Ely’s Lady Chapel

Anne Rudloff Stanton. (1988) “The Virigin, the Queen, and the Cathedral: St Etheldreda of Ely and her Influence on the Ely Lady Chapel” Medieval Perspectives IV-V: 196-205.

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I was reading this article this afternoon and there are several things I find particularly interesting. The Lady Chapel (#6) at Ely Cathedral is in an unusual position, set off to the side. According to Stanton, English cathedrals usually have Lady chapels built into the main body of the church toward the East end of the church. In other words near where the shrine of St. Aethelthryth was located behind the east facing high alter (#8). Stanton believes that it was Aethelthryth’s shrine that displaced the Lady Chapel, which was then built off a side passage. Although the chapel was displaced, compensation came in its enlarged size and extensive iconographic program. Note that the Lady Chapel appears larger than the north and south (#9) transcepts. The Lady Chapel and the expansions to the Cathedral including the newest shrine of Aethelthryth all are within a century of the Liber Eliensis.

Ely’s Lady Chapel, West facade of north transcept

What I really found most interesting is that the iconography pattern of the Lady Chapel focuses on Marian apocryphal stories that are mirrored in some of the events or miracles of the Liber Eliensis. Stanton notes that this iconography focuses on Aethelthryth as a “virgin mother” of the Ely family. Iconography puts ‘unusual emphasis’ on the journey to Bethleham and on Aethelthryth’s journey to Ely; both are fleeing kings who threaten their impending motherhood. Stanton also notes that the marriage scenes in the Aethelthryth reliefs at the crossing are very similar to what remains of the Marian marriage scene in the Lady Chapel. She hypothesizes that both would have also been shown consistently wearing crowns, but Reformation era damage to all Marian statues make this impossible to confirm. Stanton also points to a Marion carving showing a Jew trying to overturn Mary’s brier and his hand remains stuck to the coffin. She believes that this may be a counterpart to the famous legend of the heathen Dane whose eyes fall out and later dies for trying to open Aethelthryth’s coffin.

This all reminds me not only of the long association of the Virgin Mary with Aethelthryth but also of the modern statue in today’s Lady Chapel at Ely.

This modern statue of the Madonna was placed in the Lady Chapel in 2000. Somehow it reminds me more of an English princess with her golden hair than a Jewish mother.

Here is more information on the new statue.

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