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Recreation of lost Renaissance royal palace masterpiece unveiled

18 January 2011

Historic Scotland’s recreation of a lost Renaissance masterpiece has been welcomed by Fiona Hyslop, Minister for Culture and External Affairs.

John Donaldson with the Stirling heads
John Donaldson with the Stirling Heads

Back in the 1540s the ceiling of the King’s Inner Hall, in the royal palace of James V at Stirling Castle, was decorated with magnificent oak carvings showing the faces of kings, queens, lords, ladies, Roman emperors and ancient heroes.

But the ceiling was taken down in 1777 – some of the carvings were destroyed and the rest ended up scattered throughout Scotland and England.

Known as the Stirling Heads, 34 of these metre-wide oak medallions have survived, and six years ago an initiative got underway to make a full set of copies to redecorate the ceiling in glorious, colourful 16th century style.

This has now been completed and the King’s Inner Hall is once again rich with images of historical figures including James V, his French queen Mary of Guise, Henry VIII of England and Julius Caesar.

The Minister said: “This is an important milestone in one of the most exciting projects of its kind ever undertaken in Scotland.

“The new Stirling Heads, and this spectacular ceiling will be among the main attractions of the palace when it opens later this year.”

Historic Scotland is returning the palace to how it may have looked when it was home to the royal court.

The £12 million palace project also involves creating a special gallery on the upper floor of the palace where the original Stirling Heads will be on display.

Peter Buchanan, Stirling Castle Palace Project Manager, said: “We’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time – the new versions of the heads took five years to carve and since then a great deal of work has been done to create the ceiling and get the painting just right.

“The original ceiling was a masterpiece of Scottish Renaissance art and craftsmanship and our recreation is designed to be just as impressive.

“When people see it for the first time they sometimes just stand and say ‘wow’.”

Fragments discovered on the heads prove that they used to be painted and extensive research has taken place to make sure that suitable colours have been used for the modern versions.

The painting was carried out by a specialist art conservation and restoration team led by Graciela Ainsworth, from Leith.

Ms Ainsworth said: “There’s nothing quite like the Stirling Heads anywhere in the world, and the palace project is wonderful, so it is fantastic to be involved.

“I really love Scottish Renaissance styles, they have a distinctive boldness, strength and raw energy – what Historic Scotland is doing really recaptures the character of the art of the time.”

It has taken four painters around three months to complete the heads, using materials and techniques as close as possible to those of the 16th century.

One of the main aims was to use the paint to bring out the tremendous quality of the carving and to give the strongest possible three-dimensional effect.

The work was carried out with the heads already fixed to the ceiling, so the artists would know exactly how they would appear to viewers on the ground.

The new heads were hand-carved by Livingston-based master craftsmen John Donaldson.

Mr Donaldson said: “Carving new versions of the Stirling Heads was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the new ceiling looks absolutely stunning.

“It’s quite a feeling to have your work included in a project of this scale and importance and which will hopefully be enjoyed by millions of visitors for many decades to come.”

In addition to the replica heads carved for the ceiling, several extras were made for education and display.

One is only partly painted, so visitors can see the difference between the natural oak and the final version.

The original heads were commissioned by James V, as part of the scheme to build a new palace which celebrated his marriage to Mary of Guise, it is uncertain if he ever saw the ceilings completed.

The king died, aged just 30, in December 1542 when the building was probably still being finished – leaving his widow with a baby girl less than a week old.

The following year Mary of Guise and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots arrived at Stirling, which became their main residence until the ‘Little Queen’ was sent to the French court to keep her safe from the English in 1548.

Carved heads are known to have been used to decorate at least two palace ceilings.

While we do not know where each of the surviving heads was originally located, the new versions have been displayed in a way that would have appealed to a Renaissance audience.

This has involved arranging them in a way that emphasises the king and his royal ancestors, ranks him alongside other important European rulers of the time, and associates him with great men of history and mythology – including Hercules.

  • Historic Scotland has produced a short film about the French and Scottish painters who are returning the palace to how it may have looked in the 1540s. This can be viewed at

For further information:

Matthew Shelley - 01786 431325

Notes for editors

  • The opening of the palace is planned for June 2011.

  • For all the latest on the palace project, and everything else that happening at Stirling Castle, visit our website at and sign up for our free e-newsletter.

  • Stirling Castle is at the top of Stirling Old Town off the M9 at junction 9 or 10. Call 01786 450000

About the Stirling Heads
The Stirling Heads are a reminder of the moment when Scotland stood poised on the brink of leaving the medieval centuries and entering the modern age. Each oak medallion – or roundel – was hand-carved by skilled craftsmen who created vivid images of figures from imps and classical heroes to kings, queens and courtiers – even a jester and a poet. A total of 34 have survived since their creation sometime after 1530. There is nothing quite like them anywhere else in the world.

Modern art
King James V wanted to impress – and there was little that the rich and powerful of his day admired more than sumptuous displays of contemporary art. This was probably the motivation behind having ceilings in his palace lodgings decorated with carved wooden roundels. In the mid-16th century there was a vogue for using Classical references, such as medallions, in the decorative arts. But research for Historic Scotland shows that creating a ceiling in this way was very new.

Originals on display
A special display area is being created for the original Stirling Heads on the upper floor of the royal palace. It is here that hundreds of thousands of visitors a year will be able to admire some of Scotland’s most unusual and special works of art. In fact the modern visitor will come face to face with the heads at a distance of just a few centimetres – far closer than any of the select few who would have been admitted to the King’s Inner Hall five centuries ago. They will be on show in glass cases designed to show them off to their best effect – while keeping them in a humidity and temperature-controlled environment to ensure their conservation. Lighting will be kept at an optimum level to help safeguard this precious collection. The display area will be the centrepiece of a gallery exploring the background to life and the arts in mid-16th century Scotland.

Key questions

  • Where were they in the palace? The heads decorated some of the most important rooms in the palace – particularly the King’s Inner Hall. This was a throne room intended as the place where much royal business would be carried out.

  • How many were there? This is an unknown. It is likely that some were lost and destroyed after being removed from the ceiling in 1777. In addition to the 34 surviving, two were destroyed in a fire at Dunstaffnage Castle. Fortunately there are drawings of both. Six are composites in which missing parts of the borders have been replaced, possibly using sections from other now-lost heads.

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

  • Do the carvings have meanings? We are not sure, but one shows a jester who is clutching one buttock while sticking out his tongue. It has been suggested that this was a warning to visitors – watch your tongue or you risk a kick from the king.

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

  • How many are on the ceiling? A total of 37 were needed. These include copies of all 34 surviving roundels. Two others – destroyed by a fire at Dunstaffnage Castle – were recreated from sketches. Another one (now known as the carver’s daughter) is a portrait of John Donaldson’s daughter Fiona Maybin dressed in a costume copied from a Renaissance statue on the outside of the palace.

  • Who carved the originals? The evidence points to them being the work of a Frenchman and two Scots. More than one set of hands was clearly at work. While some are masterly – showing a detailed knowledge of human anatomy and bone structure – others are less sophisticated.

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

  • 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 40kg.

For further information

Matthew Shelley
0131 668 8734