Locating and Relocating St Joseph in the Lady Chapel, Ely
By a most unusual twist of fate, a lone figure of St Joseph survives in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral. He is recognizable by the basket of doves and candle he sometimes offers on the occasion of the Purification of the Virgin and the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (main picture, © Rosie Mills). However, the larger scene to which he belongs is missing. What was once the dominant form of decoration in the chapel (the windows occupy over two-thirds of the wall space) has over the years been reduced to nothing more than a handful of scraps (Fig. 1). The figure of Joseph survives with some angel musicians, a figure of Christ Judge displaying his wounds, and a set of architectural canopies inhabited by figures of knights and laymen (Fig. 2). As the Last Judgement was so frequently used in church decoration as an independent subject in its own right, the figure of Joseph at Ely is the only conclusive evidence that the windows of the Lady Chapel once contained a series of narrative episodes from the bible.
The survival of medieval glass at Ely Cathedral was first brought to public attention in an exhibition of medieval art from East Anglia at the Castle Museum in Norwich. The catalogue, published in 1973, reproduced some of the canopy figures with a discussion of their style and iconography by David King. Canopy figures from the Lady Chapel were also exhibited in the Age of Chivalry exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1987, and were discussed by Richard Marks in the accompanying catalogue. One of the figures from these canopies, a bearded layman, has been on loan to The Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral since 1991. The figure of Joseph, however, has largely escaped notice. Perhaps this is because he is a supporting figure rather than central one in the scene of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or perhaps it is because nothing else of the scene survives. For both of these reasons he is a challenge to interpret.
In 1990, something of the original effect of the fourteenth-century glazing scheme was restored to the Lady Chapel at Ely by Keith Barley of Barley Studios, based in York (Fig. 2). All of the medieval fragments in the chapel had previously been removed for conservation to Dennis King’s studio in Norwich sometime in or after 1963, judging from the date of a photograph of the glass still in situ in the CVMA (GB) Picture Archive (Fig. 3). The Picture Archive also contains photographs of the canopies from the window heads (Fig. 4), as well as musician angels in individual tracery lights (Figs 5, 6, and 7), taken on light-boxes at the studio in Norwich. However, the medieval glass from the Lady Chapel was ultimately transferred to Barley Studio, where the present display scheme for window sIV (the third and middle window from the east on the south side) was devised. The remaining fragments not incorporated into the scheme were returned to the Cathedral and are currently in the care of The Stained Glass Museum.
Keith Barley’s restoration of the glass was particularly felicitous, in that it pulled together the surviving tracery lights and window heads from the Lady Chapel into a single window (Fig. 2). The effect is one of unity that invites the viewer to imagine the richness of the original glazing scheme. This is in contrast to the previous state, where the degree of fragmentation tended to highlight the devastation of the medieval glazing, distancing the viewer from what did survive (Fig. 3). Barley’s conservation report (a copy of which resides in the Cathedral Archive) documents the prior locations of individual tracery lights. These are independently corroborated by a diagram in Philip Lindley’s unpublished PhD thesis on the building projects at Ely Cathedral in the fourteenth century. Barley’s report also records individual alterations that were necessary in order to accommodate some of the lights into different tracery shapes; in one case, where a light has been reinstalled into a larger opening, the integrity of its original form has been retained and can still be distinguished with the naked eye (Fig. 8). The report includes pre- and post-restoration photographs of each window section, showing how previous repair insertions have been removed and replaced either with medieval fragments of suitable shape and colour or with modern glass shaded to blend in with the old. It is therefore still possible to retrieve the prior locations and profiles of individual pieces of glass for research purposes.
However, there is reason to doubt whether these prior locations were in fact the original ones. The prior positions of two tracery lights in particular stand out because of their incompatibility. It is very unlikely that the angel playing a trumpet currently in light E4 originally came from the same window as the figure of Joseph currently in light F2 (Fig. 9 and main picture). The angel was previously located in the left hand side of the tracery in the position now occupied by one of the two angels against a red background playing a triangle (Fig. 2). Joseph was previously located in the right hand side of the tracery in the position now occupied by one of the two angels against a red background playing the bells. There are no angels in the iconography of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the angel would have been far too close to the figure of Joseph not to intrude upon this scene.
Depictions of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple refer to events following Christ’s birth but prior to his conversing with the elders in the Temple at the age of twelve. The Gospel of St Luke II, 22–38 combines the ceremony in which the Virgin Mary offers a sacrifice to re-enter the Temple after childbirth (Purification of the Virgin) with the ceremony in which her firstborn child is presented to God (Presentation of Christ) into a single episode in the Temple. Further, the narrative includes two prophetic events. The child Jesus is recognized as the Messiah by two figures in the temple, an elderly man called Simeon and the prophetess Anna. In different representations, different ceremonies (purification/presentation) and prophecies (Simeon’s/Anna’s) are emphasized. Many of the elements, including the presence of Joseph, are variable. However, the standard iconography is a symmetrical composition with the infant Christ being handed across an altar between Mary and Simeon, accompanied by Joseph and Anna respectively. This schematic representation synthesizes all the key elements of the narrative, with Joseph carrying the doves for the sacrifice and a candle for the churching of Mary, and Simeon taking on the role of the priest attended by the prophetess Anna.
From what is known of the iconography of the Presentation in the Temple it is possible to suggest where the tracery light of Joseph might most reasonably have been located. The usual orientation shows Mary approaching the altar from the left followed by Joseph and Simeon standing behind the altar on the right, with Anna behind him. Yet the basket of doves clasped to the right side of Joseph’s body and the gesture of his other hand in the same direction suggests that at Ely the standard orientation of the scene was reversed (see main picture). This orientation would be particularly apt if the scene was originally located on the south side rather than the north side of the Lady Chapel, because in a south window the Virgin and Joseph would appear to be walking towards the altar in the East rather than away from it. It is therefore more conceivable that the tracery light of Joseph derives from one of the south windows.
It is highly unlikely that this scene would appear independently of the narrative of the infancy of Christ. Unlike the Annunciation, Nativity or the Crucifixion, the Presentation in the Temple is not an event that stands alone in the repertoire of Christian art. We must therefore imagine a narrative sequence running along the tracery of the Lady Chapel windows above the main lights, which probably contained standing figures under their elaborate canopies. Such an arrangement would echo the sculpture below. The glass would follow the same organising principle as the sculptural niches, which contain a series of standing figures with a Marian narrative running above, along their spandrels. The possibility that the glass formed part of an integrated programme of decoration is an opportunity to contemplate how the Decorated Style in England brought the two media into such close alliance.
J. J. A. Alexander and P. Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England: 1200-1400, London, 1987
K. Barley, ‘Ely Cathedral, Window sIV Lady Chapel. Restoration and Conservation Report’, unpublished report, 1990
N. Coldstream (ed), Medieval Art and Architecture at Ely Cathedral, London, 1979
P. Lasko and N. Morgan (eds), Medieval Art in East Anglia, Norwich, 1973
P. G. Lindley, ‘The Monastic Cathedral at Ely, c.1320 to c.1350: Art and Patronage in Medieval East Anglia’, Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 1985
R. Marks, Stained Glass in England During the Middle Ages, London, 1993
Dorothy C. Schorr, ‘The Iconographic Development of the Presentation in the Temple’, Art Bulletin, xxviii/1 (March 1946), pp.17–32