Amazing Maces

Detail of the bishop figure on the St Salvator’s mace, with angels and wildmen visible.

When I hear the word ‘mace’, I think of the mediaeval weapon, with a long shaft and barbed head, which is a consistent feature of armoury museums throughout Europe. The University of St Andrews, however, possesses a rather different kind of mace. Wrought in fine gold workmanship in the Gothic style, these maces are not weapons, but status symbols. Dating from the 15th century onward, they served as emblems of the university’s colleges on formal occasions.  Their decoration reflects both this elevated purpose and the elite world-view of those who commissioned them.

The St Salvator mace, for examples, bears figurines of the three orders of society, all grouped around the figure of the Holy Saviour. Other figurines, including St Andrews and the Bishop Kennedy (an important university patron) are seen restraining wild men–also an allusion to the maintenance of the social order. Their costly materials and their source–most probably the workshops of Paris–attest to the University’s aspirations as an institution of distinction both in Scotland and internationally.

Today, they take their place next to the set of three modern maces at graduation ceremonies, continuing the tradition of mediaeval pomp and circumstance that began in the 15th century. Outside of graduation, they remain in the Museum of the University of St Andrews, where they can be seen for free, as such spectacular and rare objects deserve.


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