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St. Mungo: Glasgow's Gothic Wonder


Saint Mungo. What a name! If it seems a bit odd, and yet a bit familiar, most of you probably know the name of a Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries.


But in Glasgow, it's the name of a favored saint, founder of both the cathedral that bears his name, and the city of Glasgow itself. As with many figures of the 6th century, it is difficult to pick out the true from the possible and the unlikely, but it appears that Mungo was a term of endearment for a man actually named Kentigern.


It appears likely that he was the child of royalty, though outside marriage. After a number of years in exile in Wales and a pilgrimage to Rome, a relative, the then king of Strathclyde, invited him to return to Scotland and preach. The church he built on a hilltop is the site of today's cathedral, and his tomb is in its crypt.


Very little of the earliest church is to be found at, or more precisely under, today's cathedral; even the lower church and crypt are built above the earlier building. What we see today dates to the late 1100s. It's believed to be the oldest building in the city, and it's the only medieval cathedral in Scotland that survived the Reformation without losing its roof and its function.

Steps lead to the lower church and crypt. 

That's in part because by the time it was in danger, it was no longer Catholic but Church of Scotland, a Calvinist Protestant faith, and owned by the Scottish Crown. James VI gave the Glasgow town council income provided it would take responsibility for the church off its hands. The council agreed, after cautiously noting in its records that it was under no obligation to do so.


It continues as public property today, although it also continues to host a Church of Scotland congregation. 

P1020088P1020089P1020091P1020096Fully-equipped with the usual assortment of monuments to fallen heroes and high-risen rich folk.

When we visited last spring, my first and lasting impression of the building was "relentless Gothic." Unlike so many other ancient cathedrals, where you can trace the changing styles, St Mungo's builders and rebuilders have stayed close to the style, even though the windows and many other features are much newer.


And some parts are missing: the main entrance was flanked by two towers built in the 15th century, but they were demolished in the 1840s as "too asymmetrical." Unfortunately, fund-raising for new matching towers fell short, and plans were dropped when Glasgow turned the building over to the British government in 1857.


Another major change has taken place twice within the past 150 years or so: almost all of the cathedral glass has been replaced, first in the late 1850s, and then again between the 1930s and 2000.


The first set of new glass was commissioned from a Munich firm that specialized in stained and painted glass; its work was in vogue and can be found in many churches, especially in Bavaria. Much of it can still be seen, on display, in the lower church. The decision to replace it again, with work from a number of modern studios and artists, is a bit of a mystery—surprising for something not exactly shrouded by centuries. Some have suggested it was because of a growing distaste for German goods, others that it was to avoid the darkness created by opaquely-painted portions of the Munich glass.


One especially unusual feature is the stone-wall choir screen, below. Originally, the screen or wall kept the unwashed masses in the nave away from the seated clergy, nobility and gentry up front. This is the only place I've seen where it is still a wall, and not the more common grillwork.


Before the Reformation in the 16th century, the columns of the nave each had an altar or pulpit, dedicated to a particular saint, often one associated with a particular trade or profession. They were removed in the 1560s; the pulpit below was installed in 1902.


The Old Bell has a very peculiar story to tell, too... and it's told on the face of the bell, which was replaced in 1896 after cracking for a third time.


Here's what it says: 
In the year of Grace, 1594, Marcus Knox, a merchant in Glasgow, zealous
for the interest of the Reformed religion, caused me to be fabricated in
Holland for the use of his fellow citizens of Glasgow, and placed me with solemnity in the tower of the Cathedral.
My function was announced by the impress on my bosom,
Me audito venias doctrinam sanctam ut discas. And I was taught to proclaim th hours of unheeded time. 195 years had I sounded these awful warnings when I was broken by the hands of inconsiderate and unskilful men. In the year 1790 I was cast into the furnace, refounded at London, and retuned to my sacred vocation. Reader, thou also shalt know a resurrection. May it be unto eternal life. Thomas Mears, fecit, London, 1790.

And here's the truth: Beneath the piety lies a lie. Marcus Knox didn't pay for the bell; he was the City Treasurer who, in effect, signed the check for the purchase. The bell was the gift seventy years earlier of the then Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, and hung with a quite different inscription until the 1593 crack that gave Marcus Knox the opportunity to bogart the credit.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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