The Cathedrals

Last updated 11th April 2016
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The cathedral from the north-east ...
... and from the Metropolitan Cathedral steps
The bells
The interior to the north with the nave bridge
The Anglican Cathedral
When Liverpool’s first bishop was appointed in 1880, St. Peter’s Church on Church Street functioned as a 'pro-cathedral' while plans were being made for a new cathedral building. In 1885 authorisation was obtained for a cathedral on the site of St. John’s Church, near St. George’s Hall and the design went ahead. However, the site turned out to be unsuitable for such a large building and the proposal was abandoned.
By 1900 four sites had been proposed, although there were detractors concerned about the expense of the project. These were the sites of St. Peter’s and St. Lukes, at the junction of London Road and Pembroke Place, and St. James’s Mount. In the end space and cost considerations lead to the selection of St. James’s Mount. It was a good choice considering its dominating presence on the Liverpool skyline as seen from all directions, near and far.
In 1901 a competition was initiated for the design of the new building. Of 103 entries, the surprising winner was Giles Gilbert Scott, who came from a dynasty of great architects but was only 22, a Roman Catholic and had no existing buildings to his credit. The assessors commented that his entry had 'that power combined with beauty which makes a great and noble building'.
The site was purchased in 1902 and the foundation stone was laid in 1904 by King Edward VII. The design, highly decorated and with twin towers, was quite different from what we are familiar with today. A model is on display inside the cathedral. By 1909 Scott had completely revised it, evidently influenced by the 1902 design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This design is more or less what we see now, plainer, more monumental and with a single central tower. It represents the last great flowering of the Gothic Revival in England, largely built from local sandstone quarried at Woolton.
The Lady Chapel was the first part of the cathedral to be completed and was consecrated in 1910 by Bishop Chavasse. It is more richly designed than the rest. Part of the main body of the building was completed by 1924, when it was consecrated in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary. Scott then again revised his design, notably making the tower taller and narrower. World War II slowed progress and there was some bomb damage to the Lady Chapel, but the tower was completed in 1942. The spectacular nave bridge was completed in 1961, shortly after the architect's death. Work on the building was not finally completed until 1978, yielding 'one of the truly monumental buildings of our time' (Quentin Hughes).
The cathedral, Britain's largest and the largest Anglican cathedral in the world, is so vast that it is hard to take in. Inside you are left marvelling that such a volume of space could be enclosed by a man-made structure and these impressions are not dulled by familiarity. The general effect is austere but overwhelming. The building is 619 ft (189 m) long and the tower is 331 ft (101 m) high. Access to the top of the tower is possible by a lift and many steps, the reward being sensational views over Liverpool and the surrounding country.
The bells are seen to spectacular effect during the ascent up the tower. They are the highest and heaviest bells in the world at 220 ft (67 m) above floor level and weighing a total of 31 tons. They are arranged in a circle around the great 14 ton Bourdon Bell.
Scott's original design
The Lady Chapel
The north window
The choir and south window
The cathedral from Mount Pleasant ...
... and from back down Hope Street
The altar
The Metropolitan Cathedral
The need for a Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool was first perceived in the middle of the 19th century to accommodate the growing, predominantly Irish, catholic community. In 1853 Edward Welby Pugin was entrusted with the design and construction began in the grounds of the original St. Edward's College on St. Domingo Road. In the event, only the Lady Chapel was completed before financial problems set in. This continued to function as a catholic parish church until it was demolished in the 1980s.
It wasn't until 1930 that the present cathedral site on Mount Pleasant was purchased and the design entrusted to Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was intended to be a massive, classically inspired architectural statement to balance and contrast with the Anglican Cathedral at the other end of Hope Street. It would have been the second largest church in the world with the largest dome.
Building began in 1933 but came to a halt in 1941 because of World War II and a near tenfold escalation in cost. Lutyens died in 1944 and the crypt was finally completed in 1958, but by then the plan had been abandoned as too costly. The crypt can be visited and gives a clue to the immense scale of the original design. It is often used for secular events such as beer festivals. A model of the original design can be seen in the Museum of Liverpool. Adrian Gilbert Scott, brother of the Anglican Cathedral's architect, came up with a smaller scale version, retaining the dome, but this did not go ahead.
Sir Frederick Gibberd won the 1959 competition to rethink the design and the present building was constructed between 1962 and 1967. The building is circular, 195 ft (59 m) in diameter, with the altar, a single block of white marble from Skopje in Macedonia, in the centre and suspended above the Baldacchino, incorporating lights and speakers. There are thirteen small chapels and expressionistic sculptures of the Stations of the Cross around the perimeter. The magnificent stained glass by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens (of Coventry Cathedral fame) presents a vast kaleidoscope of changing colours as you walk around, the predominant colours of blue, red and yellow symbolising the Trinity.
The cathedral is built on top of the crypt, part of the roof of which serves as an elevated pedestrian area. The external structure, conical and crowned by a lantern tower and pinnacles 290 ft (88 m) high, has resulted in its being known among scousers as Paddy's Wigwam or the Mersey Funnel. All is set off by the impressive entrance: a wide flight of steps with a bell tower above. Either side of the entrance are sliding doors with fibreglass expressionist reliefs by William Mitchell, intended to symbolise the Evangelists but reminding Pevsner of 'the introduction to some cruel Mexican ritual'. Following structural problems, a major programme of repairs was undertaken in the 1990s.
Which is the finer of the two cathedrals is a regular topic of debate, but the Metropolitan Cathedral is certainly the more original in concept. It is also staggeringly beautiful inside in a way that catches the first-time visitor off-guard. To sit there among the sympathetically modernist art-works, with the sun flooding through the intensely coloured glass and listen to the magnificent organ in vivid acoustics is a deeply affecting experience regardless of your belief or lack of it.
Lutyens's original design
The interior of the lantern
Stained glass around the periphery
One of the sliding door reliefs
Acknowledgements and Further Reading
The Wikipedia articles on the Anglican Cathedral and the Metropolitan Cathedral have much additional information. The former is the source of the drawing of Scott's original design, taken in turn from the Illustrated London News of 1903. The image of Lutyen's original design is from the Metropolitan Cathedral website. My thanks to them.
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