St. Magnus Cathedral

Kirkwall, United Kingdom

St. Magnus Cathedral was founded as a final resting place for the relics of St. Magnus. Work on its construction started in 1137. The Cathedral's founder was Earl Rognvald who supervised the earliest stages of the building during the bishopric of William the Old of Orkney (1102-1168).

Between 1154 and 1472, Orkney was ecclesiastically under the Norwegian archbishop of Nidaros (Trondheim) and after that it became part of the Scottish province of St. Andrews. The Cathedral was assigned to the inhabitants of Kirkwall by King James III of Scotland in a charter dated 1486. One of the most notable bishops was Bishop Robert Reid who held the see of Orkney between 1541 and 1558.

The Reformation brought ruin to many cathedrals but St. Magnus Cathedral seems to have emerged relatively unscathed, although the organ, treasures and rich vestments were removed and the wall decorations were covered in whitewash.

In 1845 the Government presumed the ownership of the Cathedral, expelling the then congregation and carrying out major restoration work to the fabric of the building. In 1851 the Royal Burgh of Kirkwall re-established ownership of the building and the choir and presbytery were fitted with new pews and galleries for the reinstated congregation.

The Cathedral slowly deteriorated until the early 20th century when The Thoms Bequest made further major restoration possible. Between 1913 and 1930, the main alteration to the exterior of the Cathedral was the erection of a tall steeple which replaced the low pyramidal roof of the bell tower. Internally, the screen separating the choir from the nave was removed, along with the pews and galleries. Stained glass windows replaced the formerly plain windows, much of the floor was tiled and the warm red sandstone was revealed by the removal of plaster and whitewash.

Today St. Magnus Cathedral is a popular tourist destination. The great age of much of its structure means it has smaller windows than those found in more modern churches. The tall narrow nave gives the illusion of much greater size than is actually the case. Uniquely in Britain, the Cathedral has a dungeon or holding pen built between the south wall of the choir and the south transept chapel. It is known as Marwick's Hole, but the source of this name and the time of its origin are unknown.

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Details

Founded: 1137
Category: Religious sites in United Kingdom

Rating

4.6/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Kevin Boak (2 years ago)
Beautiful place of worship, well-maintained and presented to visitors.
Paul Hawkins (2 years ago)
Magnificent church, great historical story, a must visit when your on Orkney
Jackie Wilkinson (2 years ago)
Great traditional style church dominating the centre of Kirkwall. Lovely atmosphere
Steve Woods (3 years ago)
Beautiful place. Highly recommend the tour. Excellent view of kirkwall from the bell tower.
Mathew Hewitt (3 years ago)
Nice Cathedral. Free Entry, Free close by parking in Kirkwall. Nice architecture both inside and out. Was lovely to see the Baptism font that has all the local parishes donated stones attached to it.
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Quimper Cathedral

From 1239, Raynaud, the Bishop of Quimper, decided on the building of a new chancel destined to replace that of the Romanesque era. He therefore started, in the far west, the construction of a great Gothic cathedral which would inspire cathedral reconstructions in the Ile de France and would in turn become a place of experimentation from where would later appear ideas adopted by the whole of lower Brittany. The date of 1239 marks the Bishop’s decision and does not imply an immediate start to construction. Observation of the pillar profiles, their bases, the canopies, the fitting of the ribbed vaults of the ambulatory or the alignment of the bays leads us to believe, however, that the construction was spread out over time.

The four circular pillars mark the start of the building site, but the four following adopt a lozenge-shaped layout which could indicate a change of project manager. The clumsiness of the vaulted archways of the north ambulatory, the start of the ribbed vaults at the height of the south ambulatory or the choice of the vaults descending in spoke-form from the semi-circle which allows the connection of the axis chapel to the choir – despite the manifest problems of alignment – conveys the hesitancy and diverse influences in the first phase of works which spread out until the start of the 14th century.

At the same time as this facade was built (to which were added the north and south gates) the building of the nave started in the east and would finish by 1460. The nave is made up of six bays with one at the level of the facade towers and flanked by double aisles – one wide and one narrow (split into side chapels) – in an extension of the choir arrangements.

The choir presents four right-hand bays with ambulatory and side chapels. It is extended towards the east of 3-sided chevet which opens onto a semi-circle composed of five chapels and an apsidal chapel of two bays and a flat chevet consecrated to Our Lady.

The three-level elevation with arches, triforium and galleries seems more uniform and expresses anglo-Norman influence in the thickness of the walls (Norman passageway at the gallery level) or the decorative style (heavy mouldings, decorative frieze under the triforium). This building site would have to have been overseen in one shot. Undoubtedly interrupted by the war of Succession (1341-1364) it draws to a close with the building of the lierne vaults (1410) and the fitting of stained-glass windows. Bishop Bertrand de Rosmadec and Duke Jean V, whose coat of arms would decorate these vaults, finished the chancel before starting on the building of the facade and the nave.

Isolated from its environment in the 19th century, the cathedral was – on the contrary – originally very linked to its surroundings. Its site and the orientation of the facade determined traffic flow in the town. Its positioning close to the south walls resulted in particuliarities such as the transfer of the side gates on to the north and south facades of the towers: the southern portal of Saint Catherine served the bishop’s gate and the hospital located on the left bank (the current Préfecture) and the north gate was the baptismal porch – a true parish porch with its benches and alcoves for the Apostles’ statues turned towards the town, completed by an ossuary (1514).

The west porch finds its natural place between the two towers. The entire aesthetic of these three gates springs from the Flamboyant era: trefoil, curly kale, finials, large gables which cut into the mouldings and balustrades. Pinnacles and recesses embellish the buttresses whilst an entire bestiary appears: monsters, dogs, mysterious figures, gargoyles, and with them a whole imaginary world promoting a religious and political programme. Even though most of the saints statues have disappeared an armorial survives which makes the doors of the cathedral one of the most beautiful heraldic pages imaginable: ducal ermine, the Montfort lion, Duchess Jeanne of France’s coat of arms side by side with the arms of the Cornouaille barons with their helmets and crests. One can imagine the impact of this sculpted decor with the colour and gilding which originally completed it.

At the start of the 16th century the construction of the spires was being prepared when building was interrupted, undoubtedly for financial reasons. Small conical roofs were therefore placed on top of the towers. The following centuries were essentially devoted to putting furnishings in place (funeral monuments, altars, statues, organs, pulpit). Note the fire which destroyed the spire of the transept cross in 1620 as well as the ransacking of the cathedral in 1793 when nearly all the furnishings disappeared in a « bonfire of the saints ».

The 19th century would therefore inherit an almost finished but mutilated building and would devote itself to its renovation according to the tastes and theories of the day.