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1 Jun 2020

16th-century lessons to live by from Culross Palace

Written by Dr Antonia Laurence-Allen, Regional Curator, Edinburgh and East
A view of a panel on a wooden painted ceiling. It shows a classical woman with urns and plants. There is Latin text at the top and Scots text at the bottom.
One of the panels on the painted ceiling in Culross Palace
On the wooden ceiling in a 16th-century house in Fife are 16 allegorical scenes that depict life lessons and moral codes. These lessons resonate today and remind us that, no matter what life throws at us, some things will always remain the same.

Legend has it that St Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, was born in Culross in the 6th century. A Cistercian abbey was founded here in the early 13th century, and, for the following 300 years, the monks of Culross mined the seams of coal in the area. This was the mine that was taken on by George Bruce in the late 1500s. He was an entrepreneur who turned Culross Abbey’s coal pit into a very successful and innovative underwater mine in Scotland. He used the worst of the coal to heat sea water and extract salt, a precious commodity used for preserving food.

Bruce built his house close to the port, to support both his family and business. Although the house is now known as Culross Palace, Bruce was not royalty; he was a very wealthy merchant and was knighted in 1610. It’s thought the vaulted alcoves are made from upturned rowing boat hulls, sawn in half.

Why paint the ceilings?

16th-century fashions in Scotland were influenced by the countries in Northern Europe who were key trading partners. Spices, rich textiles and carved wooden furniture are all items that came from ports in the Netherlands. Ceiling paintings became fashionable in Scotland because of two things: imported light wood from Scandinavia and Dutch design books like Hans Vredeman de Vries’s Variae architecturae formae (1560).

What do the scenes depict?

Most of these scenes are taken from the first emblem book to be written by an English poet: Geffrey Whitney’s A Choice of Emblemes in 1586. Emblem books were popular throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and contained allegorical illustrations with accompanying explanatory text. At Culross, this text is written both in Latin (at the top of the picture) and in Scots (at the bottom). The moral lessons range from ‘build a strong house’ to ‘look after your parents’ and ‘time brings all things to an end’. Religion and trade feature in all these painted ceiling scenes, which were custom-made for Bruce and fitting for his lifestyle and his location.

Here we take a closer look at just a few of the scenes.

These paintings are over 400 years old (we think they were installed between 1597–1611) yet still remind us what’s important in life: our health, our entrepreneurial spirit and our human relationships.

With thanks to the historian Michael Bath, and his work on Scottish painted decoration. His most recent publication is Emblems in Scotland: Motifs and Meanings (Leiden: Brill, 2018). A review can be read at www.northernrenaissance.org

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