The opening of a new exhibition by Historic Scotland on Good Friday 2016 at Elgin cathedral was an opportunity to see arguably the best collection of medieval architectural sculpture in Scotland and one which has been inaccessible to the public for over twenty years. It was too good an opportunity to miss and we were not disappointed. Presented in a sensitive and imaginative series of displays in the chambers of the two surviving west towers of the cathedral the climb up the spiral stairs between the several chambers in which this permanent exhibition is now housed is amply rewarded by the plethora of sculptures – there are approximately 126 in the collection as a whole. Well considered LED artificial lighting brings the human and animal figures and faces to life, not just statically but in one case using projection mapping. This is used here for the tomb effigy of Bishop Archibald a 13th-century bishop of Moray (1253-98). Researchers at Napier University have designed and built an enclosed and highly effective projection mapping display which shows the paint colour scheme that the tomb effigy would originally have had. This reconstruction was based on paint samples which are still visible on the surviving stone. The effect is remarkably vivid – the colours are very bright. The opportunity has also been taken to exploit the animative potential of projection mapping and show the figure in various stages of weathering and to highlight areas of interest, including parts that have been replaced or are missing. For a young audience, the blinking eyes of the effigy under the projection mapping display are a surprising treat! Historic Scotland have had all the stones professionally photographed in detail and these images have been used to create a digital database of the entire collection which visitors can explore on the ground floor of the North West tower.
Started in 1224 Elgin Cathedral was a powerhouse of Catholic faith in the north of Scotland and was lavishly enriched with architectural and ecclesiastical ornament. Archibald became Bishop in 1253 and for 20 years he managed his dioceses quietly. However in 1270 a fire broke out which devastated the cathedral and the cannons’ houses. Archibald rebuilt the cathedral and expanded it, and he chose a prime location for his own tomb, in the choir, close the high altar where he was placed on his death in 1298. His tomb effigy under the projection mapping shows Bishop Archibald with a jewelled mitre, kneeling angels supporting his head on a decorated cushion, a red cope painted to show folds and with a black geometric pattern in the lining and a full length tunic under the cope decorated with a floral pattern and on his hands embroidered silk gloves.
Ninety years later the cathedral was infamously sacked and burned in 1390 by Alexander Stewart the Earl of Buchan also known as the “Wolf of Badenoch” in revenge for Bishop Alexander Bur (1362-97) excommunicating him. It was rebuilt and attacked again in 1402 by Alexander MacDonald, Lord of the Isles. Elgin’s position near the edge of the Highlands was a major problem in the later middle ages. The last major building work was the re-modelling of the chapter house by Bishop Andrew Stewart (1482-1501). The Reformation Parliament of 1560 began the decline of the cathedral, worship was moved to the local parish church of St Giles, the lead roofing was stripped from the cathedral in 1567-8 and 70 years later in December 1637 the choir blew down in a gale and the rood screen was broken up for firewood. The central tower collapsed on Easter Sunday 1711. The stone sculptures laid buried as debris until the 1880’s which accounts for their marvellously crisp detail. The west towers and chapter house remained roofed and form part of the most magnificent ecclesiastical ruin in the north of Scotland but one which now boasts a superb exhibition of medieval sculptural art thanks to Historic Scotland. Elgin is 3 ¾ hours’ drive north of Edinburgh or just over 4 hours on the train.