And so as the two floats have been escorted to the cathedral with a funeral march and choral accompaniments at 7.00pm we are ready for the procession to begin.
The robes for the oldest confraternity of SS Salvatore bear a red Maltese cross which suggests a link back to the crusades (this being the emblem of the Knights Hospitaler), but the pictures on the exterior walls of their church suggest their presence much earlier in time.
As rewriting history goes it isn’t subtle. The other confraternities wear similar garb but in different colour combinations, but they are all united in wearing pointed white hoods that obscure their identities. (The exceptions being those carrying the burden of the floats who presumably need more ventilation.)
Some see the hoods as reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan (though there is no known connection) and of course the costumes long predate the Klan’s origins, but perhaps for this reason, all but one of the confraternities have the points of their hoods carefully folded over and held in place with what might be seen as an ersatz crown of thorns reducing the resemblance, though they are still very strange-looking. Mondassian cybermen sprang to mind.
The true purpose of these hoods was originally to serve as a mark of humiliation for sinners in the early days of the inquisition, although it is also seen as a symbol of mourning, hiding the grief they feel at the death of Jesus.
And so at 7.00 the procession begins, a slow, funeral march from the Cathedral near the top of the hill, down to the cemetery which is nearly 4km away. Those taking part are almost exclusively male (though the occasional small group of girls get to dress as nuns and walk between the two columns of mysterious figures slowly making their way through the town.
Each group has its own symbol that it parades, though for the confraternity of the Passion, a series of symbols from the crucifixion are individually carried on either side of the procession. Borne on red velvet cushions they include nails, dice and even a heavily sedated cockerel.
Fascinating stuff, but there’s a problem, for after the brotherhood of the Passion have passed we then have the brotherhoods of SS. Crocifisso of Pergusa, Maria SS of Valverde, SS. Sacramento, Maria SS of the Grazie, San Giuseppe, Maria SS del Rosario, confraternity Maria SS. Della Visitazione, Sacro Cuore, Spirito Santo, Maria SS Immacolata, Anime Sante del Purgatorio, Maria SS la Nuova and SS. Salvatore. Then clergy with a Cross reliquary containing fragments of the cross and the thorns of Christ under a canopy followed finally by the urn of the Dead Christ, the float bearing the Addolorata and another band as well as local dignitaries. All in all there are some 3,000 people and it takes some time for them to complete the trip at which point they turn around and return via a different route.
One of the consequences of the Reformation was the loss of art in Northern Europe. Statues were removed. (Did you spot the empty niches in this shot yesterday?) Paintings were destroyed. Murals and frescos whitewashed over. Carvings were vandalised.
The Lady Chapel at Ely which adjoins the Cathedral is a large an airy building; a magnificent space for worship in its own right.Around its walls are dozens of small arches framed with intricate carving; now pale stone, but once brightly painted as this fragment demonstrates.Within each of these arches is a small sculpture of a person; perhaps saints or other important religious figures. It’s hard to tell though because every one of them has been attacked; their faces and heads removed with hammer and chisel. As we in west decry the actions of Islamic State in flattening historic sites, as we were horrified by Taliban attacking statues of the Buddha, we should perhaps remember that we have been just as ignorant in our own history.What is ironic is that some statuary was immune to the fanatic’s hammer; there are still plenty of faces adorning Ely Cathedral who have had nothing more than the weather to contend with.