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Ely Cathedral, a beacon of beauty with a tragic past

Ely Cathedral

Verbcatcher | CC BY-SA 4.0

John Burger - published on 08/13/20

Signs of the cathedral's Catholic past bear the scars of the English Reformation.

Visitors to England’s Ely Cathedral will be impressed as soon as they spy the massive structure from a distance, rising above the East Anglia countryside. The town is sometimes called the “Isle of Ely” because it was only accessible by boat until the waterlogged fens (swampy wetlands) were drained in the 17th century. It is for this reason that the towering church has been referred to as the Ship of the Fens.

Once inside, standing beneath the Octagon, a dome built in the 14th century that gives Ely Cathedral its prominence, is a jaw-dropping experience matched only by climbing the narrow circular stone stairway and taking in the view from the top.

But there’s another aspect of Ely that visitors will notice that is not as pleasant, and in many ways will be somewhat painful, and that is a visit to the cathedral’s Lady Chapel. Built at a time when devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary was increasing in popularity, the Lady Chapel is thought to be the thing that caused a massive collapse in the central tower in 1322. It may be that when workers were digging the foundation for the chapel they compromised the foundation for the tower.

But it was during rebuilding that the massive Octagon was constructed. It is as high as Rome’s Pantheon and artistically stunning. It’s built with massive oak timbers, which are thought to be 1,000 years old. The website of the National Churches Trust says that it might be impossible to replicate its construction today, because trees that large no longer exist.

The story of Ely Cathedral dates back to the 7th century, when St. Etheldreda established a monastery on the site. It flourished for 200 years until it was destroyed by the Danes. When it was restored in 970, it became a Benedictine monastery, one of the wealthiest abbeys in England. The 11th-century Abbot Symeon began work on the church that stands there now. It became a cathedral in 1109.

But what is it that is so painful about visiting the Lady Chapel? Everywhere you look, the ornate sculptures of Mary and other personages in the Life of the Virgin are headless, smashed to bits.

If you assume that the damage done is merely the result of age, or view the walls as you might view other old ruins, you might not appreciate the tragedy that is part of the history of this once-Catholic cathedral.

“This building was absolutely packed with sculpture,” says Paul Binski, professor of the history of medieval art at Cambridge, in a video about Ely. “In the 16th and 17th century, when the English Reformation occurred, a long-drawn-out and violent process, a very divisive process, the deliberate targeting of the central symbols of Catholicism was important. And certainly in this part of England, which was really the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, there was violent sentiment against all the things that two centuries  before had been extremely loved and respected and regarded, and the cult of the Virgin Mary was swept away.”

Binski said in the 2018 video that all the statues were pulled down from the upper parts of the walls, all the stained-glass was knocked out, all the little stories in stone of the miracles of the Virgin were destroyed. “It was an effort to kind of cancel it, to destroy its power,” he said.

But the angels painted on the panels of the Octagon, high above, were not touched, and they continue to overlook Ely Cathedral, which serves as a beacon of beauty.

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