Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prior's Doorway, Ely Cathedral

click photo to enlarge
Our great churches offer much to delight the eye and mind, more than can be taken in during a single visit, and often contain much that can lie unnoticed even after several visits. On our most recent trip to Ely Cathedral my wife came upon the Prior's doorway. How we had not seen this wonderful example of the Norman sculptor's art before I can't explain, but I'm glad we eventually stumbled upon it.

The doorway dates from the mid-1100s, a time when sculpture exhibited a marvellous mix of linearity, naivety, vigour, drama and stylisation. Doorways, fonts, column capitals and crosses of the twelfth century are an interesting mixture of Byzantine influenced Romanesque with strong elements of Celtic and Norse influence. This example at Ely is busier than most, the columns in particular showing a clear link with the scrollwork, wreaths and knots of the carving and illuminated manuscripts of earlier centuries. Hidden among the swirling lines are medallions, single figures, groups, perhaps labours of the months, zodiac signs and much else. The capitals are similarly carved. An unusual addition is the two corbels in the form of heads that seem to stare at visitors who pass through the portal.

However, interesting though the columns are - and the arches that carry on the decorative themes over the top of the doorway - it is the filled in semi-circle below the arch that draws the eye. This is intentional, and the location above the lintel of a doorway and below the arch, a space known by the architectural term of the "tympanum", was often exploited in this way during the twelfth century. In the Prior's doorway tympanum the sculptors have carved the commonly found subject of the seated Christ (here beardless), one hand raised in a sign of power or blessing, the other holding an open Bible. He sits in a pointed oval shape known as a vesica and is flanked by angels whose bodies are contorted in (possibly) flight or awe, but also to make them fit the semi-circular frame. The treatment of the figure sculpture and clothing is flat and stylised in the way often seen in early two-dimensional frescoes, painted icons and mosaics, characteristics shared with the font at Eardisley, Herefordshire, a subject that I blogged about in 2009.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 70mm
F No: f4.5
Shutter Speed: 1/80
ISO: 2500
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On