‘Glorious’ restoration of 500 year old cathedral ceiling to be celebrated in Aberdeen
Published on 30 September 2022 7 minutes read
A unique piece of Scotland's religious history is belatedly marking its 500th birthday with a weekend of celebration and thanksgiving in Aberdeen.
The programme of events this Saturday and Sunday, (1-2 October) will include an ecumenical service with a sermon by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, and prayers from The Very Rev. Hugh Gilbert, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen, and The Rev. Canon Terry Taggart of St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in the Scottish Episcopal Church.
The service will showcase the 16th century heraldic ceiling at St Machar's Cathedral and the work carried out to restore it over the last two years.
Comprising 48 coats of arms including that of Pope Leo X, King James V of Scotland, Henry VIII of England and many of the royal houses of Europe, the ceiling had survived the Reformation and half a millennium of history, but as it approached its 500th anniversary in 2020 it was demonstrating worrying signs of deterioration, including a mysterious white substance covering the shields.
The almost £2 million restoration project was part of a wider programme of repair and refurbishment which had already seen the replacement of the floor of the central nave and the installation of new pews.
"Without investment now, it would have led to a situation where it would have been very hard to maintain," St Machar's minister Rev Sarah Brown explains.
Since the ceiling was commissioned by Bishop Gavin Dunbar in 1520, St Machar's, the oldest building in Aberdeen still in use, has seen many changes and is now part of the Church of Scotland's Presbyterian tradition. For its current minister, the heraldic ceiling represents an important legacy.
"It represents how central the church was in both Scottish and European history and I suppose that legacy still lives on with the number of visitors who come from all over the world to see the church and particularly the ceiling," she said.
"For me, that's what it signifies, that sense of people 500 years ago investing in a faithfulness that is still being lived out."
In the run up to the weekend, the Cathedral is welcoming parties of children from local schools and the all-ages theme will continue on Saturday with a range of activities, including family crafts between noon and 2pm, and guided tours of the building and grounds.
"It's just great to see the children's reactions," Rev Sarah Brown said.
"When I've asked schools groups what have been their favourite things about the visit, a lot of them say the ceiling. They are just fascinated by it. In some of the workshops that Katherine Williams, our education officer, has been doing, they make shields and get the children to think about what are the important things that would represent them and their generation. It's really interesting to see some of the names and faces that came up."
The highlight of the weekend will be the ecumenical service, which will be attended by 250 invited guests, as well members of the congregation and wider public.
Guests will include former Moderator and Pro-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, Sir Iain Torrance and his wife Morag, along with representatives from the consulates of some of the countries represented on the heraldic ceiling, Bishop Hugh Gilbert, the Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen, and his Argyll counterpart, Bishop Brian McGee, while Rev'd Canon Terry Taggart will representing the Scottish Episcopal Church's Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney. Past ministers of the Cathedral and clergy from nearby churches are also expected to attend.
The occasion is also being marked with three newly commissioned musical pieces to be performed by the Choir of St Machar's Cathedral under conductor Dr Roger B Williams MBE, and organist Matthew McVey.
Music world premiere
Three new musical works will be performed for the first time during the service. The music will include Praise ye the Lord from one of Scotland's best known contemporary composers, Sir James MacMillan, and The Firmament of His Power, by Welsh composer Professor Paul Mealor. Completing the multinational line up is young American composer Sarah Rimkus, who has the closest association with St Machar's as a past member of its choir and who contributes a new setting of Psalm 100.
Rev Sarah Brown hopes the attention on the Cathedral will encourage more people from the city and beyond to visit.
"Having this opportunity to open the doors is something quite special especially after having been forced to close during Covid and I hope this weekend lets people know that the Cathedral is open year round and that this is a space they can enjoy," she said.
"It's also a great opportunity to invite some of our neighbours and some of the groups and community projects and just offer them the chance to see what St Machar's looks like in all its glory."
Providing an insight into the work to restore the ceiling is a Saturday evening lecture by Professor David Hewitt, who as client representative on the project worked closely with the contractors, Graeme W Cheyne Builders Ltd, and conservation architect Mark Hopton of LDN Architects of Edinburgh and Forres.
The work included installing insulation, a waterproof membrane and a new floor above the 16th century ceiling, as well as repairing the roof, which could lose up to 50 slates at a time in stormy weather.
"If the roof does leak again, it shouldn't penetrate to the ceiling," Professor Hewitt explained.
"Water will land on the floor and if there is a lot of it, it will go on to the plastic membrane underneath and be drained off to the outside of the church. Secondly, the temperature inside the church and above the ceiling should be roughly the same so the ceiling is not being subjected to extremes of temperature which was believed to be the cause of deterioration."
To bring the building up to modern standards other remedial tasks were carried out and the stained glass windows were cleaned inside and out.
Expert restorers from Charles Taylor Woodwork and Scottish Wall Paintings Conservators repaired the woodwork and paint, and replaced the iron bolts securing the shields with stainless steel alternatives.
Finally, to help showcase the renovations at their best, new lighting was installed by Malcolm Innes Design.
"This means that, probably for the first time, the ceiling can be properly viewed in all temperatures," Professor Hewitt said.
"We have never seen it like this because it was badly lit and covered with this dust, which turned out to be stearic acid, produced by the breakdown of linseed oil used to treat the ceiling. You could see it was an important monument, but it didn't look glorious. It does now."
Professor Hewitt also hopes the work will bring more attention to St Machar's and its heraldic ceiling.
"Having a heraldic ceiling is extraordinary for a church. There are others over the course of the 16th century, but St Machar's is the first and it is really one with a political message for Scotland and Western Europe," he said.
"Here are 48 shields representing Europe, of which the Pope is at the centre, the kings of Europe down the north side and the King and regents of Scotland down the south side. It's talking about a united Christendom under the Pope with ecclesiastical power supported on either side by secular power and all under God. It really ought to be better known,"
Remarkably, despite the disruption of Covid, the work was completed in just 12 months and within its allocated budget of £1.852 million. As well as money from St Machar's fabric fund, the work has been carried out with the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, the National Churches Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, Aberdeen City Common Good Fund, the Allchurches Trust, the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland, the Baird Trust, the Aberdeen City Heritage Trust, the Friends of St Machar's Cathedral, Scotland's Churches Trust, the Barrack Charitable Trust, and many generous donations from individuals.
The Covid forced delay did mean that the Cathedral has had to postpone its anniversary celebration from 2020 to 2022, but Professor Hewitt sees no reason to be upset about that.
"We think that over 500 years, a slippage of two years doesn't make much difference!" he said.
"After having been shut during Covid and the restrictions on visits during the restoration work, it's been a long time of the doors not feeling like they could be opened, but they are open now and this weekend is definitely a celebration of that."
The public events taking place this weekend include:
Saturday 1 October 2022
12 noon – 2pm. Family craft activities using paint and air-dry clay (no booking required).
1pm and 3pm: Guided tours concentrating on the ceiling (no booking required)
7pm: Stories in Stones and Wood: interpreting St Machar's and its ceiling, A lecture by Professor David Hewitt (Pre-booking through Eventbrite is possible but not essential).
Sunday 2 October 2022
2.45pm for 3pm: A celebratory ecumenical service with a sermon by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields, and the world premiere of new compositions by Sir James MacMillan, Professor Paul Mealor and Sarah Rimkus .(Booking essential: email email@example.com)
All events are free.