For almost three hundred years five large paintings have hung in King's College with little explanation of their origin. Now research by Scottish art historians has put them in an exciting new light
|The Judgement of Solomon painted by an anonymous artist. It is one of the largest and oldest canvas paintings known in Scotland.|
n the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries great royal and civic events were marked all over Europe by the creation of extensive, temporary decorations. These elaborate structures, made of canvas and wooden scaffolding, could be anything from triumphal archways, to narrative tableaux and even artificial mountains. They transformed city centres into temporary stage sets for the passing procession. The nation's best artists would be commissioned for the work. Rubens provided the decorations for the entry of the Cardinal Infante of Austria into Antwerp in 1635.
When James VI entered Edinburgh in 1579, a genealogy of the Kings of Scotland was erected in the Salt Market and the conjunction of the planets at the east port. The burghers were required to festoon the fronts of their houses with tapestries and 'painted cloths'. In 1633 the new College of Edinburgh greeted Charles I with an entire Mount Parnassus made of timber, filled with books and portraits of Scottish academics. At the Tolbooth, on a vast arched pageant, there were portraits of 109 Scottish kings. The subject matter of the decoration reflected the relationship between the town and the favoured visitor. Not surprisingly "by an fatal neglect, all were lost in a very few years thereafter". This was indeed the fate of almost all these ephemeral creations.
But five large examples of this rare type of art survive in King's College Chapel. These pictures (around 245cm x 216cm) are the largest, oldest canvas paintings known in Scotland. Add to that their rarity factor: hardly any paintings of this ephemeral nature have survived from this early date. Recent colour photos, using intense light, reveal the vivid and lively quality of the paint lurking beneath the grime.
Their date and origin is not known but they were brought to the Chapel from the vestibule of the University hall in 1823. Dirty and poorly lit, their significance has only recently been appreciated, thanks to the research of Liz Bracegirdle and Duncan Macmillan. Their rushed brush work and floral borders indicate that these paintings of oil on canvas were intended to look like costly tapestries, the type of 'painted cloths' created to mark a special occasion and then usually destroyed afterwards.
Their style indicates that they were made around the middle of the seventeenth century, and one design, the Judgement of Solomon, is clearly based on an engraving made from Ruben's painting of the same subject. The artist is not known but he was probably someone local, from Aberdeen. Their subject matter suggests strongly that they were made by the University or perhaps the town, to celebrate a moment of heightened loyalty to the crown.
The subjects are all Old Testament kings and they seem to provide a close parallel for the relationship Charles II had with Aberdeen. First, David is greeted by Abigail. She welcomed and acknowledged him in a land where his reception was otherwise hostile. Charles II was rapturously received during the hostilities of the Civil War when he visited Aberdeen in 1650: the university even hastened to construct the silver mace for the occasion, emblazoned with the words "God Save the King".
Then David and Saul are greeted by the cities of Israel. Although this scene looks like a triumph, the Bible text makes it clear that Saul's anger against his young rival grew rapidly and David was forced to flee into exile until Saul died. Charles also received a premature welcome at Scone in 1651 but was then forced to flee until Cromwell died. David and Goliath represents the eventual victory of Charles over the Commonwealth, and The Wisdom of Solomon was often understood at this time to be not a judgement between two women but between the true and false church. This would reflect the pious hopes of Aberdeen and King's College that Charles would back the Episcopalian church against the Presbyterians. Lastly, Sheba kneeling before Solomon shows the final recognition of the rightful king restored to his throne in 1660.