This noble College



Heading: Crowning achievement of Scottish Renaissance

King's College Chapel honoured all who brought it to life.
But its architectural design also had a profoundly spiritual significance, writes Jane Geddes

pic: Bishop Elphinstone's tomb
Bishop Elphinstone's tomb placed before the steps of the Chapel's sanctuary. The bronze inscription reads: 'Here is buried William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen and Founder of this University, who lived from 1431 to 1514.'

Most medieval bishops chose to be buried with much pomp and splendour in their cathedrals and stamped personal emblems over their buildings, but William Elphinstone was simply buried beneath a paving stone at the foot of the chancel step in the Chapel he had so laboriously constructed.

A visitor to the Chapel after his death in 1514 would have seen few traces of the founder of King's College, unless perhaps the lavish stained glass he provided included his coat of arms. Bishop Gavin Dunbar, the third Chancellor of the University, was dismayed to find the remains of his former colleague simply covered by a carpet. After 1519 he commissioned a magnificent marble and bronze Renaissance tomb, using the most up-to-date continental craftsmen and design, worthy of the founder and sited directly over his grave.

If Elphinstone left little trace of himself in the building, he spared no cost to honour his monarch, James IV. The gilded foundation inscription on the west front says the Chapel was begun "through the grace of the most serene, most illustrious and most victorious King James IV". Attached to buttresses above the inscription are finely carved armorials of James and his family.

Inside, the choir stalls are decorated with the Scottish thistle, a crown and the marguerite for James IV's wife Margaret Tudor. The tower with its closed imperial crown, the University's most celebrated landmark, was designed as a daring architectural statement to emphasise the independence and self-contained power of the Scottish king.

Even the choice of name, King's College, which quickly superceded the Chapel dedication to St Mary of the Nativity, testified Elphinstone's personal humility before his king. But undoubtedly Elphinstone hoped that this strong royal identity would stand the fledgling university in good stead during the hard times which he could see ahead.

Bishop Elphinstone has left very little documentary evidence concerning his construction of the Chapel so it was left to his Principal, Hector Boece, to provide an account of his life and works in 1522. Boece confirms, briefly, that he built the church "of hewn polished stone", with windows, ceilings, seats, elaborate and costly furnishings, the "steeple of great height, surrounded in stone work arched in form of an imperial crown", the leaded roof and 13 bells of "most melodious sound". In fact, Elphinstone must have left money for the completion of his project because some of the bells were not made until 1519, and it is likely that the crown tower was only finished after the enormous bells, over 5 feet wide, had been hoisted into position through the roof.

With relatively little documentation to help, we have to explore the Chapel itself to establish just what Bishop Elphinstone as patron would have commissioned. The patron was responsible for raising funds, which Elphinstone amply provided, and for specifying the general scheme, suggesting ideas he had seen elsewhere. Quite possibly technical details were sorted out by the able Rector, Alexander Galloway, who went on to complete Elphinstone's Bridge of Dee in 1522 and Greyfriars' Church.

Funds were ready by 1497-98 when Elphinstone purchased wheelbarrows, gunpowder and carts from the Netherlands. The basic nature of these foreign imports is a reflection of the "men who are rude, ignorant of letters and almost barbarous" whom Elphinstone wished to educate in Aberdeen.

The bishop would have chosen the plot of land: it was the nearest open space to the Cathedral along the old Via Regia (now the High Street), but somewhat boggy and bounded to the south by the wet banks of the Powis Burn at the bottom of the hill (now in a culvert). A major decision was to construct the Chapel from golden Moray sandstone, brought expensively by boat from Covesea. This choice clearly indicated a rejection of the local but stubborn granite used at St Machar's Cathedral in favour of a softer stone which could be more readily carved.

The size of the building depended on how many staff and students Bishop Elphinstone anticipated filling his university. The Chapel can actually take about 300 people but in the first Foundation Charter of 1505, there were only 36 College members, rising to 42 in 1514.

The bishop, or his master mason, clearly knew about other significant buildings: King's Chapel was intended to be just slightly longer and wider than St Salvator's at St Andrews; and the bays are slightly longer than those in St Machar's nave. But proportions, a matter of spiritual significance, were much more important than the physical size.

The golden inscription on the west front states that the Chapel was begun on 2 April, 1500. A learned cleric, aware of Old Testament exegesis, would associate this day with the building of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, a symbol both of royal wisdom and supreme sanctity. Certain proportions in the Chapel suggest that it was intended to evoke the Temple, but it would require a theologian with Elphinstone's own books to recognise this.

He owned a copy of bible commentaries which illustrated the Temple in medieval guise: it had a tower with windows and string courses, a crenellated parapet, and lean-to buildings hugging the side walls, just as the sacristy and treasury originally did on the south side of the chapel. At both the Temple and the Chapel, the proportion of width to length was 1:3.5. At the Temple, the length of the holy of holies within the Great Chamber was 1:3. In the Chapel the same ratio applies to the Sanctuary (from the altar steps eastwards) within the choir (enclosed by the rood screen in its original location). Within the Temple, Solomon clad the walls and ceiling with carved wood as Elphinstone sheathed his choir with wooden stalls and ceiling. The creation of this Scottish Holy of Holies was surely devised by Elphinstone who then decided to be buried at its heart.

The selection of architectural details suggests a patron with a reasonably wide knowledge of foreign buildings, but also a team of masons and joiners who, within their localised building activity, had already assimilated many continental ideas. The plan with its long, narrow body and polygonal apse, is a convenient solution for a collegiate church and its immediate precursor is St Salvator's at St Andrews. The window tracery, with its flamboyant mouchettes and massive central mullions, is found in the Low Countries, around Liège; the wagon ceiling with its bursting stars of foliage has precedents in the town hall and St Giles Church, Bruges.

The style had already come to Aberdeen where a similar ceiling was installed at St Nicholas' in 1495. The daring crown on the tower already had a precedent at St Nicholas, Newcastle but the closest parallel is with St Giles', Edinburgh built at almost the same time as King's.

The stalls, the exquisite seating provided for Elphinstone's choristers and University members, look flamboyantly exotic but there is enough evidence from St Nicholas' to suggest that these are a local product, probably made by John Fendour.

In a similar way, Elphinstone's portrait, now in Marischal Museum and once part of an altar piece, looks somewhat Flemish, but is likely to be by a Scot trained in the Netherlandish style. So, these comparisons indicate a well-travelled and discerning patron who was able to commission Scots artisans to carry out his plans.

Dr Jane Geddes is a Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, and Editor of King's College Chapel, 1500-2000, published by Northern Universities Press.


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