On Thursday we went to Ely, Cambridgeshire, and visited the cathedral. We went on a guided tour of the Octagon.
When the dust had settled from the collapse of Ely’s Romanesque crossing tower in 1322, there was just a large open space where the crossing tower on its four great piers had been. Rather than replace the tower as it was, they decided to build an enormous octagonal lantern built over this open space. Now known as the Ely Octagon.
The lantern took 14 years to build, weighs 200 tons, and exerts a perfect perpendicular downward thrust. By 1340, the roof was covered in lead and the ceiling was carved and painted. The ceiling seen today, as well as the wooden panels painted with angels in the octagon, are Victorian renovations. These wooden panels swing open like doors, from which you can get a vertigo-inducing view down to the floor below (via a guided tour).
The wooden stalls in the octagon area were designed by George Pace in 1978. The floor of this area is paved with checkerboard squares in an exact reflection of the octagon above. Above the pulpit is a modern sculpture of Christus Rex (2000) by Peter Eugene Ball.
The Lady Chapel’s unusual position off to the side instead of at the east end of the cathedral is due to the monks’ burial ground and outer hostelry being already located there. The chapel stands between the presbytery (east end) and the north transept, and is the largest Lady Chapel in England. It also has the largest medieval vault in England, with a span of 40 feet (12m).The Lady Chapel was built from 1321 to 1349, a period which also saw the collapse of the central tower and construction of the octagon. The chapel once looked much different than it does today. The walls were bursting with colourful paintings, the windows were filled with the finest medieval stained glass, and the niches were home to exquisite statues.All this was destroyed at the Reformation, but even the badly damaged state of the stonework and traces of coloured paint provide an idea of what it must have looked like. Many of the carved roof bosses survive and have recently been repainted. The chapel became a parish church after the Reformation, but was “returned” to the cathedral in 1938. The unusual sculpture of the Virgin Mary that stands above the altar is by David Wynne (2000).
Update: A post about Ely’s Lady Chapel on Heavenfield