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18 September 2014
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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
The exterior

Image of the porch to the Galilee chapel at Ely Cathedral
Galilee Porch, Ely Cathedral  ©
The church at Ely was built to impress anyone passing by with the power of the Church to offer salvation. Seen from above, the ground plan of Ely is cruciform, symbolising Christ’s crucifixion. The high altar was at the east (top) end, where Christ’s head would have been on the cross.

Ely had two large and many small towers. In medieval painting and sculpture, towers were used indicate a city, so the towers of a church represented the ‘holy city, new Jerusalem’ (Rev. 21:2) of Heaven.

'The whole west front, including the Galilee, is covered in rows of blind arcading.'

If you look closely at the walls, you can see that the decorative details are part of the blocks of stone from which the building is built, rather than being stuck on. If they weren’t, they would simply fall off, as it is the weight of the stone above that keeps the whole thing together. Because the details must be the same date as the wall, it means that we can use this ornament as a guide to dating the building.

If we compare the Galilee Porch with the rest of the west facade we can find subtle differences that can tell us a lot. The whole west front, including the Galilee, is covered in rows of blind arcading. On the Galilee the arches have pointed, cusped heads with stiff leaf capitals. These are typical of the Early English style of Gothic architecture, suggesting that the Galilee was built c.1215.

In contrast, the lower parts of the west front have round-headed arches and geometric ornament. The rows of arcading are separated by string courses and corbel tables. These motifs are typical of 12th-century Romanesque (or Norman) architecture.

From this we can deduce that the main parts of the west front were built in the 12th century, and the Galilee was added a few years later in the 13th century. Ely’s west facade now looks rather lop-sided because the north (left) side fell down in the mid-15th century and was never rebuilt.

Published: 2005-02-01

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