Renaissance heads of Caesar and Henry VIII to return to Stirling Castle Royal Palace of James V

By Culture24 Staff | 18 January 2011
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John Donaldson stood with heads
Master craftsman John Donaldson takes a look at his recreations of the Stirling Heads © Stirling Castle
Painted carvings showing the heads of Henry VIII, Caesar and King James V which were lost when a Scottish castle ceiling was torn down more than 200 years ago have been restored as part of a six-year, £12 million project by the Scottish government’s Historic Scotland campaign.

The oak Stirling Heads, which measure a metre wide each and decorated the ceiling in the Royal Palace of James V at Stirling Castle with the faces of Royalty, ancient heroes and members of the Scottish nobility, were destroyed and scattered across the UK after being removed in 1777.

Thirty-four of the “magnificent” medallions have now been created by Livingston-based master craftsman John Donaldson.

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

“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.”

Leith expert Graciela Ainsworth led a specialist art conservation and restoration team in restoring the original colourful look of the heads, painting them after they had been attached to the ceiling.

“There’s nothing quite like the Stirling Heads anywhere in the world, so it is fantastic to be involved,” she said.

“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.”

The original heads were commissioned by James V while the castle was being built, celebrating his marriage to Mary of Guise. Historians believe the building was still under construction when he died at the age of 30 in 1542, leaving the decadent home to his widow and the infant Mary, Queen of Scots.

A special gallery on the upper floor of the palace will show the new heads, ranking the King and his ancestors alongside other European rules of the time and leading historical and mythological figures such as Hercules.

“We’ve been looking forward to this moment for a long time,” said project leader Peter Buchanan.

“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’.”

The building is expected to open in June 2011.

Watch a video of the Stirling Castle Palace Project:

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