Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Bishop, the King and the Architect

It is difficult to believe that the highly-decorated archway on Old Aberdeen’s High Street and the New Kings classroom block are not medieval structures like their neighbour Kings College, but they were only designed in 1911 by local architect, Alexander Marshall Mackenzie, a native of Elgin.  This master of the Gothic style had already created the ‘wedding cake’ frontage to Marischal College in 1906, so this job was a doddle!

James Stuart, IV of Scotland
The coats of arms which adorn the arch tell the story of the university in miniature. We begin at the top, with the red lion rampant and the royal crown of Scotland representing King James IV.

He was a great friend of Bishop Elphinstone, the weel-kent founder of Kings College.  The second shield features the bishop’s mitre, the intitals ‘W E’ and Elphinstone’s own coat of arms.  Such was the esteem in which the bishop held his monarch, he named it Kings College in his honour, rather than St. Mary’s College, despite being dedicated to the Virgin.  James had supported the bishop’s desire to found a university college in Aberdeen when Elphinstone petitioned Pope Alexander VI.  The date of 1494 is that of the ‘bull’ or letter from His Holiness confirming this request (bulla being the Latin word for the seals which appended such communications).
Alexander Marshall MacKenzie

The date of 1912 is when New Kings was completed, suggesting Marshall Mackenzie had the archway built as a celebration of his new work. 

William Elphinstone
The motto Non Confundar  appears to be Elphinstone’s; its origins lie in a hymn attributed to early Christian missionary, St. Ambrose, Te Deum; the full phrase reads non confundar in eternumnever let me be confounded.  When we realise Bishop William was an illegitimate child, perhaps this was an indication he was determined not to allow this unfortunate beginning affect his political and religious future.

Below is the current coat of arms of the University including the quartered arms of Kings College; George Keith, founder of Marischal College; Bishop Elphinstone and Aberdeen City.  This is encompassed by Elphinstone’s Latin motto for the original “St. Mary’s College” — as we might have known it today had the bishop not dedicated it to his king — which translates as The Beginning of Wisdom is Fear of the Lord, a phrase found twice in the Bible, in Proverbs and Psalms.  The wisdom of a king, a bishop and an architect created a lasting architectural legacy which we should continue to treasure for future generations. 

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