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Stirling Heads go on show in Paris

26 September 2008

Scotland’s Other Crown Jewels in Mary, Queen of Scots Exhibition

Four of the Stirling Heads are going to France on temporary loan for a special exhibition about Mary, Queen of Scots.

The heads, large carved wooden roundels, once adorned ceilings in the royal palace at Stirling Castle which was among her most important residences.

Regarded by some as Scotland’s other crown jewels, the heads are a national treasure and among our finest surviving examples of Renaissance arts and crafts.

French experts approached Historic Scotland about the loan for an exhibition entitled Marie-Stuart, le destin d’une reine d’Ecosse at the Musee national de la Renaissance – Chateau d’Ecouen, a few miles outside the French capital.

Hugh Morrison, Historic Scotland collections registrar, said: “We are delighted that this wonderful part of Scotland’s heritage will go on display in France.

“Mary spent much of her early life in France and had a deep love of French culture.

“She was also very familiar with the Stirling Heads as they were some of the most impressive parts of the decoration in the palace at Stirling where she spent a great deal of time after returning to rule Scotland.

“It is also believed that one of the carvers responsible for creating the Stirling Heads was probably French.”

Thierry Crépin-Leblond, curator of the exhibition, said:

“Stirling’s medallions are an important testimony of Renaissance in Scotland highlighting the strong links between French and Scottish art mostly due to James V and Marie de Guise.

“We are proud to expose into the Musée national de la Renaissance, dedicated to European Renaissance art and civilisation, Scottish Renaissance’s work.

“The exhibition Mary Stuart was an occasion to show to French visitors those unknown and impressive pieces that the Queen of Scots used to admire in the Inner Hall of her father.”

The four which will be put on display show:

  • a bearded man in classical costume grasping a serpent in his right hand

  • a richly dressed young women with long, braided hair and a fanciful headdress

  • the prancing figure of a putto – or imp

  • and a cloaked man with an elaborate chain hanging round his neck.

One of Historic Scotland’s expert conservation staff will travel with the heads to France and supervise their unpacking and display.

Afterwards they will return to storage in Edinburgh while Historic Scotland creates a gallery for their permanent display on the first floor of the royal palace at Stirling Castle from 2011.

This is happening as part of a wider £12 million project to return the royal lodgings at the castle to their Renaissance splendour.

For details of this project and about the heads see the media pack at www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/mediaresources

Free to use pictures of the heads are available.

Pictures of the heads on display in the French exhibition will be available from 10th October


Notes for editors

  • The exhibition takes place from 15, October to 2, February. For further details visit the website at www.musee-renaissance.fr/homes/home_id20729_u1l2.htm. It will feature works of art and personal objects that belonged to the queen which come from a variety of collections.

  • King James V began building the palace in 1538 for his French bride Mary de Guise, who later became regent of Scotland – ruling in her own right – and was mother of Mary, Queen of Scots.

  • Mary lived at Stirling Castle as a little girl before fleeing to France, where she married the future King Francis II. After his death in 1559 and that of her mother the next year, she returned to rule Scotland in 1561.

About the Stirling Heads

The Stirling Heads are a remarkable reminder of the moment when Scotland was on the brink of leaving the medieval centuries and entering the modern age. Each of these large oak medallions – or roundels – was hand-carved by skilled craftsmen who created vivid images of all sorts of figures from imps and classical heroes to kings, queens and courtiers.

A total of 38, some as much as a metre across, have survived the centuries since their creation some time after 1530. Many of them originally decorated the ceiling of the King’s Inner Hall – at the very heart of the royal palace. There is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world.

One of the most important parts of the palace project is to put the 30 Stirling Heads in the care of Historic Scotland on display in their own gallery, along with three on permanent loan from National Museums Scotland. It will be the first time for many years that this exceptional part of Scotland’s artistic heritage has been on show for all to enjoy.

  • How many were there? We do not know how many there originally were. It is likely that some were lost and destroyed after being removed from the ceiling in 1777. Two were destroyed in a fire at Dunstaffnage Castle. Fortunately there are drawings of both. Six are known to be composites in which missing parts of the borders have been replaced, possibly using sections from other now-lost heads.

  • Where were they in the palace? The heads were used to decorate the ceilings of the most important rooms in the palace – particularly the King’s Inner Hall. This was a throne room where certain people were admitted into the presence of their monarch.

  • What were they for? The room would have been designed to overawe visitors with the majesty of the king and power of the monarchy. The ceiling would have played a very important part in this.

  • What is shown on the heads? There are a variety of images, some of which may be careful portraits of real people, or representations of past kings and queens of Scotland to emphasise the power and lineage of the monarchy.

  • Do the carvings have meanings? We are not sure, but one roundel shows a jester who is clutching one buttock while sticking out his tongue at the people below. It has been suggested that this was the first one seen by visitors and was a warning – watch your tongue or you risk a kick.

  • What inspired the images? At this time there was a fascination with Roman coins. These tended to have a portrait on one side and a Classical god on the other. This may be reflected in the heads.

  • Who carved the originals? The evidence is limited but points to them being the work of a Frenchman and two Scots. More than one set of hands was clearly at work, even on individual heads, because while some of them are masterly – showing a detailed knowledge of human anatomy and bone structure – others are much less sophisticated.

  • When were they made? Scientists (using a tree ring dating technique called dendrochronology) have found the trees were cut in the mid-16th century, somewhere between 1530 and 1544. It is assumed they were cut as part of the 1538 construction project.

  • Were they in plain wood? Careful analysis detected microscopic fragments of paint on the originals – fitting in with the Renaissance love of strong colours.

  • How large are the heads? The largest of the roundels is a metre in diameter. They are deeply carved from oak and are up to 7.6 cm thick, weighing in at around 14kg.

  • Many of the heads were previously on display at the Smith Gallery in Stirling.

- ENDS -

For further information


Laura Varney
PR Executive
Marketing and Media
0131 668 8959
laura.varney@scotland.gsi.gov.uk