Cathedral Treasure, Finalist Number 4. A gateway to heaven. The Prior’s Door at Ely Cathedral
There are 10 finalists in our Cathedral Treasure competition. You can vote for your favourite and you’ll be in with a chance of winning a copy of Janet Gough’s brilliant Deans’ Choice: Cathedral Treasures of England and Wales.
This magnificent Romanesque carved doorway dates from the early twelfth century. It was most likely completed by 1135 and was part of the building of the Norman church (c.1081–1189). It opens off the medieval cloister, but, despite its name (acquired in the nineteenth century), it was not built for the use of the Prior; it is likely instead to have been used by the monastery’s important secular visitors.
Like the rest of the building, the deeply carved doorway is sculpted in extremely hard Barnack limestone. It has a tympanum – a half-moon shape at the top – which would originally have been brightly painted. It shows an unusual clean-shaven Christ sitting in judgement on the peoples of the earth. One hand is raised in blessing, the other holds the Book of Judgement from Revelation.
The Christ figure is contained within a mandorla – an almond shape traditionally used to frame images of the transcendent. Here Christ’s feet cross the boundary of the mandorla, stepping towards mankind.
The doorway has three intricately carved jambs on each side. The inside jambs are covered with stylised foliage, the middle ones with a detailed interlace design, including ‘biting beasts’ reminiscent of the Viking era; there are roundels on the outside jambs showing, on the western side, signs of the zodiac and, on the eastern side, vignettes of human activity. Two human heads with pronounced eyes just below the tympanum watch those passing through the door into the church and symbolically entering heaven.
Vote for your favourite here.