Hays at St Machar’s Cathedral ceiling rededication

The Earl of Moray and Angus Hay at St Machar's Cathedral

The magnificent heraldic ceiling of St Machar's, the medieval cathedral of Aberdeen, has been rededicated following a lengthy restoration project.  The rededication service was attended by a group of Hays, including our Chief, the Earl of Erroll, who was one of several peers and chiefs present, the descendants of those whose Coats of Arms are depicted there.  The ecumenical service was led by the Rev Sarah Brown, the minister of the cathedral, and involved representatives of all three of Scotland's main denominations.  The sermon was preached by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields.  Readings were given by the Very Rev Professor Sir Iain Torrance, a former Moderator and until recently Dean of the Chapel Royal.  Prayers were led by the Rev Canon Terry Taggart of the Scottish Episcopal Church (standing in for the Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney, who is currently suspended following a barrage of complaints about her behaviour) and Hugh Gilbert, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Aberdeen.

The ceiling in the nave, the only part of the old building that survives, is unique in Europe.  It consists of 48 shields, arranged in three rows.  These rows run from west to east in ascending order of status, until they meet the now vanished rood-screen, which contained a huge, wood-carved figure of Christ, signalling that the three potentates at the easternmost end of each row were those closest to Christ himself.

The significance of the ceiling can be interpreted on several levels.  On the one hand, it is one of the most important works of architectural art of its time, and not just in Scotland.  Its existence belies the popular 19th century view – still popular among English historians of the Trevor-Roper school - that medieval Scotland was a cultural and artistic desert.  More importantly, the ceiling is a political statement of Scotland’s position at that point in time; specifically, it is a statement of nationalism.

The centre row, headed by Pope Leo X, shows the arms of the princes of the church, headed by the Archbishops of St Andrews and Glasgow behind those of the pope, and continuing with the bishops of Scotland, emphasising Scotland’s commitment to the unity of Christendom (ie, Europe) under the papacy.

To the north are depicted the arms of the kings and dukes of Europe, headed by those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, surmounted with his imperial crown, reflecting the emperor’s traditional status as the secular head of Christendom.  Here, the ceiling’s creator takes the opportunity to express his view of England.  Despite our proximity to our southern neighbour, and the close family connection between our respective royal houses, England is relegated several spaces back the hierarchy of kings, pointedly placed behind both France and Spain.  Furthermore, and in what can only be seen as a calculated insult, Henry VIII is allowed only the leopards of England and is deprived of the French quartering, which meant so much to English kings of the time, however delusional their French ambitions.

It is no coincidence that the ceiling coincided with the Lutheran Revolt in Germany, which questioned the historic supremacy of both the empire and the papacy.  The third row of shields shows the arms of Scotland’s principal nobility, including most, although not all, of the earls of the day, including those of the fifth Earl of Erroll.  The arms of King James V are at the head of this row, next to the figure of Christ and alongside the shields of the pope and the emperor.  Uniquely among the sovereigns depicted here, James V is accorded an imperial crown, signifying his and Scotland’s status as a free and independent nation under God.