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Fresh Light Shed on 700 Year Old Bishop

Posted: 21st March 2016

A 700 year old carving of Bishop Archibald is to appear in a new exhibition at Elgin Cathedral, it is 1 of over 100 medieval carved stones going on display for the first time in 20 years on 25th March.

The exhibition features expressive carved faces, flora and fauna, animals, a section of a rose window (1200’s) and fragments of medieval window glass from the cathedral. Each stone is theatrically lit to reveal the detail of the carvings. Visitors will also be able to explore the collection through a touchscreen digital database.

Over £300,000 has been invested in conserving, interpreting and displaying the stones. Experts from Historic Environment Scotland (HES) have worked with external academics and partners locally in Elgin and at Edinburgh Napier University to catalogue, conserve and tell the story of the cathedral.

Stephen Duncan, Director of Commercial and Tourism for HES, said: “It’s great to see these stones coming home just in time for the start of the new visitor season in Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design.

“A great amount of effort has gone into the realisation of this exciting exhibition. From our conservation specialists who analysed tiny traces of paint from a 13th century sculpture of Bishop Archibald, to our partners at Edinburgh Napier University who used these findings to develop a lighting display, showing what it once might have looked like when freshly painted. This exhibition provides visitors with a opportunity to discover more about the cathedral, its architecture, history and the chance to view the stones and their carvings up close with a glimpse of what Elgin Cathedral could have looked like 700 years ago.

“Thank you to Moray Council for helping identify funding for the exhibition, and to The Elgin Fund who have invested in an education project to make the stones even more accessible. We’ve had a huge amount of interest and support locally, and it’s been a pleasure to work with the people of Elgin to invest in this important site.”

After the cathedral fire in 1270, Bishop Archibald set about rebuilding. He enlarged and enhanced the church, building his tomb into the wall of the choir, close to the high altar. He was laid to rest there in 1298, with his brightly painted effigy set on top of his tomb.

Fiona Fleming, Interpretation Manager for HES, said: “Experts think its prime location close to the high altar could mean Bishop Archibald’s tomb was used as an ‘Easter Sepulchre’. This means it may have been used to consecrate communion bread, by placing it in the tomb recess on Good Friday and guarding it for 3 days, before being ‘resurrected’ on Easter Sunday. It seems fitting to see Bishop Archibald’s effigy back home in Elgin just in time for Easter this year.

“One of the most interesting things about researching the stones is that we’ve been able to gain some insight into how people may have ‘read’ the carvings. We’ve found ourselves decoding messages that could be contained within the stones – from moral lessons drawn from the wonders of nature, to hidden surprises and startling warnings against sin. But we will never have all the answers, especially without knowing where the stones were situated in the cathedral. That’s why we’re inviting people to ponder different possibilities in deciding what these carvings may have meant to medieval visitors before them.”

Free entry to the cathedral and the exhibition for Historic Scotland members. www.historic-scotland.gov.uk

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