ME3303 visit Edinburgh museum collections
May 14, 2013 Leave a comment
On 26th April, the class of honours module ME3303 The Renaissance in Late Mediaeval Scotland went to Edinburgh, viewing Holyrood Palace before visiting the National Museum of Scotland, the National Gallery of Scotland and the National Portrait Gallery. Students Hazel Blair, Charlotte Coote, Lillah Kennedy and Jess Meagher reflect below on their visit.
To complement our studies of Renaissance kingship as articulated in architecture, iconography, and royal spectacle, we began our Edinburgh visit by walking down the Royal Mile towards the Palace of Holyrood House. This palace was constructed by James IV, at the site of Holyrood Abbey, just before the king’s marriage to Margaret Tudor in 1503. When compared to the architecture of the great fortification at Edinburgh Castle, what was most striking about this royal residence was its sheer lack of defensive features. Although the king built turreted round towers flanking the entrance to the courtyard in keeping with late medieval Gothic style, the non-existence of arrowslits clearly testifies to the idea that this building was primarily a propagandistic expression of the king’s learned taste and European aspirations. Imperial crowns were used in the palace architecture, as in the architecture of St Giles’ Cathedral further up the Royal Mile, in order to emphasise the magnificent power of the king at home and abroad.
Most impressive was the sculpture topping the fountain in the Holyrood Palace forecourt. A later replica of James V’s fountain at Linlithgow Palace, its intricate iconography betrays the multifaceted nature of Renaissance kingship. Heraldry, royal lions and unicorns echoed the Stewarts’ royal authority and chivalric honour, while aristocratic pursuits like falconry are also displayed. This sumptuous decoration not only implies a very modern Scottish taste for continental style, but also articulated the crown’s wealth. These were the kind of messages James was keen to convey to his new queen, and most importantly to her father, Henry VII, and the rest of the English court.
The ‘Kingdom of the Scots’ exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland contains a variety of items that relate to the Renaissance in Late Medieval Scotland and provided a good background and visible, material feel for the period as a whole. Of particular interest were some of the carved wooden Beaton Panels and Stirling Heads, the latter of which related back to our earlier class visit to Stirling and its exhibit on their reconstruction. Both of these pieces showed artistic innovation moving away from the flatter style of medieval art. Coinage from this period also manifested Renaissance influences in Scotland, showing some classical influences in monarchical displays of power (such as one of the coins of James III that pictures him wearing an imperial style crown). Seeing these items gave a useful sense of their scale, artistry and detail as well as a great visual insight into the material culture of the period.
During our time exploring the Scottish Renaissance we looked extensively at the impact the Low Countries had on culture in Scotland. Examples predominantly focused on sixteenth century art and how this became relevant as a way to illustrate Renaissance ideas: a new quest for knowledge and the aim of acquiring that which had been the original. The Trinity Altarpiece, by Netherlandish painter Hugo van der Goes, was one of the main works we had examined in our studies, and visiting the National Gallery of Scotland was a special opportunity for us to see this magnificent piece of work first-hand. Made for Trinity College Church in Edinburgh, it was originally a triptych, however the central part was destroyed by the iconoclasm (during the Reformation period) and today the remains consist of four panels. These panels, depicting scenes of James III, Queen Margaret of Denmark, Sir Edward Bonkil and the Trinity, were brought to life as we saw the works for the first time in the flesh. Staring at the altarpiece for a lengthy period, we absorbed the painting, and as a class could appreciate all those elements we had learned about throughout the semester. It was a truly great experience which was enjoyed by all!
Following our visit to the National Gallery, we continued our artistic immersion in the Renaissance period of Scottish history through exploring the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We went to its exhibition on Early Stuart Britain, seeing individual portraits of some of the influential political figures that we had been studying such as James III, Anne of Denmark, James IV and Mary of Guise. These portraits encapsulated ideas of Renaissance kingship and queenship, again tying back firmly to our studies on royal display and spectacle. The portraits we saw included the Abbotsford House portrait of James IV in 1507. As with the Trinity Altarpiece panels, seeing these portraits up close rather than as resized and reprinted photographs in an article added to our appreciation of the purpose of the paintings and allowed us to more closely relate to the source material for our period.