St Mary’s Chapel will be open to the public as indicated above.
Many of the features in the chapel have appeared in this blog over the years, including the carved wood, stained glass, grave slabs, vaulted ceiling, witches ring, enamel work font etc. It is truly one of the hidden gems of Aberdeen.
Entrance if free, although we always welcome donations. Access is awkward if you have mobility problems and involves steps both up and down. The entry door is at the top of Correction Wynd across from the side of the new TSB bank. It will be signposted.
The chapel will be open again on 11th August and on Doors Open Day (8th September). For Doors Open Day there will also be tours of the archaeological dig site at 11, 12, 2 and 3, conducted by Alison Cameron who led the dig.
There are two stained glass windows in St Mary’s Chapel which record the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
This window is the right hand light of the window of the south aisle of the Chapel and shows Mary, his mother grief-stricken together with ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ with Jesus on the cross in the background. The window was created in 1900 by Douglas Strachan and was the first stained glass window at the start of a distinguished career.
The second of February is celebrated in many churches as Candlemas. Where does the name come from and what is being celebrated?
At the time of Jesus’ birth, there were strict requirements placed on parents following the birth of a child. The first of these, if it was a boy, was circumcision at 8 days old. This was spelled out in the Torah – the Hebrew scripture. In the Bible it is in Genesis chapter 17 verse 12 and repeated in Leviticus chapter 12 verse 3.
The second requirement was that the mother had to be ‘purified’ as she was classed as ‘unclean’ until this ritual was performed. When this took place depended on whether the child was a boy or a girl. If it was a boy it was at 40 days, if a girl at 80 days, after the birth. This ritual was carried out in the Temple in Jerusalem, with the appropriate offerings for sacrifice. The details are spelled out in Leviticus chapter 12 verses 1 to 8. A second ritual being performed that day was the dedication of the first-born to God. Exodus chapter 13 verse 2 states that every first born, including animals, was to be dedicated to God. So Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to dedicate him. That answers the question of why there is a celebration on 2nd February – it is 40 days (inclusively) after Christmas Day. The nature of the celebration takes a little longer to explain.
When the family went into the temple they encountered two people, Simeon and Anna, who are mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. There is very little about Anna, other than that she was a widow, very devout and very old. Simeon appears to have been a priest and he had a conviction that he would see God’s salvation before he died. As soon as he saw the baby, he recognised that here was the fulfilment of God’s promise. He then spoke what we now call the Nunc Dimittis (the name is simply the first two words as written in Greek). In it he said that the baby Jesus would be ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Light was produced using oil lamps and later using candles. That is where the term Candlemas comes from.
In St Mary’s Chapel one section of the large stained glass window in the apse, shown in the photograph, depicts the scene, but with a level of ‘artistic licence’. Mary and Joseph are presenting Jesus to the priest in his robes. Interestingly, Joseph is carrying a little cage with two birds in it. The details of the sacrifice given in Leviticus chapter 12 verse 6 is for an offering of a lamb and a young pigeon or dove. However, verse 8 of the same chapter indicates that if the family cannot afford a lamb, a second pigeon or dove may be substituted. Luke’s Gospel states the offering made was of two birds, indicating that Joseph was a poor man. The window has a stylised colonnade, with two people looking on. These are Simeon and Anna, seeing the child being offered to God. The scroll below says ‘To present Him to the Lord’.
Some recent posts have described the three pipe organs located within the Kirk of St Nicholas over recent decades. To complete the picture of musical instruments in the building, this post deals with a harmonium (also called a reed organ) located in St Mary’s Chapel.
Harmoniums were developed from the late 18th century, reaching their peak around 1900. They work by causing thin pieces of metal, held in a frame, to vibrate by passing air over them. The piece of metal is called a reed, hence the name of this type of organ. The pitch of the sound is defined by the length of the reed, whilst different tones and volumes can be produced by using different shapes of reed, angle of air impact and by surrounding the reed in a tone chamber. Traditionally the air flow is produced by the player using two foot treadles, like an old fashioned sewing machine, to operate bellows. Some larger instruments also have hand operated bellows, worked by an ‘assistant’. A second type sucks the air over the reed rather than blowing it. In general this produces a softer, quieter sound, making it more suitable for home use. As with a pipe organ, the harmonium is played from a keyboard, each key allowing air to pass over one reed. A range of stops is used to produce the different sound qualities desired, as with the pipe organ. With some instruments the volume can be altered using a knee-operated air valve.
Harmoniums are relatively easy to transport and are more robust than a piano. They are also less complex and so many churches could afford them whereas a pipe organ was beyond their financial resources. Many are still in use in this context. Smaller harmoniums are also widely used in Indian and folk music.
The instrument in St Mary’s Chapel has a single manual and range of stops, and is ‘blown’ using two foot treadles. It is shown in the first photograph. Until fairly recently it still worked, but of late has ceased to do so, probably because the leather in the bellows needs replacing – a common problem with time! Looking at the photograph, it is possible to see that there is something at the front of the left hand treadle. This is a small notice to say the mechanism is patented ‘mouse proof’! The knee crescendo levers are just visible above the treadles under the keyboard.
On the harmonium is a plaque, shown in the second photograph. It commemorates John MacDonnell Nisbet, who died in 1935. He became organist of the East Kirk in 1890 at the age of 33 and served for 45 years until his death – a remarkable achievement and a sign of great dedication. He also taught music to trainee teachers and lived for some time in Union Grove, later moving to Carden Place. Not only did he serve the congregation and choir faithfully, he was involved in wider church music, serving as a member of the committee responsible for producing the Revised Church Hymnary, published in 1927. Included in that book is a hymn tune called ‘Carden Place’ written by John Nisbet, shown in the third photograph.
In the blog on 10th June, shown were some of the corbels in St Mary’s Chapel which have faces carved on them. However, there are other carved corbels, where there is less certainty about what they depict. The photograph shows one, traditionally known as ‘the rat’, because it was thought to depict a rat. Certainly when it was carved, in the mid-15th century, rats would have been commonplace, but so too would other animals. With nothing written down and with the stone slightly eroded, it is difficult to be certain.
When visitors have been looking at the rat, a number of suggestions have been made. One which seems quite plausible is that it shows an otter – it has that characteristic semi-squatting pose and has a fairly thick tail. What do you think? We will be open next on Doors Open Day (9th September) between 10 am and 4 pm when you can see it in three dimensions.
St Mary’s Chapel was originally built as a separate building around the middle of the 1400s, with the intention that it would be used to support the church as it was extended eastwards over the valley of the Putachie Burn later that century. It was built with a stone vaulted ceiling. In such buildings where each rib of the vault reaches a pillar it is supported by a corbel which is keyed into the stonework to give it strength. The word corbel is derived from the Old French for ‘raven’, presumably referring to its shape being similar to a bird’s beak. Using corbels goes back to Neolithic times, for example Maeshowe on Orkney is built by corbelling the flat stones. By the Middle Ages carving the protruding stone of the corbel had become fairly popular. So it is not surprising that the corbels in St Mary’s Chapel have carved decorations. Apart from classical scroll shapes, common themes for the carvings include faces, animals and imaginary ‘beasts’. In many older churches, corbels depicted whole or nearly whole people, some doing ‘strange’ things or being grossly distorted. However, by far the commonest carving in St Mary’s is a stylised human face – but some of them are quite ‘crude’, whilst others are more realistic. All of them are different. Why this should be the case is open to some debate, but one suggestion is that each one may have been created by a different person. At the time the chapel was built the ability to carve granite was still being developed so some of them may still have been learning their craft. Whatever the reason, the photographs show some of the different faces to be seen staring back from the walls in St Mary’s Chapel. One of them appears to be a ‘green man’ with the head surrounded by leaves and on another there appears to be a hand below the chin. It should be noted that there is very little relief on some of the faces, so they are better appreciated ‘in the flesh’ than in photographs.
The font in St Mary’s Chapel was made as part of the reordering of the chapel in 1898. The octagonal stone structure stands in the north aisle. It was erected in memory of Annie Margaret, Robert James and Emily Lisette, children of Robert Spottiswood Farquhar Spottiswood of Muiresk and was dedicated on 1st October 1898.
Around the top of the font are eight metal panels, four of which feature enamel symbols related to baptism. These were created by the distinguished Aberdeen enamellist James Cromar Watt. He was born in Aberdeen on 14th July 1862, went to Aberdeen Grammar School and then qualified as an architect. However, through a number of study tours he gradually moved into working in art and sculpture, especially using metal and enamel. His style embraced the Arts and Craft movement and was influenced by people such as Phoebe Traquair and fellow Aberdonian Douglas Strachan. He lived, as a bachelor, at 71 Dee Street where there is a plaque to him. He died in an accident on 19th November 1940. During his life he created many pieces of enamelled jewellery. Enamel is made by fusing powdered glass to a metal substrate at temperatures between 750-850ºC. The glass melts, flows and then hardens to a smooth durable vitreous coating of the metal. The photographs show the four medallions on the font. In order these are:
A dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit which came to Jesus at his baptism.
The combined Greek letters chi and rho (C R) which are the first two letters of ‘Christ’ in Greek.
A cross with the Greek letters alpha and omega (A W), the First and the Last.
Stylised Greek letters iota, eta and sigma (I H S) which are the first three letters of ‘Jesus’.
The table in the Chapel, also created in 1898, has two larger panels of enamel work by James Cromar Watt. These feature coats of arms related to Lady Elizabeth Gordon, reputedly the founder of the Chapel and her ill-fated descendant Sir John Gordon.
The events of Easter are at the heart of the Christian faith. This is because Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself was the atonement for our sin. Good Friday is the day Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus.
Given the importance of the Easter events, it is not surprising that they feature in works of art, many featuring in churches. In St Mary’s Chapel there is a beautiful window which has as its centrepiece the Pietà, shown in the accompanying photograph. The image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, cradling the body of her son was developed in Germany around 1300 and reached Italy by the end of the century. Michelangelo used it as the subject for one of his most famous statues (now located in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City) another century later.
The stained glass window in St Mary’s Chapel was made by Christopher Whall in 1899. He started work as the Arts and Crafts movement got underway and is widely recognised as one of the key figures in the modern history of stained glass. A lot of his work is in England, but there is a substantial amount north of the border. This window has been described as one of the finest Arts and Crafts windows in Scotland. It was commissioned in memory of Dr James Cooper a former minister of the church.
If you would like to see the window, St Mary’s Chapel will be open to the public between 10 and 12.30 on the second Saturday of each month starting in May and ending with Doors Open Day in September. You would be very welcome to come and see this small chapel dating back to the mid-1400s.
In the last few years of the 16th century there was great concern about the presence of witches in society. In part this arose because the king had written a book about it, but there had also been some poor harvests and various epidemics, so witches were convenient scapegoats. Aberdeen did not escape this hysteria where the first ‘witch’ was arrested in 1596. He was John Gordon, sometimes known as Williamson, and was imprisoned in the vault of St Nicholas Kirk on the charge of being ‘a manifest and open witch’.
It seems strange today that part of a church building should be used as a prison. The vault is now known as St Mary’s Chapel and had been built nearly 150 years earlier and dedicated to St Mary, the mother of Jesus. After the Reformation in 1560, the worship of Mary was no longer considered a suitable part of the new church practice. Thus, this part of the building became redundant and other uses had to be found for it. Over the years there were many, with its use as a prison being one. The spire of the Kirk was also used to house witches.
A surprisingly large number of people were accused of witchcraft. In total 80 were put on trial; 72 were found guilty of which 26 were executed and 8 were branded. All this information is included in the Guildry Records of Aberdeen which are held in the City Archive. These are remarkably complete and have received UNESCO recognition for their importance. The records about the witches are extensive, with full details of each trial and any subsequent execution. To assist with their imprisonment, an iron ring together with appropriate shackles was purchased, fitted into the wall of St Mary’s Chapel and used to chain the witches. The cost for this is also included in the written records. The first photograph shows the ring, which can easily be overlooked as it is relatively insignificant. The records of each execution itemise the price of each material used in the burning, such as the stake, the pitch, the rope etc. Gruesome reading! Part of these hand written records are shown in the second photograph which records the cost for burning Isobel Cockie. Perhaps it is worth noting that the witches were executed before burning.
BBC Scotland did a short report about the records last June (accessible at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36488855) and the current (January/February 2017) issue of the magazine History Scotland has a two page article about the history of the building and the witches’ trials. During the filming by the BBC, reporter Fiona Stalker took a few photographs. The third photograph shows the filming of the archive document in St Mary’s Chapel. This is just Volume 1 of the Guildry Accounts. What is not shown is that the accounts for the costs of burning are signed off by the Provost of the day, Alexander Rutherford. Also in St Mary’s Chapel is the ‘Provost’s loft’ created less than a decade later by the same Alexander Rutherford when he was again Provost (see blog of 18th February 2014 to learn more about him and to see the panel with his name on).
Thanks to Martin Hall, City Archives, for some of the detailed information and the photograph of part of the records.