Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens


Post-Medieval Coffin Depictions at St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney

A watercolour I did of the cathedral (2022)

Last September 2022, My husband Ian and I went on our very-belated honeymoon to Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands. One of the sites that we visited that we were totally in awe of was St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the largest town on Mainland Orkney. The original cathedral was constructed in the 12th century, when the islands were under Norse rule, and was named for Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney. It was constructed in the Romanesque style with examples of Norman architecture as well, and was built with local red sandstone from Kirkwall and yellow sandstone from the island of Eday (where the memoir ‘Close to Where the Heart Gives Out’ is set. Here is an interview with the author!).

We had the chance to visit the cathedral twice, and I still don’t think we saw everything! There were amazing examples of late and post-medieval funerary sculpture throughout the church, with beautiful memento mori designs throughout. On our second visit, I noticed that some of the ledgers that had been set upright against the walls of the church had coffins as part of the designs, and that not all of the coffin styles were the same. I pulled out my sketchbook and raced around the cathedral as it was about to close, quickly writing down the dates and coffin styles on all the ledgers that had one, to conduct a quick survey on coffin styles depicted in 17th-century Orkney funerary monuments!

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