The Queen Mary harp


Queen Mary detail

The forepillar of the Queen Mary harp is carved and painted all over, with incredibly fine and high quality work. This decoration was traced to a very high standard by Armstrong and published in his 1904 book (click picture to enlarge). It is interesting to compare the decorative scheme on the forepillar with the forepillar of the Trinity College harp. Though the animal and plant motifs are in a quite different style, the general layout of the different motifs follows a very similar arrangement.

The form of the animal and foliage designs is the main way that we can get an idea of the date and provenance of the harp, because they fit the “Iona school” of medieval West Highland sculpture. This school was active in the 14th and 15th century, based in Iona in the West of Scotland.

Queen Mary detail
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Queen Mary detail

The pillar is carved as a rectangular-section, with a two-headed fish running up the outside of the curve. The fish is divided into five fields. From the top, there is:
1. the upper head, with bulging eyes and lips. The lips have incised lining around them and the eyes have stripy teardrops behind and in front of them. The eyes are picked out with vermillion paint.
2. the shoulders of the fish have interlace foliage panels, carved in low-relief so that the fronds run over and under one another. The leaves are highlighted with dark incised lines, and the recessed background field is pained with vermillion paint.
3. The centre section is mostly plain, but has four circular designs sprouting from the foliage and a ribbon of interlace running down the centreline. The ribbon is partly covered by later silver studs.
4. the lower shoulders have low-relief foliage, carved similarly to the upper ones but with a rather different and more flowing style of leaf.
5. the lower head is similar to the upper head.

The main rectangular section of the pillar has incised and painted decoration on the short panels above and below the fish lips, on the long side panels and on the inside panel facing the soundbox of the harp.

Queen Mary detail

The flat side panels each have two roundels, one above and one below the fish; each roundel has an animal inside. Top left is a griffin; bottom left is a wyvern; top right is a lion, and bottom right is a strange scene with a unicorn stuffing a fish into the mouth of a two-legged serpent. These animals are all incised and outlined with dark lines, and the background fields are coloured red or purple. Similar animals can be seen on late 15th century West Highland stone slabs. The roundels are outlined by circular pellets. The lion roundel has been cut away for a gem-setting which is now missing. There are also nails remaining on the pillar from badges or plaques.

The main areas of the side fields between the roundels is taken up with interlacing foliage design. The leaves on the left side are very curious shape that I have not seen anywhere else. The leaves on the right side have a typical late medieval West Highland shape. A small cross sprouts from each vine. All of this work is outlined with incised and darkened lines, and with the background fields painted red or purple.

The inside of the pillar curve has geometric designs made of incised and darkened lines, with red-purple paint on the background areas. This is the finest and most complex area of the entire harp.

Simon Chadwick

Further reading

R.B. Armstrong, The Irish and Highland Harps. David Douglas, Edinburgh, 1904, p. 168-183. Photos, many line drawings of elevation and details, and extremely comprehensive written description.

For comparative material from late medieval West Highland art, see K.A. Steer & J.W.M. Bannerman, Late Medieval Monumental Sculpture in the West Highlands, RCAHM, Edinburgh, 1977

The paint was identified as vermillion by Karen Loomis in 2010 (Karen Loomis et al, ‘The Lamont and Queen Mary Harps’, Galpin Society Journal LXV, March 2012). This article includes a lot of other technical information about the harp.