St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral is an Edinburgh landmark, with its three gothic spires clearly seen from all around the city, and yet the building itself seems to be hidden in the city’s elegant West End.
The idea for a new cathedral started with two spinster sisters, Barbara and Mary Walker, who left their entire fortune to the Scottish Episcopal Church on the condition that a cathedral was built. A competition was held to design the new building and six architects came forward with plans. The winner was Sir George Gilbert Scott, a prolific architect also responsible for St Pancras Station and the Albert Memorial.
His design drew heavily on medieval gothic architecture, with a large central tower and spire. Work started in May 1874, but the trustees soon changed their minds and asked for another two spires to be added, inspired by one of the alternative designs submitted in the competition. Inevitably the costs rose enormously, from £45,000 to £110,000, and it took until 1917 before the last of the spires was completed. It was a late and costly decision, but it did transform the cathedral into a truly remarkable building.
The interior of the cathedral contains many treasures. The most striking is the rood cross, designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, and originally intended for the National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. If you look carefully you can see the figure a Christ has a background of Flanders poppies. Look out too for the modern stained glass, designed by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. In contrast to the medieval inspired themes seen in the rest of the cathedral, this is an abstract design with blocks of bold colours. When the sun shines, it floods the floor in front of the window with bright colourful patterns.
There is also a particularly haunting painting known as ‘The Presence’, which has an intriguing history. The setting is the interior of the cathedral, and it shows a lady kneeling in prayer and comforted by the presence of Christ, who bathes her in light in contrast to the surrounding gloom. The painting was sent to Germany for copies to be made, but it was still there when the First World War broke out, and was sold to an American firm. It came to light again a few years later when it was used in a New York newspaper, and at the end of the war a special Act of Congress was required to stop it being sold as enemy property. In 1944 the artist presented it to the cathedral and it has hung there ever since.
Next to the cathedral is a curious building known as Easter Coates House, which is actually a remarkable survival. It dates back to 1615, making it probably the oldest building in the New Town. It has been repaired and altered many times, often using fragments of buildings from the Old Town, and today it houses the cathedral’s theological institute. Close by is also the Cathedral’s Song School, built in the 1880’s as a rehearsal space for the choristers. From the outside it looks like a slightly grand church hall, but step inside and you will see one of the most stunning interiors in Edinburgh. The walls are decorated with murals painted by Phoebe Traquair, in bright reds, blues and golds.
The cathedral is certainly impressive from the exterior, but in many ways its real treasures are hidden inside. It is definitely worth a special trip to the West End to fully appreciate one of Edinburgh’s best buildings.
Find out more about our the conservation project we are supporting at St Mary’s.