Dr Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator, Renaissance and Early Modern History, introduces us to a new pulpit retrieved by National Museums Scotland.
The finely carved oak pulpit from Dun kirk in Angus, dated 1615, has been retrieved by National Museums Scotland prior to the church being sold. It joins a handful of pulpits from post-Reformation Scotland at the museum, which suggest the importance to the Reformers of preaching God’s word in establishing the new Protestantism.
The pulpit has a large rounded body or ‘tub’ with panels of curved wood carved in a variety of geometrical strapwork compositions of entrelacs, that is interlaced garlands and leaves. Much of the vertical structural framework is carved in pennes (feathers).
As striking, is the back panel, formed of simple reeded pleats, probably to match the other panelling in its original setting. Carved high up on this panel is a coat of arms bearing the cross crosslet fitchée of the Erskines in the first and fourth quarters, and the three piles or passion nails, meeting in point, of the Wisharts in the lower ranking second and third quarters.
The shield is flanked by the initial letters I and E (for John Erskine), with a scroll above it on which is carved ‘Preach the Word’. The date 1615 is carved below the shield.
Also carved on one of the panels on the left-hand side of the pulpit are the initials WE and DE, each pair intersected by a cross crosslet fitchée, presumably therefore of other Erskines making their mark over the course of time.
On top is another striking feature, the equally decoratively canopy carved with feathers on the pelmet, and sixteen carved finials below. This canopy acted as a sounding board, catching the sound of the minister’s voice and projecting his words out over the congregation.
The pulpit was commissioned by John Erskine, the new minister of Dun, in 1615 for the old parish kirk of Dun, located in the grounds of the House of Dun, a fine Georgian mansion, in Angus. It is the third oldest such pulpit still existing in Scotland, one of around thirteen sixteenth and seventeenth century pulpits that remain in churches, including at Holy Rude, Stirling, St Salvators in St Andrews, Falkland Palace, and at Glasgow Cathedral. Its closest comparator is St Salvators, constructed in the 1620s or 1630s.
In around 1834, the heiress to the House of Dun, Margaret Erskine (Marchioness of Ailsa) relocated the Dun parish church several hundred yards further away from her house, and turned the original church into the family vault that you can still see today. The pulpit and other carved wood were sold off, but rescued some time later and installed in the new Dun church.
The Dun pulpit is one of the most important artistically to survive from this period in Scotland. Given the rarity of such woodwork, every example is important to the understanding of craftsmanship at that time. It demonstrates also how Scottish craftsmen, particularly on the east side of the country, were in touch with and influenced by continental fashions - this type of interlaced design developed in France in the 1560s but was widely employed in northern Europe up until around 1620. It may be provincial Angus in execution, but it can be seen firmly within the geographical boundaries of Renaissance visual culture.
The pulpit is also an important indicator of the major role that pulpits played in spreading the doctrines and practices of the post-Reformation Protestant church, allowing the minister height and visibility over their congregation during often lengthy weekly sermons. Gone was the priest conducting mass in a Latin that most people did not understand, to be replaced by a minister whose primary roles were in preaching and catechism, and biblical readings in the vernacular. He needed a prominent place in which to do so, whose centrality in the kirk focused his congregation’s attentions on the person preaching the Lord’s word.
In post-Reformation public worship, the pulpit thus replaced the altar as the central focus of the churches’ interiors and building; a communion table was often only temporarily supplied at the regular but infrequent times when communion was taken. Pulpits are therefore indicators of the performance of the new Protestant religion, which in Scotland was predominantly Presbyterian in its practices, a stricter form of Protestantism, modelled on that of Calvinism, in Switzerland.
Dun kirk is also important in the role that one of its original ministers had in the Protestant movement towards reform in the late 1550s, John Erskine of Dun (1508-1590). Erskine was one of the Lords of Congregation, reformers who pushed the Reformation through the Scottish parliament of 1560, in opposition to the wishes of the fervently Catholic Queen Regent, Marie de Guise, and her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots. The Lords of Congregation included senior nobility, the Earl of Argyll, his brother Colin Campbell, the Earl of Glencairn, and the Earl of Morton. As a laird, although quite a wealthy and influential one, Erskine of Dun was operating significantly above his social status in his alliance with these men. He was reputed also to have had a close and friendly relationship with Mary, Queen of Scots after her return from France in 1561, and was therefore instrumental in helping keep the Protestant Reformation on course, despite Mary’s personal opposition to it.
John Erskine of Dun’s significant challenge to the religious order of the pre-Reformation Scottish church was matched by that of his successor, John Erskine, originally minister of Ecclesgreig, and from 1614 the minister of Dun (and the commissioner of the pulpit). This John Erskine was one of several ministers who dared to challenge James VI and I’s attempt to impose the controversial ‘Five Articles of Perth’ on the kirk in 1617. This demonstration against James’s more Anglican version of Protestantism was a significant indicator of the religious resistance to royal interference in kirk affairs that was to come. Ultimately this led to Covenanting Revolution from 1638.
The pulpit also bears the mark of another notable Protestant reformer, George Wishart, in the quartered arms of the Wisharts of Pittarow, the minister Erskine’s mother being a Wishart. George Wishart was executed at the stake in St Andrews in 1546 for his heretical preaching, and had been a friend too of the original John Erskine of Dun, the leading reformer.
John Erskine, the minister in 1614, had an additional role at Dun as the guardian and protector of the young laird of Dun. This teenager, Alexander, had come unexpectedly early into his inheritance following the terrible murder of his older but still teenage brother John, 10th laird of Dun, in 1613. The lands at Dun were rich and fertile, and coveted by other members of the Erskine family, especially by Robert, the brother of a previous laird of Dun, and his sisters, Annas, Isobel and Helen, the great-aunts and great-uncle of young John and Alexander.
These conspirators concocted a plan with someone claiming powers of witchcraft to murder their two young Erskine great-nephews. When witchcraft failed, the ladies enticed the boys into supper with them at Montrose, and, poisoning both, only Alexander lived to tell the tale. In 1615, Robert was executed for his part in the murder, as were his sisters Annas and Isobel in 1616; only Helen had her sentence commuted, forced into exile in 1617.
It is within this dramatic context, that minister Erskine came into his new office, and it was probably in the spirit of renewing the Erskine family and fortune, that he commissioned this splendid pulpit. He spared nothing on expense, and its construction method of curved wood, and the elaborate carving is testament to his determination to make his own mark following such an unfortunate period.
‘vagabounds, have upon some godles wicked and detestable opinioun resolved to take the lives of John Erskine of Dun and Alexander his brother, two young boys, the eldest not past ten years, either by poison, witchcraft of some other devilische practices’
‘Quhilk drink, eftir ressaiving thairof wrocht so violentlie upone thame, that immediatlie thaireftir they tuik sic an extraordinar preiss of vomeiting, that na persone expected for thair lyfe; Johnne, the eldest, contracted sic a deidlie diseas and seiknes, that his skyn turning all blak and his haill nobill pairtis inwardlie consumeing, he dailie and continuallie thaireftir dynet in gret dollour and pane, to the tyme of death … saying ‘Wo is me, that I had richt of successioun to ony landis or leving’
The Dun pulpit will join other similarly large-scale pulpits that are currently on display in the Reformed Church gallery in Kingdom of the Scots. One, allegedly John Knox’s from St Giles is of unsure provenance (H.KL 1), but the other, from Parton, Kirkcudbrightshire (H.KL 2), dated 1598, is an example of a carved oak pulpit transitioning from medieval Gothic to Renaissance style. Like the Dun pulpit, the Parton one bears the arms of a leading local family, the Glendonwyns of Parton, evidence of how local elite families inserted their genealogy into the very fabric of the church, as a visual signifier of their power in the parish.
The Dun pulpit is different in style, and offers an important comparator to the Parton one. As such, it strengthens our understanding of the making of the Parton pulpit, as much as the differences between them are strong evidence of the artistic significance of the Dun pulpit. Although separated by a period of only seventeen years, the joinery and carving at Dun are significantly more sophisticated than that at Parton, the Dun example representing the East coast's long term and widespread exposure to Dutch and Flemish standards of craftsmanship, and the pace of fashion. In contrast, the work at Parton is late Gothic overlaid with the Renaissance vocabulary of the 1530s and executed in a confident yet remote manner. It reflects the vestiges of a rapidly disappearing age, whilst the Dun pulpit represents the new one.
The Dun pulpit has been situated in Dun kirk for nearly 200 years, and was securely fixed into the whitewashed walls with long iron nails. It was a significant logistical operation to disassemble and remove the pulpit, carefully recording the process so that it can be reassembled in due course for display. Specialist removal contractors took two days to complete the removal in three main parts, packing the heavy pieces of wood onto pallets to bring into the stores at Granton.
Once here, the pulpit was put into a dry-freezing container, in order to remove any pests, and to make it safe for conservation and storage.
Following that an external contractor, Sarah Gerrish, was engaged to conserve the pulpit to pre-display standards, a job which involved a huge amount of work conducted over three weeks in the laboratories at Granton. The brief was to record all the elements of the pulpit, to stabilise and clean the wood where it had fractured, and to remove the textiles that lined the wooden rail of the pulpit and inside its circular body.
The visible red velvet and gold coloured cording was but the first of many layers that were slowly revealed, accreted over the several hundred years of the pulpit’s lifetime. Cotton wadding, horsehair, and several layers of red wool broadcloth and felt emerged, each layer presumably added when the one beneath became damaged or tatty. The earliest, of red broadcloth, still remarkably bright in colour, may even date back to the earliest years of the pulpit and the first half of the seventeenth century – if so, that would make it and the horsehair and hessian layer it covers, some of the oldest such upholstery to survive in Scotland.
Intriguingly, we can see the hands of the craftsmen at work in the minute stitching of the upholsters in the padding, and the small iron tacks hammered to keep it in place. It would be interesting to carbon date these textiles, but for now the precision of dating post-1650 is too wide and precludes doing such tests. Technological advances however mean that we hope one day to be able to do this.
National Museums Scotland would like to acknowledge gratefully the generous support of the Pilgrim Trust and the Governors of the Church of Scotland in helping to fund the removal, conservation and storage of the Dun pulpit.
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