King’s College Chapel
King's Chapel, dedicated to the Trinity and the Blessed Virgin Mary in her Nativity, was the heart of Bishop Elphinstone's new university. It was designed from the outset as a landmark - all the stone of its finely carved-masonry was shipped from sandstone quarries on the Moray Firth, its windows were filled with costly coloured glass, and it had ‘thirteen bells pleasing the ear with sweet and holy melody’, the biggest of which weighed about 2,500 kilos, and stood 1.65 metres high. The chapel was begun, according to the inscription on the west front, on April 2, 1500, and was ready for dedication and consecration by 1509.
In Catholic thinking, although the essential meaning of the word ‘church’ is the Christian congregation, rather than the building in which it meets, the consecration of a church is enormously important. It is the point at which a structure ceases to be merely a meeting-place, and becomes in and of itself, a place formally dedicated to the service of God and withdrawn from other types of use. The practice of consecrating church buildings probably goes back to the time of the apostles, and a version of the form of consecration which is still in use survives from the eighth century. The ceremonial is long and complex, but key elements include the deposition of a relic, or relics, of martyrs of the faith, thus uniting the church on earth with the church everlasting, and the anointing of twelve crosses on the inner walls of the church with holy chrism, followed by the first solemn celebration of the Mass. The priest who officiates is normally the diocesan bishop. It is the anniversary of this moment, when the building was formally given to God, that we are celebrating this day.
The Chapel As it is Now
The Chapel has seen many changes since its consecration, and little survives from 1509 other than the stone and the woodwork of the choir-stalls and screen: the current stained glass windows are a replacement for the originals, which were destroyed after the Reformation. Those in the chancel were designed by Douglas Strachan. Bishop Elphinstone's tomb, in its commanding position in the central space before the altar steps, was commissioned by Bishop Gavin Dunbar in 1519, while the renaissance pulpit with the arms of Bishop Stewart (1532-45) was originally made for St Machar’s Cathedral and was only re-erected in the Chapel in 1844. The late sixteenth century saw the removal of all the Chapel’s altars and statues, while Elphinstone's effigy, which once adorned his tomb, was destroyed in the Civil Wars of the 1640s. For the two hundred years after 1600, mostly Episcopal worship was intermittently held in the Chapel, ending with the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising. In 1826 preaching resumed at King’s on Sunday mornings. Architecturally, the Chapel assumed much the form which can be seen today in the 1920s and 1930s, under the sensitive direction of Dr William Kelly, who also designed the war memorial in the ante-chapel and the lettering on the tomb of the founder.