By rights, my write-up of the Stained Glass Museum should be mainly a picture post, to show off the fabulous collection of glass-work housed within the upper reaches of Ely Cathedral. However, the museum is one of those with a firm no-pictures policy (and no large bags, guess they don’t want you clumsily bashing into the glass!), so you’ll have to make do with photos of the cathedral (which is perfectly attractive, it’s just not entirely reflective (ha!) of the surprisingly largely secular museum collection).
The entrance to the Stained Glass Museum is up a steep spiral staircase to the right of the main doors of this superb 12th century cathedral. Ely Cathedral itself is free to enter, but admission to the museum will set you back £4. The gift shop and admissions desk are inside a circular room, which leads off into a long gallery from which you can look down on the centre of the church below, with the stained glass arranged along the walls in two rows. Evensong was taking place when we were there, which lent an appropriate atmosphere to proceedings.
Along the balcony, you’ll find a series of doll-house sized dioramas demonstrating various stages in the glass-making process, from drawing the cartoon (basically a stencil to arrange the pieces of glass on), to cutting the glass, cranking out lead strips to go in between, and soldering the lead. In case you couldn’t get the idea from the adorable dioramas, there’s also a video at the end of a man making a window, so you can see precisely how it’s done (always handy, as I sometimes have a hard time visualising the mechanics of things).
Of course, the real meat(s?) of the museum are the stained glasses themselves. The inner row progressed chronologically, with a detailed sign between each section describing the changes in technology and religion in that time period, and the resulting stylistic changes. As you might expect, the earlier pieces were largely religious in nature, though there were a quite a few that weren’t, from the “Labours of the Month” depicting hog-slaughtering time, to the ever-popular (amongst the French) Reynard the Fox. The medieval windows, in addition to being the oldest, are also some of the most beautiful, as stained glass became largely a forgotten art in England following the Reformation, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that glaziers again learned how to replicate the quality and range of colours of the earlier glass.
The 18th century saw a change in the glass-making process, when a new technique for simply painting over a large pane of glass was introduced, eliminating the need for lead strips, and allowing for a more cohesive picture (but sacrificing the nuances and personality of earlier works), as evidenced by a large portrait of George III done using this technique. The Georgians and Victorians also seemed to favour portraying saints with the faces of members of the Royal Family, hence a portrait of the notorious Victorian Prince Eddy in the guise of St. George.
The outer row contained modern glass pieces, which were often quite whimsical, like “Sure Enough the Duck,” which was of course, a picture of a duck. Some of my favourite pieces were ones that were new interpretations of older themes, like the modern re-creation of “Labours of the Month,” a medieval-style fight with hammer and tongs from 1920, and a cartoon style panel of the Prodigal Son which was straight-up hilarious if you’ve had enough of a religious background (and are a dork) to know the original story (this version ends with the line, “But his elder brother was not pleased. Neither was the fatted calf.”). My favourite older pieces were, perhaps predictably, the ones with monkeys in them doing human stuff like drinking and smoking, and of course, Reynard the Fox, but I think the prettiest pieces of glass were a pair of angels done by Morris and Co. (who were largely behind the drive for improved glass-making techniques) in which the detail on the wings was exquisite.
The majority of the stained glass on display (with the exception of the modern pieces) has been saved from churches and other buildings, and preserved within the back-lit interior of the museum. I, for one, am quite glad it is being looked after, and I really enjoyed my visit here. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of non-religious art, and fascinated by the glass-making procedure (I think I might take a class on stained glass, though I totally lack artistic talent, and have terrible fine motor skills, so I’m fairly sure it will be a disaster. Cutting my nails is enough of a struggle.). 3.5/5.
As a final note, after leaving the cathedral, I learned that one of Oliver Cromwell’s houses was in Ely, just down the street, but as it was already nearly 5 at this point, I was too late to go inside (damn shame, that; one of the bedrooms is rumoured to be haunted!). Still managed to snag a photo with Ollie (and Mrs. Cromwell) out front (although he was almost unrecognisable without his warts)!