Arma Christi in Ely

02 November 2006


IT WAS always intended that the vistas of our medieval churches and especially our cathedrals should culminate in the hint around the altar of colour and riches, conveyed by hangings, by paintings, by gold and jewels, real or simulated.

The glory of what we have lost will be suggested when the Westminster Abbey Retable comes to the National Gallery later this month.

Ever since the 1830s, efforts have been made to replace the sense of destination torn from our altars at the Reformation.

Despite the formidable problems, I have yet to meet an artist averse to trying his or her hand. Most offer pieces quintessentially their own, with no particular mark of attention to place.

Dr John Maddison FSA, in accepting an imaginative commission for Ely Cathedral, has come to this task from the opposite direction.

He started by bringing to bear his considerable architectural skill, plus intimate knowledge of the history of the cathedral, and of the late-medieval thought of the era of Bishop Alcock, who died in 1497, three years after putting in hand his chantry chapel.

Maddison is an artist of delicate taste, responsive to his surroundings. He has picked up the fretted nature of the chapel, a small masterpiece of late Gothic; he has caught the tones of vestiges of medieval paint.

He has taken into account the frieze of heraldic shields supported by angels in the glass by Clayton & Bell immediately above his retable, and has reflected the diamond shapes and colour scheme of the Victorian tiled floor.

The result is a quiet statement that brings harmony and a sense of the inevitable to the chapel as a whole. The 1490s and the 1890s are brought together by his painting, which is not so much an addition as a completion.

So much for his pattern, to which he has added, in trompe l’oeil, the instruments of the Passion. Alcock would have known what Maddison was suggesting here.

arts 7419

Detail of John Maddison's altar panels

Down the road at Willingham, a series of instruments of the Passion, each emblazoned on a shield and set against a brocade ground, were painted in the late Middle Ages around the chancel arch, and are still part of the many wall paintings in that church, nearing the end of a long conservation programme.

The late Middle Ages were much addicted to heraldic chivalry, as Clayton & Bell well knew when they placed a frieze of episcopal arms along the window above these panels in Alcock’s chapel. The Christian reply to this flamboyant display of personal emblems was to trick the arma Christi. Christ himself took up arms to win mankind:

 Have Mynde, man, how I took the feeld,
 Upon my bak berying my sheeld;
 For peyne ne deeth I wolde not yelde.
 O synful man, yif me theyn herte.
(James Ryman, c.1490*)

John Maddison has chosen East Anglian models for his selection of the instruments of torture which here, and in medieval shields of arms, represent Christ’s triumph over death.

The hammer comes from Maddison’s own tool box, the nails from the roof of the cathedral. The point of the spear is modelled on a spear-head of c.1000 found in 1929 at Braham Farm on the outskirts of Ely.

The sword he has used as his model was dredged out of the Ouse at Ely in 1845, and is of the later 14th century.

The cockerels are based on a ceramic one made by the Norfolk potter Robert James, and they refer to the punning arms of Bishop Alcock as well as to the bird that crowed when Peter denied Christ.

The shackles were taken from some in Ely prison, where until 1837, brutal punishments were doled out to rebellious citizens under the jurisdiction of the Bishop.

It was always the medieval intent to drive home the culpability of each generation in the death of Christ, a message carried by sermons as well as wall paintings, glass, and manuscripts. Maddison is working in the ancient tradition when he enlists the “turbulent history” of Ely to point the moral.

Alcock would have taken these emblems, and their specific references, to his heart. If he had seen his chapel now, bereft for the most part of its colour, of the 12 medium-size statues of the Apostles, the 20 large statues (presumably of his favourite saints), and the 230 little figures that jostled for place in its crowded niches, he would have been saddened.

The robbery of the last little figures in our own time might have grieved him most. But he would surely have approved this simple but powerful altarpiece, which forgives the vandalism with one hand, and with the other gathers in the busyness of Victorian embellishments.

Alcock’s chantry is once more a place fulfilled. As we turn from the admirable building by Jane Kennedy which links the Lady chapel with the north choir aisle, we see, beckoning us on, a new welcome from the east end.

*Camb. Univ. MS 1.12

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