I spend a lot of time in cathedrals for someone who is both Jewish and an atheist. I was in the choir at school and for eight years I sat in the school chapel, singing, hearing the words of prayers and collects and didn't see anything strange in that. Just because I don't believe in God, I didn't see any reason to cut myself off from so much that was beautiful. The words of the King James Bible, going into my head on a daily basis, didn't do much to convince me about the truth of religion but it certainly had a profound effect on my views about language, poetry, and how English sounds (because this was mostly the words read aloud) and how things should be framed and expressed. And even though our Chapel wasn't exactly Ely Cathedral, it did get me used to things like stained glass and carved wood and vaulted ceilings.
I also love cathedrals because they represent so much work on the part of so many unnamed people over such a long time. I can't go into one without imagining the literally incredible calculations and efforts that went into building it. I go and visit a cathedral whenever there's one nearby, and when we moved to Cambridge in 2010, Ely became my 'local' cathedral. I've been to performances there (Hilary Mantel speaking about Bring up the Bodies...what a marvellous evening that was!) and attended carol services, too. Again, I feel that being a non-believer ought not to prevent me from singing my heart out. Singing is good for everyone.
Ely Cathedral is magnificent. And one of the best spaces within the Cathedral is the Lady Chapel, (see below.) The blue statue of the Virgin Mary is a bit unexpected but you get used to it and the beauty of the room soon becomes the only thing you notice.
The other day, I went to see a most unusual exhibition of Ecclesiastical Embroideries by the Royal School of Needlework. This is a fascinating organisation and has its headquarters in Hampton Court Palace. It both teaches embroidery and spreads the word about this ancient art and also is in charge of keeping embroidered chasubles, stoles, copes, frontals and the like in good order. They are also repairers and conservers of embroideries in the Royal palaces. This exhibition finished at the end of February, alas, so this post is like a kind of souvenir for me.
We weren't allowed to take photographs but the what was on show ranged from robes worn by the clery, and cloths used to decorate the church in one way and another to diploma pieces by students of ecclesiastical embroidery, and even the St Etheldreda banner from the Cathedral itself, made by someone I thought was called MISS YARNS (apt) but who turns out to be MISS YAMS (faintly comic.) Never mind, it's a beautiful banner.
What I've chosen to highlight is the Loreto Litany. There are twelve portraits of the Virgin Mary in her various guises: mother, comforter to the sick, etc. No one knows who made them. They were formerly owned by the convent of the Holy Child in Maybury and they were donated to the RSN on condition that they were properly looked after and preserved. This is the first time all twelve embroideries have been exhibited together.
They are 20th century pieces but it's my bet that they date from quite early in the century. No one knows who designed them, but designed they certainly were, and by someone who was very fond of the work of Aubrey Beardsley, I think. We do not have her name. We do not know if the designer also stitched the hangings but I'm pretty sure she was, even if others helped her. The portraits of Our Lady are most beautiful and below I've put up photos from the set of postcards I bought. The stitches are so small that you have to bring your eyes very close to the fabric to see how perfectly they've been executed. What appears yellow in these photographs is actually gold thread. The white is lustrous and pearly. The images shine out of their frames. Whoever designed these; whoever the women were who stitched them, I salute them all. As many people as possible ought to know about them. My fellow History Girl, Celia Rees, wrote eloquently about quilts the other day, and there too, one of the most touching things about anonymous handiwork is that the beauty remains long after the maker is gone and forgotten and there is something poignant about that. In the case of work for the Church, we're always told that artistic effort is for the greater glory of God, but these embroideries spoke very clearly to me of the wondrous talent of ordinary women.