Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Blessed Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral

Philip Harvey
The first Carmelite Library Lecture for this year turned out to be more a mini-symposium on artworks representing the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have no likenesses of the original Mary, no photographs or quick sketches, only the accounts of her found in the New Testament. Since those words were written down there has been an entire history of artistic responses to Mary. Andy Bullen SJ is a creative art historian who offered the participants in our symposium a range of Marian images, starting from the first known image of Mary, located in one of the catacombs, and coming up to contemporary interpretations of Mary and the Gospel words that are confronting and counter-cultural. Icons, frescoes, altarpieces, statues, and other artworks were introduced and responses invited from the audience. As Andy has said, “I love doing presentations like Tuesday’s, as I know that if the audience responds to the images then we will get somewhere fresh.”

When meeting any work of art, Andy has four questions that he asks himself. He calls the four points “Lord, that I may see”:
What am I seeing?
What am I feeling?
How come what I see leads me to feel that?
So what?
And after that he has a further direction for thought: Then, look again!

The image from Tuesday night that has stayed with me for days is the statue of Mary by David Wynne in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. Of all the images presented to the group, this one provoked the most comment and animated conversation. Using Andy’s four questions, I kept studying the sculpture online using Google Image.

What am I seeing? A woman with her arms raised in the air and her head forward. She stands on the ledge of a medieval stone window above an altar. Everything around her is old and broken and weathered stone, which makes her appearance striking because she is presented wearing a full length blue dress; she has long golden hair. 

What am I feeling? I know that I am looking at a statue of Mary, which is a surprise because Mary is never represented in art with her arms above her head in such a forceful manner. So I am being asked to ask why she is presented in this way. Once told that it is the moment of the Annunciation everything changes again. She is in the act of saying Yes to God. She herself is a powerful figure, but what she is doing is conceiving the Incarnated Word. 

How come what I see leads me to feel that? I am in awe because the statue has been placed at the focal point of the Chapel, she is made immediate and draws attention to the more important reality that this is not about her but about what God is making happen. I feel surprise because this is in no way a conventional presentation of Mary at the Annunciation

So what? I wonder about how this work leads to worship, as indeed it is designed to do in the space. I wonder about its connection to the Christian past of Cambridgeshire.

And after that, in days following, I followed the further direction: Then, look again!

In his visitors’ tour guide of Ely Cathedral, Canon Dr Peter Sills writes: “ Entering the Lady Chapel you meet a gracious, light and open space. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw the rise of the cult of the Virgin Mary, and chapels in her honour were added to many churches and cathedrals, including Ely. This chapel is exceptional as it is by far the largest attached to any British cathedral. Its foundations were laid in 1321.” So we know that placing a new statue of Mary in the Chapel in 2000 was filled with historical and artistic meanings. 

“All this was destroyed,” Dr Sills continues, “ in the sixteenth century during the Reformation, which, in keeping with Puritan convictions, rejected all forms of religious decoration. Traces of the paint can still be seen, and fragments of the glass survive in the central window on the south side. You can see the damage clearly - the exquisite figures in the lower niches have been defaced and above these are the empty pedestals where the statues stood. It is believed that the carvings told the story of Mary's life and miracles. Despite its beauty this is a place of brokenness.” He then adds a line that brings us into the present and the purpose of the statue, which is not there simply because it is a work of art: “You may like to pause here and pray about the brokenness, grief or loss that you have experienced.” The Ely Madonna stands as a reminder of the iconoclastic disasters of the Civil War (Cromwell used Ely Cathedral to stable his horses) and of the town’s Anglo-Saxon and Norman inheritance. At least one member of the symposium group saw the statue as representative of St Etheldreda, foundress of the first monastery on the site, while others thought it had Celtic and even pre-Christian references.

Dr Sills own response to the work is instructive: “Most representations of Mary are passive, holding the child Jesus on her knee. Here she is expressive, exulting in the news that she is to be the mother of the Saviour. On the base of the statue are her words from St Luke's Gospel: 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord' (Luke 1.38).”

When the statue was installed it caused much argument and divided opinion, not unlike the responses it inspired at our symposium. One person who was not happy was Germaine Greer. In a typically unconstructive review of the work in 2007, Greer said this: “The chapel's austere monochrome was harshly assailed in 2000 by the installation of a life-size effigy of a woman with raised arms. Half a ton of Portland stone was hoisted up on to a ledge, from which point the carved female figure dominates and dwarfs the whole space. It stands to reason that a lady chapel needs a lady, and here she is. You can tell she is Our Lady because she wears a full-skirted gown of electric blue. A colour less suited to her surroundings could hardly be imagined, unless it be the staring gilt of the belt slung around her hips and applied to the biggest hair since Dolly Parton. The bodice of the gown is no more substantial than a single coat of blue paint, so the breasts raised by the upraised arms are delineated in a manner more akin to soft porn than religious imagery.”

Perhaps Greer could have found useful Andy’s four point plan. It is curious that Greer has not caught on to the meaning of the blue dress and golden hair. Lapis lazuli from Afghanistan was the costliest pigment in medieval Europe, which is why Mary’s colour is blue: artists would only use the most valuable materials to represent the Mother of God. Hence also the gold, which is also the base colour of icons. As for the bra-lessness, as one member of our own group said, the bra was not a common garment before the modern era and it is more likely that a woman like Mary would not have worn one, whether she was Mary in Nazareth or Mary in Ely in the seventh century.

After reminding us about the Puritan destruction of Ely Cathedral, Greer concludes her unhelpful remarks by asking of the future of the Ely Madonna, “Where are the iconoclasts now that we really need them?” Such a question tells me more about Greer’s approach to art criticism than it does anything about the work she is discussing. It would look seriously out of place as the sixth question in Andy Bullen’s “Lord, that I may see.”

Seeing a work like the Annunciation at Ely makes us see the event, which is credal and a purposive example of faith, in ways we had maybe not imagined before. The work invites us into that space of great force and simple humility which is repeated everywhere in the world in the words of the Magnificat. And no doubt discussion and argument about the work will continue, alongside appreciation and reverence.

1 comment:

  1. I saw the statue for the first time today. I visited Ely in 1997 and remembered the cool, lacey feeling in the Lady Chapel. This was quite wonderful, what a lovely, contemporary representation of a human being recieving a gift from God.
    I'm happy for the congregation who can visit her any time...!