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The Heraldic Ceiling

Bishop Gavin Dunbar and Alexander Galloway brought about many changes in church buildings in the Aberdeen area and here in the Cathedral they built the western towers in sandstone and inside the building, installed the heraldic ceiling. Today the nave only, survives, and the ceiling is a great adornment, but the message of the ceiling related to the figure of Christ on the wooden screen at the east side of the crossing. The three rows of potentates, representing the kings of Europe, the Pope and clerics of Scotland, and the King of Scots with his nobles, are shown in procession to the King of Kings. The ceiling perhaps illustrates the text from the psalms "the shields of the earth belong unto the Lord".

The flat ceiling contains 48 heraldic shields in three rows of sixteen. At the east end are the principals of each group, in the centre Pope Leo X is followed by the Scottish archbishops and bishops in order of importance. The Prior of St Andrews represents other Church orders and the westmost shield is that of King's College, a local church foundation, strongly supported by Gavin Dunbar. On the north side the first shield, with a closed or imperial crown is that of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who appears on the ceiling in five guises since he was at that time also King of Spain, Aragon, Navarre and Sicily. Henry VIII is accorded the arms of England only. The last shield in this array shows the arms of Old Aberdeen, again a church foundation by Bishop Elphinstone. On the south side James V, King of Scots has an imperial crown and since he is a young boy not yet married, he is accompanied by St Margaret of Scotland rather than his consort. This series is ended with the coat of arms of the royal Burgh of Aberdeen. Here are represented the north-east families of Gordon, Lindsay, Hay and Keith. In the episcopal list the Bishops of Moray and Brechin and the Prior of St Andrews are members of the Hepburn family.

The ceiling is set off by a frieze which starts at the north-west corner of the nave and lists the bishops of the see from Nechtan in 1131 to William Gordon at the Reformation in 1560. This is followed by the Kings of Scots from Malcolm II to Queen Mary. Significantly in the list of Kings, Alexander III is followed by Robert Bruce. As far as our sixteenth-century ceiling is concerned, John Balliol was never King of Scots.

Follow this link to see the owners of the shields

Photographs from electricscotland website (please note that the PDF file is 3.96Mb) www.electricscotland.com/historic/st%20machar%201520%20ceiling.pdf

For a fuller analysis of the history of the heraldic ceiling, you may be interested to read David McRobert's Occasional Paper for further information.