Last weekend we finally drove to the nearby town of Ely to check out their market and cathedral. After parking, we walked down to the market and immediately smelled fresh baked bread mingled with the autumn leaves. Heavenly. We chose a blustery day, so as we shopped the vendors battled the wind and fortified their flimsy stalls. We made our way over to the cathedral and were immediately impressed by the grandeur of the building. I immediately regretted relying on my iPhone camera and forgetting my nicer camera at home. So, keep in mind these pictures are just taken with a phone. I wish I could do this place more justice…
Both our tour guide and Wikipedia herald the cathedral as one of England’s best examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. I do appreciate architecture in general but I must admit I don’t know the differences between different architectural styles by sight. But it was immediately clear to me why this cathedral is well known. The exterior of the cathedral is incredibly impressive, and it wouldn’t even fit in my phone’s camera frame while standing in the cathedral’s grounds.
Here is a picture (that I clearly did not take) of the entire cathedral:
In the picture above, from right to left, you’ll see the main West Tower, the nave (one of the longest in England), the central Cross or Octagon (which we toured), the continuation of the nave (where the main altar and choir are located), and then the smaller Lady Chapel in the foreground.
As I mentioned, we took a recommendation from a friend and toured the Octagon. The Octagon is a tower in the center of the cathedral, connecting four main sections of the cathedral and their corridors. The original Norman structure collapsed in 1322 because of nearby construction that weakened the limestone base. It collapsed at night and no one was injured, although it left a huge crater and a larger problem for the monks living and worshiping there. A new tower was planned and built, but this time out of lead-covered wood instead of stone. Until the tour guide mentioned that, I hadn’t even noticed the color difference of the exterior of the Octagon.
After some basic history from our tour guide we began our climb up to the Octagon. The tour guide also pointed out that the wooden fans that lead up to the Octagon are purely decorative, and we would be standing above them. They provide no structural support, but the entire Octagon structure is supported from the outside by flying buttresses.
The climb up to the Octagon involved very teeny spiral staircases and took us out onto the roof and gutter of the cathedral. Further proof that Brits are in very good shape!
We crossed the roof and headed up an even tinier spiral staircase. One perk was that we only had five people in total on our tour, and we were all going up, so there weren’t enough people to be claustrophobic and not enough space to have a fear of heights. 🙂
Finally, we made it to the Octagon. These pictures are taken from above the decorative wooden fans I showed above. The tour guide opened up a few of the angel panels and we were able to look down at the church from above. Wow, it was impressive. Looking at the building from above, I was amazed by the astounding amount of detail. Look at the floor of the nave, the stone carving on the walls, the intricate shapes of the windows, doorways and arches.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was hearing about the sculpture of Jesus at the top of the Octagon. Throughout the tour, as I took in all of the beauty around us, I kept wondering if the people who built this or who worshiped here maybe missed the mark. It all seemed so steeped in idolatry, with all of the altars to saints, etc. I thought: Did they truly know Jesus? Did they understand the concept of grace?
The tour guide told us that originally, the only people who would have seen Jesus up there at the top of the Octagon were the monks who lived and studied here. Visitors for services or pilgrims coming to worship would not have been allowed in the center of the cathedral and therefore would not have been able to see Jesus up there. That made me a little sad, and I wondered what Jesus would have thought of that… When Christ died on the cross, carrying the weight of my sins and yours, he said “It is finished.” The curtain was torn in two in the temple, showing that the separation between us and Christ is gone. We don’t need a priest to intercede, or to offer us forgiveness on his behalf. Christ made himself available to us when he died on that cross. We now can see him and speak to him on our own. And even if we don’t take the time to return his gaze, he is looking in on our lives, waiting for us to seek him.
Here is a better photo, not taken by me. The source is linked.
This sculpture of Jesus is unique because he is shown blessing those who worshiped below with one hand, and exposing the wounds on his chest with his other hand. There is only one other known sculpture of Jesus in England with him showing his wounds, at Westminster Abbey, I believe. The reasoning for that isn’t clearly known, but I think of it as a reminder of the price Jesus paid for us. It’s showing that he suffered for us, but that it truly is finished.
Hebrews 10:19-25 (ESV)
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
After gawping at the cathedral below and the elaborate ceiling above for what seemed like a very long time, the tour guide took us above onto the roof. It was up the tiniest spiral staircase I’ve ever seen. The entire morning, the skies were blanketed with clouds and it was generally dreary, but the clouds cleared as we were up there and it was absolutely beautiful.
These pictures look out onto the stained glass that was above the angels panels. The church bells were originally held above the Jesus sculpture and the surrounding false ceiling. They were removed hundreds of years ago for fear that they were too heavy.
Then we began the climb back down the teeny tiny stairs. It was tight even for us.
The entire cathedral was absolutely beautiful. I really enjoyed the tour and learning the history involved. I also found it really neat that services are still held there several times a week. I hope it is used to God’s glory, and I pray that the message of Christ and his grace is taught and heard there. At one point, Sam and I read that the daily operating costs of the cathedral are £4000! (About $6,400 a day!) While that is really hard to wrap my head around, and while I did immediately wonder how that money could be “better utilized,” I do pray that it is used for God’s glory and that people are reached for Christ because of it. I know that our visit really stuck with me, even as I write this almost a week later.
Christ is looking down at us, desiring relationship with us, showing us his wounds, reminding us that our sins are taken care of and offering us his blessing and the gift of GRACE. What are we doing with that knowledge?