1 May 2010

Reflections of Paisley Abbey

My weather-beaten 2004 copy of A Rough Guide to Scotland describes the exterior of Paisley Abbey as “an unattractive, fat grey façade.” I can’t help but wonder if the guide writers were looking at the same building as I was, as I moved around the nearby square, trying to take in every gothic-loving angle of this beautiful place.

The abbey itself was founded in 1163 and the attached smaller buildings are known as the palace or “The Place of Paisley.” These formed the domestic quarters for the monks and were at one time used as a grand private mansion house before falling back under the care of the abbey.
Paisley may not be on the wider tourist path today, but there was a time when it was a seat of power and struggle. Tucked into the corner of the nave, a long, narrow stained glass window depicts a sombre but brave Samson.

Given to the abbey in 1873, this window is a memorial to William Wallace, who was educated by the abbey monks in the 13th century.

Inside, with flowers lying next to her sleeping form, is the sarcophagus effigy of Robert the Bruce’s eldest daughter, Marjory Bruce, whose marriage to the High Steward of Scotland brought together her family and the Stewart Clan.

Her son became Robert II, the first Stuart monarch, and his son was Robert III, who is also buried at the Abbey. In 1888 Queen Victoria gifted a marble tombstone to the abbey, to commemorate the Stewarts buried there.

Despite visiting on a Saturday, there were only a handful of visitors wandering silently inside what felt like a giant, ornate stone drum. It would be easy to come here every week for a year and still find things to marvel over that you had missed before.

There is vast detail in the huge stained glass windows, and between these there are and other works of art like the 1000-year-old Barochan Cross, and the painting that hangs in the attached St. Mirin Chapel, which depicts “The Death of the First Born.”
Like many historical buildings in Scotland, Paisley Abbey was damaged by time or fire, then rebuilt, was damaged again, etc.

In recent years a huge amount of work has been undertaken to replace the disintegrating 1788 plaster ceiling with a new timber one. In 1988 a modern stained glass window was completed by artist John K Clark.

The eyes are drawn immediately to glowing candles at the centre of the piece, before taking in the overall work as a grand homage to art and music, including a ribbon-like cascade of violins.
Over and over I wandered back to the area around the choir stall to gaze into the mirror that reflected and magnified the incredible detail of the carved ceiling. What a wonderful idea - this small gesture that allows visitors such an intimate look at artwork that is normally too far above to truly appreciate.
Something else that added to the mystery and wonder of the experience: when you enter the main door of the abbey, or if you are going down to the shop and café, you are obliged the open the doors.

But these aren’t just any doors; they are huge, wooden doors with heavy, slightly cumbersome black iron handles that swing on massive iron hinges. They are antique, grand entrances and another unique feature that adds so much to the overall visitor experience.

I neglected to take photos of the entrance doors, and the door below is not one of them, but it gives you a sense of what I mean.
It was more than just pleasure to visit this abbey; it felt like an honour. Once again I am astounded that such a treasure is simply free to visit (although donations for ongoing restoration are gratefully accepted).

There is more to come from Paisley, and I will certainly have to go back because there was so much I missed on my first visit.

Whether you are taken in by the beauty of carved stone, or are fascinated by Scottish history (fellow readers of Scotland, Story of a Nation can turn to page 228), don’t miss a chance to step through the door of this unforgettable building.

Happy Beltane, everyone!

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