23 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, 23 July 2017

A Traffic of Ideas

What I'm about to write here I'm certain that any art historian worth her or his weight in gold might have some disputes about. My thoughts here are really about connections across lands, cultures, and times. But first, where are we and what am I doing? Right now I'm accompanying the parish choir of Saint Mark's Church, Berkeley, California, where I am serving as Interim Rector. We arrived yesterday at Heathrow and immediately loaded a bus that took us cross the English countryside to Cambridgeshire and to the town of Ely. The landscape was flat, with yellowed stalks from the crop that had just been harvested. There, on the horizon, was the cathedral church, visible from a great distance, very much appearing as a ship on a sea of fields. Indeed, it is known locally as the ship of the Fens. So here we are with this ancient Norman church. My first vision of it as the bus pulled into the car park was a recollection of this:

This is not in Ely at all but is the remains of brick work in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. What has captured my imagination here is the repeated artwork, and the decoration within the arch, indeed the decorative effect of the brick work. This is the image that immediately caught my attention as we left the bus:

The repetition of arch and column and the whole decorative treatment of the fa├žade seems, to me, to be redolent of the brick work in Ostia. This treatment can be seen through out the building as the artisans worked to make the surfaces rich with waves, diamonds, checks, and other geometric devices. It can be found throughout the building.

This program of decoration can even been seen in the Gothic additions to the building which are decidedly flamboyant in nature. This is especially evident in the Lady Chapel.

The overly decorated Gothic arch is at point given a dimensionality as the point of the arch is pulled away from the surface to create an arabesque type feature. Even the ceiling ribs are combined in such a way as to hint at the angles of the arches in the Norman sections of the building.

So how do ideas such as style and treatment travel? Were they even influenced by the Roman brickwork seen in Ostia or perhaps elsewhere? One thing is certain. Our world has always been culturally connected, and remains so. We just need to find the evidence.

Tomorrow I will look at other aspects of the cathedral.

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