St. Ninian and the Scottish Powerhouse

Perhaps the most surprising place to find an image of St. Ninian is on the entrance doors of the former Scottish Office in Edinburgh. Built between 1936-9, St. Andrew’s House now contains part of the Scottish Government, including the office of the First Minister of Scotland.

The architect was Thomas S. Tait, who also designed the futuristic Empire Exhibition in Glasgow and the piers to Sydney Harbour Bridge. St Andrew’s house is a monumental, Classical Art-Deco building, dramatically sited on the side of Calton Hill and “is by far the most impressive work of architecture in Scotland between the wars” (1). Although thought by some to be in Creetown Granite, it is actually built in Northumbrian Darney stone.

Tait used several sculptors and artists to adorn the building and add to its symbolic meaning. For the entrance doors he turned to the established sculptor Walter Gilbert (1871-1946). Gilbert’s is best remembered today for his gates designed for Buckingham Palace, the reredos in Liverpool Cathedral and the “Liver Birds” on top of the Royal Liver Friendly Society Building in Liverpool. Throughout his life, Gilbert collaborated with other sculptors to help carry out his work and in undertaking the design of the doors for St. Andrew’s House, he employed H. H. Martyn to model much of the detailing. Gilbert’s sculpture sometimes can be stiffly formal, seen in his figures for the war memorials in Troon and Clydebank, and lacking the expressive movement found in the work of his sculptor cousin, Sir Alfred Gilbert who is best known for his Eros in Piccadilly Circus. But in many ways Walter Gilbert’s formality of approach is appropriate for the great bronze doors, giving them a impressive solemnity. (2)

The doors depict four Scottish Saints, Ninian, Kentigern, Magnus and Columba; representing the spiritual fathers of the nation. Their garments merging with the background of the St Andrew’s Cross, they rise up with only the upper body seen in depth and detail. Reading from the left, St Ninian is appropriately the first saint depicted. He is dressed in episcopal vestments with mitre and crosier but oddly without his symbolic broken shackles which he is usually depicted carrying. A tree of life appears behind him and emerging, small as though in the distance, is the image of an early church building. Seen as a man in his thirties, he is shown in profile, looking across to the figure of St Columba. At the centre of the doors, a roundel shows the scene of Christ addressing St Andrew the fisherman, flanked by the words, “And I will make you Fishers of Men”.

It is indeed a surprising image, for in this age of political correctness and multiculturalism, it is inconsevable that the entrance to the main government offices in Scotland could today be sculpted to carry a representation of Christ and the nation’s saints.

(1) Gifford, McWillaim and Walker, The Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1984.
(2) This summer (2009), on the 70th anniversary of the building, the bronze doors are to be cleaned.

First Published August 2009

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