St Ninian's Comely Bank

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Sanctuary Panels

When the new flats were erected in 2000, the plain frosted windows in the sanctuary were very close to the new building and were bricked up.  To overcome this it was decided to commission two engraved (and illuminated) panels to restore this feature. 

These magnificent engraved panels, depicting St Ninian and St Columba, added a new dimension to the sanctuary. They were created by artist, Noel White. The finished articles are testimony to his skill as this was the first time that he had engraved on glass! The frames were made by Andrew Lane in Monmouth. Raymond Lumsden, kindly bore the cost of their installation which was carried out by his son and a friend. We are indeed grateful to all those who have helped in bringing this most successful project to fruition.

The artist’s thoughts behind the designs and his explanation of the symbols in them are detailed below:


The artist’s thoughts behind the designs and his explanation of the symbols in them are detailed below:

In the designs I have made for St Ninian’s, the arrangements can he better understood if we are compassionate towards the hopelessness of any attempt to still time, to resist the succession of events, one unique moment upon another. Each unfolding moment will be the equal of any other in the nature of time, so how should an artist turn time back upon itself, in pursuit of clarity, of revealing something necessary, which is not already clear? Artistic composition is a tool to this end honed through the traditions, serving us in our bewilderment. The artist may serve in a traditional sense as a designer of a device, combining elements of time to attempt a roundness, and wholeness, in what must be done. My designs for St Ninian and St Columba combine aspects and ideas gathered and held together as if in our hands. Why it should be that such aspects and ideas are like wild things themselves from the artist’s point of view – living creatures in the hands so to speak is mysterious. Yet so they are, trying to escape the net of the designs, darting hither and thither, muscularly wriggling to be off and away. But successful design holds them. The ingredients then seem submissive, palpitating, apprehensive. Now they will give vigour to the design, pushing towards an edge which, should it be reached, may see the elements break free and disappear. The designs have induced the ingredients to co-operate and be still. These ingredients are each like a bird caught in the hand at the kitchen window against which it has struggled, having strayed or ventured inquisitively into the house. The bird seems to know it must be patient. Sitting inside one’s cupped hands it seems to know it must accept confinement and wait. The bird will soon be free to flyaway over the garden. When it realises it has not been harmed, it may be intrigued and even return.

Thus it is with the things of art and design that have the quality of not ever being the property of the artist. It isn’t a coy pose when the artist explains how he or she is more an instrument than an originator. The wild bird of art is caught in the experience of the artist with all its strangeness and vulnerability. But the artist must not be its jailer, holding the key to a cage. Let us remember the bird we helped to regain the outer air. It is a paradigm for ourselves. Intimately known to the imagination of our creator and so likely to venture into a potential cage ourselves, we may depend on the chance thoughtfulness of the vigilant of whom the artist should bean example. His or her vigilance is but one form among others available to us. Through such vigilance we may recover, even maintain, the freedom to be that action that God will not do twice in the glistening originality that is creation.”


St Ailred of Rievaulx (12th century) makes these similes in his writings about Bishop Ninian from which I have derived my design. The stars “shining lights upon the world” – refer to Ninian as luminary. I have given twelve stars as this apostolic number is also the four of the world’s cardinal points multiplied by the three of the Holy Trinity in traditional number symbolism. The twelfth star is given as a chi-rho (the Greek monogram for Christ) as this refers to Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, whose crucial role helps bring about the Passion

Ninian “shone out like the brightest star in heaven”. The candlestick refers to Ninian’s rank of bishop shining “as a lamp of the holy sanctuary”. Dispelling “shadowy darkness”, Ninian shines “brightly on top of the candlestick”.  Ninian is dressed in the garb of a Byzantine gentleman of the fourth century. He was a British aristocrat educated in Rome. He is described by Ailred as being “ablaze with episcopal emblems”. I have given two of these as forms of the Celtic cross. The third, a triangle within a circle, taken from the Ruthwell Cross, symbolises the Three in One. The fourth serves also as a window in the building shown and is a square symbolising the world. The building in the design refers to Ninian’s church at  Whithorn, “the first, they say, to be built of stone”. Converging with the church is an image of the sea and sky as seen from the mouth of Ninian’s cave. He “studied heavenly wisdom… in a cave of horrible blackness”. When he emerged, this was his view, according to tradition. The fish and sea remind us of the location of Ninian’s work in Galloway. The fish (ictheus: Greek for ‘fish’, acronym for Jesus Christ, son of God, saviour) is a symbol of earliest Christian use.  Ninian’s shoes are a personal contribution from me. I see him as well shod for his work in the northern climate, the key to his steady step and missionary vigour. They are based on certain Roman examples to be seen in the British Museum.

St Columba

St Adomnan (7th century) wrote his Life of St Columba late in his own life. Columba had died a century before. Yet as a young man Adomnan may have talked with people who knew Columba first hand. His Life is full of images but two struck me as particularly suggestive for my design. The first of these is when Columba confides in the monk Lugbe an explanation of the special gifts that Lugbe has asked Columba to explain. This explanation is so graphic that I give it here in full. It seems to me to stand for the visionary gift whenever it is experienced by human beings in whatever measure..

There are some, although few indeed, on whom divine favour has bestowed the gift of contemplating, clearly and very distinctly, with scope of mind miraculously enlarged, in one and the same moment, as though under the one ray of the sun, even the whole circle of the whole earth, with the ocean and the sky about it”

Columba is described by the Venerable Bede as being “distinguished by his monastic dress”. I have shown him wearing the Celtic tonsure, as it is believed to have looked according to the illuminated manuscript The Book of Durrow. Superimposed on the figure is the circle of the world: ocean, land and sky, cloud-forms, birds. Running into the design is a hunting scene, the second of the images which appealed to me from Adomnan

Columba had entered a “dense wood… a boar of remarkable size was being pursued by hunting dogs”. This boar seems to be a version of the Twyre Twyrth, the great boar that features in the tale of Culuch and aIwain, from  the Mabinogion, a collection of ancient  Welsh (i.e. British) tales. This boar represents the indiscriminate force of chaos. Columba first tells it to stay where it is. Next he orders it to die. I depict Columba in this action, one in which his authentic power is used directly on evil, to put an end to its nonsense. The fleeing boar of the Mabinogion takes to the sea off the Cornish coast  –  to fight another day. Columba has quelled his boar for the time-being. Such images belong to an age when the Christian message must have taken the boar by surprise: today he is very wily and experienced. I think this is what we acknowledge in our bringing both Ninian and Columba into our lives through these engraved panels, by visualising these saints anew. The miraculous was their dimension in life  –  and  it is this dimension that we reach out to in a collaboration such as this one at St Ninian’s, Edinburgh. We can’t know the exact outcome of such an effort, but we can feel its rightness. Art is a surface in a passageway of mirrors, perhaps receiving and reflecting living things, from a past that doesn’t die.

The panels were dedicated to the memory of Mary McLean by the Rt Revd Brian Smith, Bishop of Edinburgh on 17 March 2002.