Memorialising Mary as Martyr

In today’s blog, Elinor Vickers, Curator at the Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (also known as Blairs Museum) explores how key objects have become associated with the Catholic martyrdom of Mary, Queen of Scots, and discusses how the museum visitor’s encounter is framed by the perceived aura and authenticity of these objects.

The Blairs Museum near Aberdeen holds a fascinating variety of art and artefacts relating to Mary, Queen of Scots. Most, but not all, engage with Mary’s status as a Catholic Queen. The collection was formed at Blairs College, a Catholic seminary founded in Aberdeenshire in 1829, and then transferred to the newly founded Blairs Museum on the same site at the seminary’s closure in 1986.

Blairs College housed a museum and a set of highly significant portraits, the key work being the Memorial Portrait of Mary, displayed in the ‘Queen Mary Room’. The collecting policy of the College covered ‘The main thematic areas: Church vestments and plate, Underground Catholicism, the Stewarts and College history’ (1). These themes continue to inform the work of the museum. An interesting aspect of the museum is that it is still situated within a religious context, as the gallery space is the former Sacristy, the room where priests vested for the Mass in the Chapel next door. The gallery is overlooked by a crucifix and retains a religious atmosphere. Many of the items in the collection also retain a spiritual significance, sometimes reinforced by liturgical use, which posits the museum as a liminal space between a museum and a religious site. This adds an extra level of meaning to any artefact or artwork exhibited here and refutes the claim by Graham Howes in Art of the Sacred of ‘the critical role of the modern museum in what might be called the desacralisation of religious art itself’ (2). Blairs Museum operates as both a museum and a site of faith.

Flemish School, Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587), c.1600, oil on canvas, H 227 x W 139 cm. Acquired from the Scots College, Douai. Photo: The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum).

The focus on remembering and memorialising Mary’s Catholicism and martyrdom comes through strongly in the items in the museum collection. The most significant piece in the museum is the Blairs Memorial Portrait of Mary, which has already been discussed in detail in this blog by Dr Steven Reid. However, as this work forms a keynote for the collection it is worth examining its themes and iconography briefly. The portrait shows Mary, Queen of Scots, surrounded by Catholic imagery and an extensive inscription. The work falls strongly into the categories of both ‘Revenge Painting’ and as promoting Mary the Martyr. In The Queen’s Image: A Celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots, Smailes and Thomson describe the inscription as reading that Mary ‘Plainly professes that she always was and is a daughter of the Roman Church’ (3) and quotes the will of Elizabeth Curle, who commissioned the portrait, as ‘a large portrait of Her Majesty dressed as she was at her martyrdom’ (4). The theme of martyrdom is clearly signified by the depiction of the execution; the scene of her martyrdom includes her beheading by axe, the instrument of her martyrdom. There was a push to have Mary, Queen of Scots made a saint in 1886-7, spearheaded by Archbishop Smith of St Andrews and Edinburgh, but she was apparently ‘a saint too far’ (5) due to her controversial life and sainthood was never conferred.

Front of the Blairs Jewel or Reliquary, 1610-1622. Photo: Blairs Museum. Photo: The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum).
Back of the Blairs Jewel or Reliquary, 1610-1622. Photo: The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum).

The theme of Mary as Martyr is extended in an even stronger and more interesting manner by another key exhibit: the Blairs Jewel or Reliquary. This is a miniature painting of Mary, enclosed in a seventeenth-century (1610-1622) reliquary. The provenance of the miniature is confused, although it bears a strong resemblance to the painting by Nicholas Hilliard. The work came into the collection in 1940 and is rumoured to be associated again with Elizabeth Curle, but this provenance cannot be clearly traced. The fascinating aspect of this object comes from a secular portrait being reinterpreted as a relic, by being encapsulated in a reliquary. As Cynthia Hain discusses in The Reliquary Effect, ‘enclosure serves to define relics and to honour them’ and ‘the space of the relic is redefined as numinous, perhaps the space of salvation thus situating the relic’s importance’ (6). This is a prime example of where ‘the reliquary makes the relic’ (7); that is, an item’s significance is indicated by it being specially displayed. Mary’s portrait is surrounded by the names of eighteen female saints who ‘underwent various tribulations that might be considered compatible to those of Mary’ (8). The rear of the reliquary contains relics and names of eighteen saints including the Jesuit martyrs St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier.

Detail of May, Queen of Scots vestment. Photo: The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum).

Another key object in the museum which also features several levels of meaning is the ‘Queen Mary Vestment’. This piece dates from the mid-sixteenth century and is an embroidered Catholic vestment, specifically a chasuble, as worn by a priest celebrating mass. Prue King comments that ‘Legend attributes part of the work to Mary Queen of Scots but no written provenance exists’ (9). The proliferation of items associated with Mary, Queen of Scots with no specific provenance is astounding, and by displaying these items together, their supposed genuineness and meaning is reinforced. The vestment is formed from pieces of embroidered fabric, possibly a wall hanging. It was quite common for rich fabrics to be donated to churches to be re-used as a vestment, altar frontal or similar. The vestment was gifted by the Lumsden family and may be associated with their home at Pitcaple Castle, which Mary visited in 1562. However, it is especially interesting in light of the theme of Mary’s Catholicism as here a supposed piece of work by Mary has been repurposed as a liturgical garment, bringing it into a zone of faith.

The final museum artefact associated with Mary Queen of Scots takes the form of a physical relic of her body, being a bloodstained cloth. There are some doubts as to its provenance. A note attached to the small, spotted piece of linen records that it was dipped in her blood at her execution. However, it seems unlikely that this act ever took place, due to the precautions around Mary’s execution to prevent this exact action of ‘relic taking’, namely the burning of all her personal items. A relic of blood is a key aspect of remembering or memorialising a Saint, or the death of a significant person or celebrity and is reminiscent of the preserved bloodstained shirt of Charles I, who provides an interesting parallel as a possibly martyred king.

The museum collection holds are large collection of Catholic and secular paintings and artefacts from Mary Queen of Scots’ life. The presentation at Blairs Museum of works related to her Catholicism and the interest in developing her status as a Catholic martyr form a unique interpretation of her legacy and memorialisation within a faith context.

To learn more about Blair Museum visit:

(1) Rev John McIntyre, ‘The Blairs Museum; The Beginnings’ in ‘Friends of Blairs Newsletter’ 2016 article.

(2) Graham Howes, The Art of the Sacred: An Introduction to the Aesthetics of Art and Belief (IB Tamis & Co. 2007)

(3) H. Smailes & D. Thomson, The Queen’s Image: A Celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1987).

(4) H. Smailes & D. Thomson, The Queen’s Image: A Celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1987).

(5) Michael Turnbull, ‘A Saint Too Far, The Canonisation of Mary Queen of Scots’ article

(6) Cynthia Hain, The Reliquary Effect, Enshrining the Sacred Object (Reaktion Books, 2017).

(7) Cynthia Hain, The Reliquary Effect, Enshrining the Sacred Object (Reaktion Books, 2017).

(8) H. Smailes & D. Thomson, The Queen’s Image: A Celebration of Mary, Queen of Scots (Edinburgh: Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1987).

(9) Prue King, ‘Some Vestments in the Blairs Museum’ article

1 thought on “Memorialising Mary as Martyr”

  1. what a wonderful Tribute to our Queen and Catholic Queen i will enjoy the study on the Site . Andrew Ewan Stewart [Appin ]

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