Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.

Destroying statues

NOBODY IS PERFECT, and that includes all of those ‘great’ men and women whose lives are remembered with statues. Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without questioning (or even after questioning) nor that statues should be destroyed.  Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

STAT BLOG

Let me state at the outset that I am against both idolatry and iconoclasm. I do not believe that anyone should be worshipped without or with questioning nor that statues should be destroyed. Everyone has good and bad points, and that should be remembered always when looking at a statue.

Consider Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902). He was not a person that I would have enjoyed meeting, even for a brief drink in a pub. From what I know of him, he was power hungry and greedy and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals.

Undoubtedly, money derived from his endeavours has been spent on good works including the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which began funding bright young scholars from 1902 onwards. Many academic and other fine accomplishments have been achieved by the recipients of these awards. However, some of them are now criticising the way that Rhodes exploited/plundered Africa to produce his wealth. Given that these scholarships, funded by what some might describe as ‘dirty money’, are awarded to people with above-average intellectual abilities who could easily have examined Rhodes’ history, I find it strange that the recipients did not question the morality of the origins of what was being offered to them before receiving and spending it. Some recipients justify accepting the scholarships by saying it is a way that Rhodes’ debt to Africa can be partially repaid. Maybe, but would you feel comfortable if, say, the infamous Kray Twins or Al Capone offered to use some of their ill-gotten gains to fund your education? Would you justify accepting their money by saying that although they killed people and committed crimes like theft, it was good that they were using someone else’s wealth to repay their debt to society? Few people would justify erecting statues to either the Kray Twins or Al Capone.

Unlike Capone and the Krays, Rhodes was not breaking any British law when he was plundering Africa to glorify the British Empire and line his own pockets. From the viewpoint of the great majority of ‘white’ British people, his contemporaries, Rhodes was doing a good job during his lifetime for the Empire and his native land, Great Britain. Statues were erected in his memory by those who had benefitted from his life’s work. Those people were mostly, if not all, ‘white’ people. The monuments were put up during an era when racial prejudice went unquestioned and people ‘of colour’ lacked any public influence.

Times have changed. The racial situation, the rights of ‘people of colour’, is also changing, albeit too slowly. Recent and not so recent events across the Atlantic in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” have justifiably heightened popular consciousness and questioning of the worthiness of those, like Rhodes, whose statues adorn our lands.

So as Vladimir Ilych Lenin, discredited by some, and many of whose statues have been toppled, asked in 1902:
“What is to be done?”
What is to be done with the statues of celebrated people with flaws in their personalities? One could pull them down as has been the case with many statues of Stalin, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more recently a slave owner in Bristol. Apart from temporarily assuaging the temper of an assembly of aggrieved folk, the toppling or destruction of a statue might have few or no lasting beneficial effects.

It would be far better to remove the statues from positions of great public prominence to more discreet locations (maybe to museums) and to label their plinths with inscriptions that summarise the subjects’ both good and bad actions. Also, it would be a good idea to educate children and other students to understand that just as there are two competing teams in a football match, there are two sides to a person’s personality: a good one and a bad one. It is the balance of these that needs to be judged. In the case of Rhodes, the bad wins, but in the case of, say Edward Jenner (of smallpox vaccination fame), whose statue can be found in Hyde Park, his good features easily predominate.

Finally, destruction of statues and monuments worries me because they are part of remembering. If we know that a monument commemorates something that should not be repeated, such as slavery, let it remain, suitably labelled, so that we do not run the risk of unpleasant aspects of history repeating themselves. For as the philosopher George Santana (1863-1952) wrote in 1906:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”