Instruments of the Passion at Airlie, Angus

Examples of the Arma Christi, symbols of the Passion displayed in pseudo-heraldic form, occur frequently in the surviving sculpture of late medieval Scotland. At Arbuthnott, Kincardineshire, the emblems are displayed on a niche on one of the buttresses of the south aisle; in the grounds of Astley Ainslie Hospital, Edinburgh, a vaulting boss, probably originally from Trinity College Church, also bears the symbols. A detailed survey of the Arma Christi was published by C Carter in 1957.

Image niche corbel at Arbuthnott Parish Church displaying the Five Wounds (the pierced heart, hands and feet) and the Crown of Thorns
Vaulting boss at Astley Ainsley Hospital, Edinburgh

More unusual is the representation of the symbols at the parish church of Airlie, Angus. A medieval slab, possibly the mensa from an altar, has been reused in the building of a post-Reformation burial aisle which lies just to the south-west of the church.

The Airlie Passion stone, showing the truncation of the original roll-moulding at the angle.

The slab has clearly been modified, with the roll mouldings which would originally have run along both faces cut back to provide the carved panel. The stone is heavily encrusted with a white lichen that obscures the carving from all but a close examination or a raking light. However, photogrammetry of the stone allows the removal of the distracting surface colour variation.

Still from photogrammetric model of the Airlie slab

This reveals a low relief display of symbols of the Passion, to the left, the pillar to which Christ was bound when whipped, flanked by a pair of three-tailed scourges. The rope can be seen hanging down on the right hand side of the pillar.

The Flagellation

The pillar is shown with both plinth and capital, and seated upon the capital an object which is probably the cockerel which Christ predicted would crow after he had been denied by Peter.

The Crucifixion

To the right of this grouping is the ladder which which Christ was lowered from the cross; the cross itself is diminutive, but is shown with the crown of thorns draped over its upper arm. To the right of the cross is the pair of pliers, and above this, the three nails. The large emblem overlying the nails and pliers is the Five Wounds – the hands, feet and heart, each pierced. To the right is the lance.

The Spoils

The last grouping shows the material spoils of Christ’s betrayal and death: Christ’s seamless robe for which the guards played, and the three dice which they threw. To the right of this is the purse and rows of coins, representing Judas’ thirty pieces of silver.

The Airlie panel is an interesting survival of the later medieval devotion focussed on the elements and physicality of the Passion, most clearly illustrated in Scotland by the Fetternear Banner. There are a number of panel depictions similar to that at Airlie in Ireland, but otherwise they are rare in Scotland. The context of the panel is of some interest: did the recutting of a stone to display the emblems occur while it was still in situ, or does it suggest a rearrangement of the church? If the stone was a altar mensa, was it the high altar or a side altar? Does the subject matter give an insight to a wider context: if it was an altar mensa was it associated with an effigy of Christ as the Man of Sorrows, displaying the wounds inflicted by the instruments of the Passion?

C Carter, 1957, The Arma Christi in Scotland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, pp 90, 116-129. Retrieved from

Musee d’histoire de Berne, Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame, Strasbourg, 2001, Iconoclasme: Vie et mort de l’image medievale, p 41, pp 278-9.

N MacGregor and Erika Langmuir, 2000, Seeing Salvation: images of Christ in art, pp 159-60.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999, Mirror of the Medieval World, pp 151-2.

Mark Duffy, 1992, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, pp 138-48.

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