Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel: Devotion and Destruction

Paul Binski

Ely Cathedral’s Lady Chapel was one of the most splendid artistic and architectural achievements of medieval England. The Catholic chapel’s lavishly painted sculpture and stained glass, devoted to the Virgin Mary, moved pilgrims to a religious frenzy. But when Protestants began to call for a ‘purer’ vision of the Christian faith in the 16th and 17th centuries, this same quality triggered repulsion. During the hundred years of the English Reformation, the chapel was scraped, scrubbed and smashed of its extravagance.

Art Historian Paul Binski believes it is possible to recover the Lady Chapel’s former opulence in the imagination. His talk gives an insight into the psychology behind Ely’s splendour, and the idea that art can be so powerful as to provoke violence – something we still see in headlines today.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

This building is a chapel. But the fact is, it’s only one part of one of the greatest building operations conducted in medieval England. A building like this had a specific purpose which was to adorn, celebrate, house the popular devotions to the Virgin Mary that were becoming increasingly common in the 13th and 14th century, the age of Gothic art. It instantly draws you in, and you have two emotions. You have the sense of just how compelling this art is and how it wins you over, and you also have this tremendous historical sense of loss. Of how much has been erased from the Middle Ages. So its history is tragic, and yet just enough remains to tell us so much about the mental and spiritual and artistic life of the people who made it.

We’re standing in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral at Ely, which is in the heart of East Anglia. It’s a very windswept and cold place, but in the Middle Ages it was a very important architectural and artistic centre. This building was begun in the year 1321 and it was completed 28 years later. Within a very few years, right next door to it, was constructed the great octagon, at the centre of the church. It’s as high as the Pantheon in Rome. It was a miracle of engineering.

The Lady Chapel is a miracle of what you might call ‘compression’. It’s a very intense pictorialization of the idea of the Virgin Mary herself. And the name that has been given to this kind of style, which is extremely ornate and inventive, is the Decorated Style. The Decorated Style has certain specific things to look out for. In particular, a sort of Alice in Wonderland sense of scale. Tiny motifs that grow very big and very big motifs that get very small. You’ve lots of foliage, carved foliage, everywhere, it’s like coral, it’s amazingly delicate and intricate, and kind of weird.

And you’ve got some forms that I find particularly fascinating, they have a kind of ‘S’ shape, they’re called Ogee arches. The Ogee arch itself starts in India in the pre-Christian era. You find it in Buddhist art, you find it in Islamic art, you find it in Byzantine art. It arrives in East Anglia, of all places, in the 14th century and it becomes a kind of language with which they spoke naturally. And they spoke of the Virgin Mary through this language.

When people entered this building, it’s very important to remember that is a chapel with diverse audiences. The laypeople, the ordinary pilgrims, came in through the lay-entrance, which is over there and the first thing they saw was the very beginning of the life of the Virgin Mary. Then you get the real ‘business end’ of the narrative. You get the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the really big narrative moments occur on the big buttresses. Mary goes up to heaven, bodily, and then she starts to perform miracles on Earth, and there’s a whole string of quite lively miracles, which are particularly racy as you get into the monk’s part. The fascinating thing is that the slightly, how can I put it, the slightly raunchy stories about booze and sex and pride were not for the lay people at all.

People come into this building to be healed, cheered up, but above all they would have thought about this in kind of medicinal terms. That you’re sweetened by the Virgin Mary. My thought is this. Was the curving Ogee arch and the beautiful, slightly fleshy, consistency of the architecture here, in a way a metaphor, or a communicative vehicle, for the idea of femininity?  What they were doing at Ely was producing an architecture that in itself would have made people subliminally aware of the Virgin Mary as a kind of physical presence, as something which we love, which we’re drawn to.

The second thing was colour. This building was like a hothouse of colour. What we see now is like a bleached remnant of something that was altogether more exotic. And finally stained glass. So, much more striking. We might not have liked it, but we would undoubtedly have been impressed by it.

Iconoclasm literally is the destruction of images. Basically, the censorship off anything that is a representation. This building was absolutely packed with sculpture. A lot of that is gone, simply torn away. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when the English Reformation occurred, a long-drawn out and violent process, a very divisive process, the deliberate targeting of the central symbols of Catholicism was important. And certainly in this part of England, which was really the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, there was a violent sentiment against all the things that had, two centuries before been extremely loved, respected and regarded. And the cult of the Virgin Mary, was swept away. The theory is always that by getting rid of the concrete expression of something, by erasing it, you disempower the idea and you disempower the perpetuation of the idea. It’s a way of erasing memory.

So when I speak about the art and architecture here being persuasive, being sweetening, you have to understand that to a Protestant reformer, all these little what they would call ‘puppets’ these statues all around the room, all the little stories, would be deeply interesting, but also repulsive and dangerous. And, as a result of that, what I call ‘hammer-happy iconoclasts’ went for this building with a kind of enthusiasm. All the statues were pulled down in the upper parts of the wall, all the stained glass just smashed out, and all the delicate little stories of the Virgin Mary, all of her little miracles, whacked off with hammers. All heads went, some of them are unrecognisable, and the colour was scrubbed off, and the whole thing, it was an effort to kind of cancel it, to destroy its power.

I think the mood of this building now is kind of melancholy.  In a sense, it’s not quite a ruin, but it speaks to us poetically of something that has been lost but which we can recover in our imaginations. Ely stands out not just its technical brilliance, but its ambition on two levels – its ambition of scale, and its ambition of invention. There’s nothing else really quite like it at this stage in the whole of Europe. I think it’s possibly the only moment in the history of art, when the art of England is supreme.

With thanks to

Ely Cathedral



A Lezine

Alamy Stock Photo

Associated Press Archive

BBC Universal

The British Library

The British Museum


Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Morgan Library and Museum

Musée Atger

National Library of France

The Schoyen Collection


Truth of God Broadcast


Walters Art Museum



Original composition


Full list of images shown: 

Almugavar Hours, Coronation of the Virgin and decorative border with floral and faunal motifs and vignettes

Catalonian school, ca. 1510-1520

Walters Manuscript W.420, fol. 94v

Walters Art Museum

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


Entrance of Emir Sultan Mosque in Bursa

ME_Photography, 2013



Concrete Buddhist structures on top of Patuxai monument, Vientiane, Laos

Pitzy, c. 2016



Virgin and Child with Saints Triptych at Mission San Diego < wrong, have emailed

Jose Miguel Serra, 1776

Lowell Georgia via Getty


Madonna of Mercy

Sano di Pietro, 1440s


Manuscript Illumination with the Assumption of the Virgin in an Initial G, from a Gradual

Attributed to Cosmè Tura, 1450 – 1460

Metropolitan Museum of Art


The Coronation of the Virgin

Miracles of Nostre Dame (Books I and II) f52v.  Gautier de Coincy, 1328 – 1332

Department of Manuscripts NAF 24541

National Library of France


Ta’amra Maryam, 33 Miracles of the Virgin Mary

Ethiopian school, c.1700

© The Schoyen Collection MS248


Virgin Mary with Drunken Monk

Illumination from the Ramsey Psalter

East Anglia or London, England, c. 1300-1310

The Morgan Library and Museum, New York


An abbey cellarer testing his wine

Illumination from Li livres dou santé

Aldobrandino of Siena, late 13th century

The British Library, Sloane 2435, f. 44v


People playing blind man’s buff

Illumination from Chansonnier de Paris

France, c.1280-1315


The Annunciation

Illumination from the Westminster Psalter

British School, c1200.

The British Library


The Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple of Jerusalem

Anonymous, 1050

The Morgan Library and Museum


IS Group Destroying Iraq’s Hatra

Militant video, 2015

AP Archive


Pastor Gino Jennings breaks the Virgin Mary statue, idolatry!

Truth of God Broadcast, 2002


Taller Buddha of Bamiyan before and after destruction

UNESCO/A Lezine, 2009


Luther Iconoclasts

Chronicle via Alamy Stock Photo


Scottish Reformation 16th century

Chronicle via Alamy Stock Photo


Destruction of icons in Zurich

Anonymous, 1524


The Calvinist Iconoclastic Riot of August 20 1566

Frans Hogenberg, c. 1566

The British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)



Protestant Reformation, 1517 – 1555,  soldiers destroying paintings and religious objects in Witte

INTERFOTO via Alamy Stock Photo

Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Sussan Babaie: Looking at Persian Painting

Sussan Babaie: Looking at Persian Painting 03:57 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

‘It doesn't describe, it evokes…’ — Prof. Sussan Babaie

Brian Clarke, Norman Foster and Robert Storr in Conversation

Brian Clarke, Norman Foster and Robert Storr in Conversation 47:21 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

An online conversation between the foremost practitioner of stained glass, architectural artist Brian Clarke and esteemed architect Sir Norman Foster, chaired by Robert Storr.

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future

Zaha Hadid: Sketching the Future 12:53 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

Hans Ulrich Obrist traces how Zaha Hadid’s futuristic architecture evolved from ‘superfluid’ sketches.