Over 40 years ago I drove up to Durham for the start of a new term with a chum from Suffolk and we stopped off to have a look at Ely Cathedral. My only memory of that occasion was that it was spectacular and as I had not at that time visited many cathedrals – although I knew Durham Cathedral well of course – in my mind I imagined that it must be some Gothic marvel.
So it was much to my surprise to find that Ely was actually one of the few Romanesque cathedrals in Britain although as with so many of these incredible buildings it was under construction from the mid-eleventh to as late as the fourteenth centuries and is actually a collection of styles. It originated as the church of the Benedictine monastery at Ely and became a cathedral when Ely was made a diocese in its own right.
Unfortunately we were still suffering from the traditional English holiday rain so it was not the best of conditions to see the outside but of course the inside remains the same – still spectacular but not in the way I expected. One oddity though was a statue of Mary in a freshly cleaned Lady Chapel – by the way no chapter house at Ely as it is too early I think – a modern addition that was almost wholly kitsch and certainly completely out of keeping with the style of the chapel. Ah well!
An interesting feature of the chapel are the elaborate carvings on a frieze that extends all round the walls but when one looks at it closely, one realizes that something isn’t quite right. As Wikipedia explains: “At the reformation, the edict to remove images from the cathedral was carried out very thoroughly by Bishop Goodrich. The larger statues have gone. The relief scenes were built into the wall, so each face or statue was individually hacked off, but leaving many finely carved details, and numerous puzzles as to what the original scenes showed“. Look carefully below.