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18 September 2014
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Clues from the Past in Ely Cathedral

By Carol Davidson Cragoe
The nave

Image of the nave of Ely Cathedral from the west
Nave at Ely Cathedral, from the west ©
Now let’s go from the Galilee through the west door into the nave. Far away towards the east is the choir and high altar. On either side are the aisles, separated from the nave by the arcades.

Ely’s nave was built in the early 12th century, so the architectural style is Romanesque. Ely’s nave originally had 13 bays. Long naves like this were typical of Anglo-Norman cathedrals and monasteries.

'Every part of the ground-plan and elevation was set out using ratios such as the Golden Section ...'

The piers of the nave arcades have an alternating A-B-A-B rhythm - first a compound pier, then a round pier with an attached shaft, then another compound pier. This moves your eye along the nave towards the east, and makes the wall seem less solid.

Simultaneously, the shafts, which also appear on the compound piers, draw your eye up past the galleries and clerestory to the ceiling. Every part of the ground-plan and elevation was set out using ratios such as the Golden Section to ensure that the whole was completely harmonious.

Today you can see into the choir, but in the Middle Ages this wasn’t possible because the rood screen blocked the view. Above the screen stood the great rood, and on the nave side was an altar where masses for local lay people were said.

One bay to the east was the stone pulpitum (demolished in 1770-1) marking the beginning of the choir. About 4.5m (14ft 6in) high and about 2.5m (8ft) wide, it stretched all the way from one outer aisle wall to the other. In the 18th century it held an organ and was used as a pulpit - it probably had similar functions in the Middle Ages.

Before we leave the nave, look up at the ceiling. It is made of painted, wooden panels installed in 1858-65. Previously you could see right up into the beams of the roof. It was quite typical of Victorian restorers to do things that they thought made a church more medieval looking, even if there was no evidence that the church had really been like that in the Middle Ages.

Published: 2005-02-01

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