the inside of a cylinder, a curvature that extends through the dome to the Apse itself. The windows in the apse are of clear glass, but this was not always the case – the centre window originally depicted Christ in Glory, but was destroyed in the Blitz. An inscription on the right of the altar still refers to this, reminding us that it was dedicated to the memory of Jane Farrow, who died while the church was being built. To the north side of the Chancel is the Organ Loft; the organ was presented to the church in 1938 and was one of the last from the factory of Coventry organ builder J Charles Lee before it was destroyed in the blitz. The organ itself was damaged during an air raid and had to be extensively repaired. Further restoration was carried out in the early 90s.
The Apse walls are of cream-coloured plaster, topped by a cornice of pale blue faience work in the shape of a line of fleur-de-lys, the three leaves of which are sometimes taken to represent the Trinity. The plaster of the apse was originally intended to be decorated by paintings, but this was never completed; instead, the eye is drawn downwards, to the Sanctuary and High Altar.
The stone of the altar is by the same firm who provided the reconstructed stone elsewhere in the church. Here it is Croft ‘Adamant’ marble, a rather higher grade of a similar material. The altar is fronted by an arabesque panel that features an inlaid cross of Red Royal marble, with the whole featuring a Rose Veine border. It was given to the church in memory of Catherine Burman, a popular head of Centaur Road School (now the Hearsall Community Primary School) Behind the altar is a Reredos flat against the wall, of the same marble as the altar with a large Blue Turquin panel in the centre that forms a backing to the altar and and a contrasting backdrop to the brightness of the silverware.
To the right of the altar is a stonework piscina, a basin used to drain away water used in the Mass. The emblems carved upon it are of bread and wine. To the left of the altar by the Vestry door is the Bishop’s Chair, surmounted by two owls, representing wisdom. Hanging above it on the wall is a carved depiction of St Michael the archangel, casting out Satan; and of course the seat of the Lord Bishop of Coventry is at the Cathedral Church of St. Michael. The statue was given in memory of Peter Laird Donald, a member of the RAF Volunteer Reserve who lost his life on the 21st of December 1942, aged only 20 years. As a sergeant, he would likely have been a replacement for the many pilots of the RAF who died during the Battle of Britain.
The altar is guarded by rails of Lapis Lazuli, similar to those in the Lady Chapel, but with one added detail: inlaid on each pillar is a panel with a symbol of the Passion in Red Royal Marble. From left to right, you will find: the Ladder; the Crown of Thorns; the Cross and Nails; the Seamless Robe and Dice; the Hammer and Pincers; and finally the Pillar and Scourges. At the foot of the rail is a kneeler made by members of the Mothers’ Union to celebrate 50 years of their branch in 1972. Members of the clergy all added stitches, including the then bishop of Coventry, Cuthbert Bardsley. The needlework depicts the Handford Memorial Chalice, used every Sunday morning and on most feast days at Holy Communion. Running on beneath the rails, it adds designs of grapes that reflect the carvings of grapes around the door to the Vestry. In the centre hangs the Sanctuary Lamp, added during the 1950s; the perpetually burning red light symbolises the presence of God in the sanctuary. A similar one with a white light in the Lady Chapel symbolises the presence of the sacrament in the aumbry.
The choir stalls are of oak, and feature more carvings by Robert Bridgeman & Sons. Between them they depict the scene around the manger, with three wise men bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh on the south side at the back, three shepherds on the north rear stall, and then cattle and sheep on the forward stalls. The front stalls, along with the Vicar and Curate’s chairs, were completed during the initial building of the church, while the rear stalls were added after the war as a memorial to former choristers who did not return from the fighting.
Upon the North wall of the Chancel is the fifteenth and final Station of the Cross, depicting the resurrection of Christ. A small plaque with a cross of nails hangs over the Curate’s Stall, provided by Coventry Cathedral to all the churches in the city, a symbol of peace that recalls the crosses made from the nails of the cathedral that was burnt to the ground during the Blitz.
6 – Nave: North Side
Standing now at the entrance to the chancel from the nave, you find yourself beneath a cross hanging from the chancel arch. This was put in place in 1986, when its original position over the West Porch was demolished and then rebuilt. Looking to the West end of the church, you now have your best view of what replaces it: the Magdalen Window by Birmingham-based artist Patrick Martin, set much higher and larger in the wall, and dedicated on the 21st of September 1986. St Mary Magdalen is shown with her ointment again, though she seems reserved and awkward, almost crouching in an ’S’ shape, a figurative tradition from mediaeval glasswork; while Christ, who is giving up his life, seems natural and relaxed in his giving. To my eye, the style recalls Japanese manga, and is all the more expressive for it – but maybe that’s just me.
Looking to the north, you’ll see the pulpit, built into the chancel arch. The front book-rest is in memory of Canon Howard C James, vicar of St Thomas’s from 1921-28. For most of that time, this area was part of the parish of St. Thomas’s, and the book was given by his friends at St. Mary Magdalen. As with the Lady Chapel, there are inscriptions to this effect on the edge of the front pews.
Just past the pulpit is the foundation stone, commemorating the ceremony held on the 3rd of December 1932 in the presence of the Lord Bishop of Coventry. A bottle inside was sealed with the following contents: a parchment explaining the reasons for building the church, signed by everyone involved; a copy of the parish magazine; a copy of the order of service for the ceremony; and a copy of the Coventry Standard for 22-23 April 1932, which contained a detailed description and drawing of the church in what was expected to be its final form.
Beyond that is the entrance to the vestry; above the door is the Blessed Sacrament Banner, depicting the Pelican feeding her young. You’ll also see a circular feature in the wall above the Vestry door – this may have been intended to help with the acoustics of the organ, since it originally connected to the loft. However, the acoustics still work very well without it – the curving walls and roof in the Chancel help with this – so it may just be decorative; there’s also a matching one on the far side, over the opening to the South Porch.
While most of the windows in the body of the church are of clear Cathedral Glass, the first of those you will see on the North side has a small inset design in stained glass, depicting an angel with rainbow wings, playing a small organ. This is in memory of Michael Donald, who was appointed temporary organist in 1956, and who died in office 33 years later.
Looking along the North wall, you will see that the Stations of the Cross continue along with a few other statues. One statue that used to be here is now missing, having suffered the rigours of age – a 17th century depiction of St George throttling a dragon with his bare hands. In its place is an 18th century statue of St Joseph with Christ as a boy.
Heading back down towards the West end, there is one last feature. Behind the chairs is a bronze statue of St. Mary Magdalen by George Wagstaffe, who also designed the stand for the Paschal Candle by the opposite pillar. He has other public sculpture on view in Coventry, most notably the phoenix by Methodist Central Hall, which has been incorporated into the logo for the Hertford Street shops. He sculpted St Mary Magdalen as someone who was both young and old, and who was damaged, yet healed. He was influenced by the events of September 11th 2001, that occurred while he was making the small wax working model; if you look closely, you can see that the pattern of bronze cast on her face reflects the light in such a way as to make it seem that she is weeping.
The sculpture was dedicated on the 28th of September 2003, and is the most recent major addition to the church; but surely it will not be the last.
Architectural & Religious Glossary
Apse – A semicircular recess covered with a semi-dome. Contains the altar
Aumbry – A recessed cabinet in the wall of a church for storing sacred vessels and the reserved sacrament.
Byzantine – the architectural style of the part of the Roman empire that survived in the Eastern mediterranean until 1456; a development of the Romanesque architecture which was popular throughout the rest of the former empire.
Cathedral Glass – A commercial term for sheet glass. It does not mean stained glass (though it is sometimes confused with it), but does tend to be found in churches rather a lot.
Chancel – The space around the altar and sanctuary at the east end of a church
Faience – Tin-glazed decorative pottery
Gothic – a style of architecture from the later mediæval period, common in the great cathedrals and churches of Europe.
Gothic Revival – an architectural style that began in Georgian England as a reaction against the Neoclassical styles of the time, harking back to mediaeval Gothic. It is this style that the architect of this church was reacting against.
Lapis Lazuli – a semiprecious stone of a deep blue colour that has been known since antiquity
Lights – the spaces in windows generally filled with glass.
Machicolations – in castles, an opening in the floor of battlements projecting over the walls which allows defenders to drop unpleasant things down on the heads of attackers. Often added as a purely decorative feature on a wide variety of buildings.
Parochial Church Council – the organisational body of a church. Previously known as the ‘Vestry’, since it would meet in that room
Paschal Candle – large white candle lit at Easter and then on special occasions throughout the year.
Perpendicular – a particularly English version of Gothic architecture, popular between the 12th and 16th centuries.
Pilaster – a decorative element which resembles a classical column.
Piscina – a basin near the altar used for washing communion vessels.
Reconstructed Stone – a material similar in appearance to natural stone, but formed instead from aggregate and a binding agent into any shape desired.
Reredos – a decorative panel behind the altar of a church.
Romanesque – a mediæval architectural style characterised by semi-circular arches. It arrived in Britain with the Normans, and developed into Gothic; it is common throughout the rest of Europe.
Sanctuary – the area around the altar.
Sanctuary Lamp – the lamp above the altar, coloured red to signify the presence of God.
Tympanum – A semi-circular or triangular decoration over an entrance, often held up by pillars. In this church, one may be seen over the aumbry, ‘supported’ by pilasters.
Vestry – a robing or storage room on the side of a church, where clergy prepare for services. It is so called because this is where the vestments are kept. The word was also once used to refer to the parish committees which ran the church and administered the parish; prior to the 20th century they were responsible for government social provision via the Poor Law, and spent a substantial portion of the nation’s budget.
A printable version of this page is available for download.