Monday, May 21, 2012

Ely Cathedral

There's been a church in Ely since Christianity came to England. The first church at this site was made by St. Etheldreda, daughter of a king. She was married several times for political reasons even though she felt a call to the religious life. Her final marriage to Egfrid (heir to the kingdom of Northumbria) was unhappy. She asked to leave him to become a nun. He agreed, but changed his mind and tried to get her back. She escaped and founded a double monastery (for men and women) in 673 AD in Ely. She led it for seven years then died of a tumor on her neck. Her sister Seaxburga took over. Eventually, she had Etheldreda's body exhumed from her simple grave and brought inside the church. Her body was incorrupt (the tumor had disappeared, too!) and many miracles were attributed to her. Ely became a major pilgrim destination.

The Vikings destroyed the church in the late 800s and the Benedictines rebuilt it in the late 900s, though as an abbey for men only. The town succumbed late to the Norman conquests. The Normans continued the construction of the cathedral. This period of construction straddles the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture and is reflected in the style and decoration of the older parts of the church.

The cathedral continued to be revised in good ways (the main tower collapsed and a new octagonal tower was built) and bad ways (after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the locals destroyed most of the art, especially in the Lady's Chapel) even up to modern times (the last restoration was done from 1986 to 2000). On to the pictures!

Front view of the church

View from our approach

Detail of the arches, arches, arches

The entrance is a covered room that is called the Galilee Porch, a common term used for such rooms. In the good old days, the Galilee Porch was (among other uses) the final stop for Palm Sunday processions. The people would sign "Hosanna" and rest before entering the church after the procession.

Doors inside the Galilee Porch

The nave is the first striking feature of the church. The ceiling was painted in the Victorian era and shows the ancestry of Christ from Adam, Abraham, Jacob, David, and onward.

Nave of church

To the left as you enter is a statue called Christus by Hans Feibusch, in bronze and dating from 1980.

Christus by Hans Fiebusch; Mommy and Jacob are a bonus!

To the right is the southwest transept, where the Romanesque rounded arches are plentiful and the baptismal font is (again) from the Victorian era.

Baptismal font

Another impressive ceiling

Further down on the right is the Prior's Door which was ornately carved around 1135.

Christ is enthroned in majesty above the door

Detail of the carving

In 1322 the square central tower collapsed. It was decided to rebuild in a larger, octagonal shape. The span is too wide for stone so it was built of wood and metal. The eight-sided shape is meant to convey that here it is the eighth day, a place beyond our seven-day week, the hoped for eternity and glory of the Lord. The nave altar is here.

The octagonal lantern

The nave altar

Lucy takes a moment to pray

From here the north and south transepts are visible. These date back to the Norman construction of the 1100s.

North Transept, note the rounded, Norman arches

South Transept, more rounded arches

Over the pulpit is one of the Millennium Sculptures (donated in the year 2000). This one is Peter Ball's Christ in Glory, a common theme for the church.


Christ in Glory closeup

Several chapels are found in the cathedral. The largest and most famous here is the Lady's Chapel, honoring Mary the mother of Jesus. Built in the 1340s when devotion to Our Lady was very popular in England, it had fantastic carvings on the walls and amazing stained glass windows. During the Reformation, all the windows were broken and the carvings were all defaced. In fact, many of the small statues were beheaded and all of the niche statues were removed. Now it is a simple room with an ornate altar and reredos from the 2000s, along with another Millennium Sculpture, The Blessed Virgin Mary by David Wynne.

The new altar in the Lady Chapel with the plain windows

Decapitated decor

Another chapel is dedicated to St. Edmund, king of East Anglia who died in 870 for refusing to denounce his faith. The chapel includes a 13th or 14th century painting depicting his martyrdom--being tied to a tree and shot with arrows. A copy of a sixth century icon from Sinai of Christ Pantocrator (which means "ruler of all") is also found in this chapel.

Just outside St. Edmund's Chapel

Medieval painting of St. Edmund's martyrdom

Christ in glory on the altar in St. Edmund's Chapel

Christ Pantocrator

St. Etheldreda's Chapel had some very ornate carvings.

From St. Etheldreda's Chapel

Bishop West's chapel dates from the 1530s. He was bishop of Ely and an envoy for Henry VIII until he opposed the divorce with Queen Catherine. He was very generous, feeding 200 poor people a day and gave large gifts to King's School in Ely.

A simple altar with fantastic stained glass

The main altar or Presbytery is found between the nave altar and the western wall of the cathedral. It was built in the 13th century and had a shrine to St. Etheldreda which was destroyed in the Reformation. A plaque commemorates the shrine's location.

Victorian altar

Sign commemorating the Etheldreda shrine

To the left is the organ, which had a nice spiral staircase which was closed off to visitors. While we were there, the organist must have come in. He started playing with a loud blast, which caught all of us off guard and sent Jacob's hands to his ears.

Organ pipes

Organ stairs

The stained glass in the cathedral dates from the Victorian period. The glass represents some of the finest work from the period and the cathedral even has a Stained Glass Museum, which we did not visit since we were there too early. There were plenty of fine examples in the cathedral to satisfy us.

The sun made this one quite vibrant

Annunciation, Visitation, and Birth of Christ

Scenes from Jesus' life

Bishops and their coats of arms

Jesus in glory with various saints

Many tombs are also found in the cathedral, mostly post-Reformation and all fascinating.

Waiting patiently for the resurrection of the body

Lucy liked this little dog sculpture on one of the tombs

Bishop Joseph Allen (1836-1845) looks a little too relaxed

Do not disturb!

Other items that caught my fancy were the rather Victorian-looking heating mechanisms that were interspersed throughout the cathedral.

Woodburning stove?

The most ancient monument in the church is Ovin's Stone, the base of a cross. Ovin was a stewart of Etheldreda and the stone dates back to the Saxon period.

Quite simple by comparison to the tombs

We left from Ely Cathedral quite satisfied with all we saw and with quite an appetite for a snack. We wandered through the back yard of the cathedral, eventually coming upon the high street where we went for a baked treat. But I've already told you about that.

Yard with view of Lady's Chapel and the Octagonal Lantern

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