A Descriptive Tour of Ely Cathedral
from a text written by Canon Dr Peter Sills ...
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Plan of Ely Cathedral
A - Galilee Porch
Visitors to the Cathedral usually enter through the great West Door in the Galilee Porch. The term 'Galilee' simply means a porch or entrance. The Porch is built of Barnock stone & Purbeck marble from Dorset and is an example of Early English Gothic architecture.
The West Doors are decorated with fine iron work, added in 1860; a memorial to Canon Waddington. It includes martlets and the initial W. It was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott. The interior of the West Doors is of medieval Oak.
B - The West Tower
Ely Cathedral Labyrinth
The West Tower stands some 66m (215ft) in height. The lower 2/3 is 12th Century work, the top 1/3 was added in the late 14th century.
On the floor beneath your feet is a labyrinth that was installed in the nineteenth century. Unlike a maze, there are no dead ends. If you walk the labyrinth you will have walked the same distance as the height of the ceiling above. Walking a labyrinth is an ancient spiritual exercise; its twists and turns mirror the journey of life, with God at its centre.
On the North West Transept wall there is a magnificent sculpture called 'The Way of Life' by Jonathan Clarke. One of three sculptures specially commissioned for the millennium, Jonathan Clarke's The Way of Life is made of cast aluminium and has nine sections, each differently jointed. Like the journey of faith, its path is irregular and unpredictable; and just as the journey is sometimes hard, sometimes joyful, the surface texture and colour also vary. On the top arm you might be able to make out a minute human figure, someone who is perhaps on the journey.
It was worked on in collaboration with Theology Through The Arts of the Divinity Faculty, Cambridge University. The aim was to produce a piece of contemporary art of high quality and general accessibility to be placed in Ely Cathedral whilst at the same time pioneering a new, collaborative model for the commissioning of art for cathedrals, which tackles their theological and social dimensions.
The Way of Life was dedicated by the Bishop of Ely on the 15th March 2001.
At the entrance to the Nave is another sculpture, Hans Feibusch's Christus (1981). The arms outstretched in welcome show the wounds of crucifixion; the face shows the strength of the compassion with which Christ looks on the world.
C - The South West Transept
The South West Transept is one of England's most ornate Romanesque interiors, this transept was extensively restored in 1844. The font was placed here as part of that restoration and dates from the period. Fonts are generally sited near the principal entrance of a church because it is through baptism, the ceremony performed at the font, that new Christians enter into membership of the Church. St Catherine's Chapel is also in this transept and is reserved for private prayer. Here you will also find the entrance to the Stained Glass Museum.
An identical transept (opposite) on the North West side of the Cathedral collapsed during medieval times. What remains houses the Refectory Café.
D - The Nave
The Nave is one of the most inspiring interiors in England. Its architecture is Norman, with distinctive round arches, on some of which can be seen the remains of medieval decoration. The term 'nave' comes from the Latin navis, meaning 'ship'. The medieval Church used to think of itself as the vessel in which the faithful could journey safely to God, and Ely Cathedral is known as the 'Ship of the Fens'.
At 537 feet (164m), Ely is the fourth longest of the English cathedrals - Winchester is the longest at 547 feet (165.5m). and in between come St Albans and Canterbury. People often ask why such a large church was built in such a small place. In fact, when the Cathedral was built, Ely was much smaller than it is now, just a small settlement; remote places were often chosen for monasteries. In size and beauty the cathedral proclaimed the glory of God; it was an image of heaven. It is also true that the size of the church reflected the power of the Norman conquerors and the wealth and prestige of the monastic community.
The Nave Ceiling
Installed as part of the Victorian restoration, the Nave Ceiling was the work of two artists, Henry Styleman Le Strange, who painted the first six panels , and Thomas Gambier Parry, who painted the last six - you can observe a change of style between the sixth and seventh panels. The ceiling tells the story of the ancestry of Jesus, beginning with Adam . and continuing through Abraham . David and Mary .
E - The Prior's Door
This twelfth-century carved door way connected the Cathedral to the medieval cloister. The central carving, which is believed to date from 1135, shows Christ enthroned in majesty. His right hand is raised in blessing, and his left hand holds the Book with the Seven Seals, the record of good and evil deeds. Around the doorway some of the carvings depict the signs of the Zodiac, a reminder that this was the gate of heaven. The almond-shaped frame around Jesus, known as a 'mandorla', symbolises new life the hope held out to all who pass through this door. The Christian belief that Jesus now reigns in majesty is central to that hope. (We are also reminded of this belief by the ceiling paintings in the Tower and the Nave and the statue above the Pulpit.)
The arcade on the south wall, now bricked up, would originally have been open, and it was later glazed in the same way as the South Porch is today.
F - The South Transept
Built at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the north and south transepts are the oldest parts of the building. Both transepts contain some fine Norman stonework, including the small relief carvings on the capitals, which are thought to be the earliest Norman sculpture in England. The original roofs were replaced in the mid-fifteenth century with hammer-beam roofs decorated with fiying angels. On the wall there are also remains of the original wall painting that was restored by the Victorians.
The chapel in this transept is dedicated to St Dunstan and St Ethelwold, two tenth-century bishops who re-founded the monastery in 970 after it had been sacked by the Danes. They made it a Benedictine community for men, and so it remained until the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1539. This chapel is reserved for private prayer and is also the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.
In front of the south wall of the transept is a sculpture by David Wynne (1967) that is meant to be walked around. The thinness of the figures is designed to command attention. It depicts the moving encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene on the first Easter Day. The movement of the sculpture is in the arms of the figures. As she reaches out to touch Jesus, he says, 'Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father' (John 20.17).
G - The Octagon
The pillars of the Nave originally continued through what is now an open space. Disaster struck on 22 February 1322, when the Norman central tower collapsed. The noise was so great that the monks thought there had been an earth quake. Alan of Walsingham, the monk responsible for the building, was deeply shocked. One of his fellow monks wrote: 'He was devastated, grieving vehemently and overcome with sorrow... that he knew not which way to turn himself or what to do for the reparation of such a ruin.'
Firmer foundations were found further out from the original pillars, and from this evolved the idea of building an octagon surmounted by a lantern. Its width of 74 feet (23m) was too great to support a stone vault, and so it was built in wood and covered in lead. The Octagon's internal height is 142 feet (43m), and its total weight is 400 tons. A masterpiece of medieval engineering, it took 18 years to build. In the centre John of Burwell (a village south-east of Ely) carved Christ in majesty, ruling over all. A modern sculpture on the same theme by Peter Ball, the second of Ely's millennium sculptures, Christ in Glory (2000), is displayed above the pulpit.
The Octagon reminds us of how glory can come out of ruin, hope overcome despair and death lead to new life. You might like to pause and reflect as you think about its story.
Octagons are found in other churches, although none rival the beauty of the one at Ely. They are symbolic, standing for the eighth day, the time beyond our earthly time that is measured in units of seven days. At Ely the central ceiling decoration and the angel panels below represent the heavenly host; the figures in the windows, and we ourselves, represent the world of time and space - the Octagon is a symbol linking earth and heaven, time and eternity. It was under the Octagon that the Choir stalls, now to the east, were originally sited - where heaven and earth are joined, the monks sang God's praises and said their prayers. Today the Octagon is the site of the principal altar in the Cathedral, where the main Sunday Eucharist is celebrated. This service, in which we remember the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, also brings heaven to earth and raises earth to heaven.
By the fourteenth century architectural styles had changed, and the Octagon was built in the contemporary Gothic style, with stronger pointed arches and more elaborate decoration.
Around the Octagon are a series of small carvings on either side of the arches of the main pillars. These are among the few medieval carvings in the Cathedral to have survived the Reformation, perhaps because they tell the story of St Etheldreda.
H - The North Transept
In the North Transept, there are two chapels on the east side. The northern chapel is dedicated to St George and is the chapel of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Panels on the walls commemorate the men who died in the two world wars of the last century. The other chapel is dedicated to St Edmund, King of East Anglia in the mid-ninth century. He was well loved by his subjects for his care of the poor and his suppression of wrongdoing. When the Vikings invaded he refused to deny his faith and was killed by being tied to a tree and shot through with arrows. His martyrdom is depicted in the painting on the north wall, which is the Cathedral's best-preserved medieval wall painting. In 915 his body was buried at Bedricsworth in Suffolk, which was renamed Bury St Edmunds. Edmund was once a candidate to be the patron saint of England.
I - The Processional Way
The Processional Way replaces a medieval passageway that pilgrims used to pass from the shrine of St Etheldreda to the Lady Chapel. It was dedicated in the year 2000, and is the first substantial addition to the Cathedral since the fifteenth century. The dedication is recorded in a stone slab set in the floor.
The Processional Way was designed by Jane Kennedy, the Cathedral architect, and built by Rattee & Kett of Cambridge, using English timber and stone. The windows were designed by Helen Whittaker and made by Keith Barley in York, and the ceiling bosses are by Peter Ball.
View a description of the stained glass window here.
J - The Lady Chapel
Entering the Lady Chapel you meet a gracious, light and open space. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and chapels in her honour were added to many churches and cathedrals, including Ely. This chapel is exceptional as it is by far the largest attached to any British cathedral. Its foundations were laid in 1321, just before the collapse of the central tower, and work continued despite the disaster. Its construction was overseen by John of Wisbech, whose memorial lies just in front of the doors.
It was completed in 1349, when it would have looked very different from today. It was highly coloured, with windows alive with stained glass and painted statues in the niches.
All this was destroyed in the sixteenth century during the Reformation, which, in keeping with Puritan convictions, rejected all forms of religious decoration. Traces of the paint can still be seen, and fragments of the glass survive in the central window on the south side. You can see the damage clearly - the exquisite figures in the lower niches have been defaced. and above these are the empty pedestals where the statues stood. It is believed that the carvings told the story of Mary's life and miracles. Despite its beauty this is a place of brokenness; you may like to pause here and pray about the brokenness, grief or loss that you have experienced.
Above the altar is a new statue of Mary by David Wynne. It was installed in the year 2000, the third of the millennium sculptures. Most representations of Mary are passive, holding the child Jesus on her knee. Here she is expressive, exulting in the news that she is to be the mother of the Saviour. On the base of the statue are her words from St Luke's Gospel: .
The floor of Purbeck marble is the latest addition to the Cathedral. Laid in 2001, it incorporates under-floor heating, making it possible to use the chapel in the winter months. Also designed by Jane Kennedy, it is inspired by medieval floors, with its 'carpets' of different patterns laid between darker aisles and borders.
K - The North Choir Aisle
The eastern part of the Cathedral is like a church within a church, and around it is a spacious aisle. Down the centuries it has been used for burials and memorials, and over 100 people are commemorated here, from Bishop Hugh Northwold in the thirteenth century to Canon Denis Green at the end of the twentieth century.
At the east end of the aisle is Bishop Alcock's Chantry Chapel. Fear of divine punishment was very real in the Middle Ages, and chantries were endowed to pay for a priest to say Mass for the souls of the founder and his friends, to lessen their time in purgatory. John Alcock, who founded this chapel, became Bishop of Ely in 1486. Like many bishops of his day, he was a servant of both church and state; he founded Jesus College, Cambridge, and held the office of Lord Chancellor. His chapel has a beautiful fan vault ceiling, the only one in Ely. The wall carving is intricate but clearly jammed together; it may well have been designed for another location, possibly Worcester, where Alcock was Bishop before coming to Ely.
L - St Etheldreda's Chapel & the East Window
The central space at the east end of the Cathedral is dedicated to St Etheldreda, Ely's foundress. A modern statue (1961) by Philip Turner showing Etheldreda with her staff stands to the left of the altar. Nearby is a table for prayer requests where you can also light a candle. The stalls are part of the memorial to the people of Cambridge who died in World War II. A black stone in front of the sanctuary step records the gift from the people of Kreis Viersen in Germany towards the cost of restoring the Cathedral at the end of the twentieth century.
The east window. Like virtually all the glass, it was installed during the Victorian restoration. It is the work of William Wailes, who designed the overall glazing scheme, and tells the story of Jesus: the right-hand lancet depicts Jesus' birth (the Nativity is the fourth scene); the left-hand lancet recounts his ministry; and the centre lancet retells the last week of his life, from the entry into Jerusalem to the crucifixion. The upper window depicts the resurrection, the ascension and Christ in glory.>
M - The South Choir Aisle
At the east end of the South Choir Aisle is Bishop West's Chantry Chapel. Nicholas West was a brilliant diplomat. His great moment came when he managed to seal a defensive alliance with France by persuading Francis I to pay a debt of one million crowns owed by his predecessor to Henry VIII. Cardinal Wolsey saw that West was rewarded for his work, and he became Bishop of Ely in 1515. Although he lived in great style, employing over 100 servants, it is said that he provided cooked food for over 200 poor people every day.
Down the aisle are different memorials. They reflect both changing artistic styles and religious beliefs. On your right is the large tomb of John Tiptoft (d.1470) who lies between his two wives in a pious pose typical of the Age of Chivalry, while opposite is Bishop Peter Gunning (d.1684), who reclines and gestures in the mannered style of the Baroque period.
Further along, is the memorial to Bishop Thomas Greene (d.1738), which is notable for the absence of any Christian imagery; instead it has the classical funerary urns and sombre drapes typical of the Age of Reason. Just before the gates, on the left, the Victorian Bishop Joseph Allen (d.1845) reclines like a Roman dinner guest. In contrast the more recent memorials tend to be simple inscriptions.
On the floor of the choir are two memorial brasses. The one to the east is for Bishop Thomas Goodrich. Changing beliefs affected more than the style of memorials. The Reformation brought with it an intolerance of decoration, and, true to the new ideas, Bishop Goodrich ordered the destruction of all the medieval statues, paintings and stained glass: 'All images, relics, memorials, shrines, etcetera, shall be so totally demolished and obliterated with all speed and diligence that no remains or memory of them might be found for the future'. The Bishop's men did their work thoroughly, and virtually nothing remains of Ely's medieval decoration. It is ironic that Goodrich's tomb is one of the few with its memorial brass intact, roped off to protect it from damage!
N - The Presbytery
The Presbytery is so named because it is here that the priests, or presbyters, officiate. It was dedicated in 1252 in the presence of King Henry III and Prince Edward. The Norman church ended just east of the steps to your left. In the thirteenth century Bishop Hugh Northwold rebuilt the whole of the east end to provide a magnificent setting for the shrine of St Etheldreda and to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims who came to pray there. The shrine was destroyed on the orders of Bishop Goodrich - a black marble stone marks its position. This part of the Cathedral, built in the Early English style, has a particular gracefulness, the Purbeck marble columns leading the eye past the arches to the rib vault of the ceiling.
In 1109, not long after it was built, the monastery church became a cathedral. It is here that the Bishop has his Chair, or cathedra, the symbol of his authority as a teacher of the faith - in the same way university professors also occupy Chairs. Today the diocese has two bishops, and they use the two chairs on the south side of the Presbytery, which were made for the Queen and Prince Philip for the Royal Maundy Service in 1987.
At the east of the Presbytery is the High Altar. The marble reredos, in the Italian style, was designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the Victorian restoration. Its five panels depict the events of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus' life, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his death on Good Friday. The central panel shows the last supper, which is recalled in the Eucharist celebrated at this altar every Sunday.
People look at Jesus in various ways. Christians believe that he is the human face of God and call him God's Son. His life was so significant that the calendar was stopped and started again from the date of his birth. In Jesus we see the wholeness of our humanity - a human life lived to its full potential. Jesus commanded his followers to love one another as he had loved them. Love has many meanings, but at its heart is a willingness to put others before oneself and to take their interests seriously. Ely Cathedral is home to a group of people who seek to follow Jesus, striving to be a Christian community of worship, welcome and care.
O - The Choir
After the central tower collapsed the opportunity was taken to rebuild the first three bays of the choir in a style similar to the new octagon. The work was commissioned by Bishop John Hotham at his personal expense of 2034 pounds, 12 shillings, 8 pence and 3 farthingsl Its style is a development of the Early English known as Decorated, which is lighter, slender and with more embellishment.
The rear rows of the Choir stalls date from the fourteenth century. Underneath the seats are carved panels known as misericords.
The desks and the front stalls are Victorian, with some fine angel end pieces. On the canopies above the stalls are a series of nineteenth-century carvings, which are the work of Michel Abeloos from Louvain in Belgium. Scenes from the Old Testament are on the south side, and on the north side are corresponding scenes from the New Testament. At the west end, the birth of Jesus is paralleled with the creation of Adam; his baptism is paralleled with Noah and the Flood, and his ascension with Elijah being taken up to heaven.
The Choir screen and the organ case are by Scott, the latter being modelled on the medieval organ in Strasbourg Cathedral. Music is an essential part of worship. It has a unique capacity to speak to the spirit, to convey truths that cannot be expressed in words. When the monastery was dissolved in 1539 King Henry VIII provided for a full time choir in Ely, and, apart from a short break during the time of Oliver Cromwell, the choral tradition has been maintained here ever since.
A Prayer of Saint Augustine