The Holy Table

The Holy Table in St Giles’, a gift of  Roger A. Lindsay, Baron of Craighall, through The Scottish Church Trust of Canada, was designed by Luke Hughes, and dedicated at a Service of Thanksgiving for the Renewal of St Giles’ Cathedral on Wednesday 26th January 2011, in the presence of Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal.

The Background
Positioning the sanctuary at the crossing, under the tower, was first trialled in the 1980s. It was a radical liturgical re-ordering and drew praise from unexpected quarters. In his book about re-ordering, Canon Richard Giles wrote in 1996:

“We look in vain to the English Cathedrals to show us how this should be done with sufficient boldness, and it is left to St Giles’ Cathedral Edinburgh to show us the way. That the heirs of John Knox should be showing the episcopal churches how to design eucharistic space is a nice touch typical of God’s sense of humour”.

As in other churches, the table is not only used for Holy Communion. It is also the place from which prayers are led and the permanent sign of the offering of prayer for congregations at services (and for individual visitors at any time).

A sanctuary in the middle of the building requires a strong and definite statement to hold the gathering of people and worship together. The temporary arrangement used a wooden box covered with cloth. The new table, in Carara marble on a Nero Marquinhia step, replaces that box with a more permanent structure. It is designed to be endowed with sufficient strength, beauty and significance to stand in its own right, unadorned with cross, cloths or frontals, candles or flowers and to speak clearly of its function even when not in use, not least to the occasional visitor.

The Chosen Stone
Eventually, a marble was chosen from a quarry near Carara in Italy, very close to one used in the 16th Century by Michelangelo.

Selecting the Blocks
Even in Carara, renowned for the quality of its marble since the Etruscans, it was a challenge to find blocks of suitable size and quality, without flaws.

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Working the Stone
The stones were cut, polished and textured in the Italian workshop of Bertozzi Felice, under the supervision of Mauro Rovai.

Although much of this work can, these days, be done with extreme accuracy using computer-numerically controlled diamond-encrusted wires and grinding wheels, the hand, eye (and patience) of the craftsman is still essential. The bush-hammered effect on the vertical faces was achieved with a hammer and a single diamond-tipped chisel – it took the craftsman more than a week.

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The total weight of the stones including the steps is 9.6 tonnes.

The safe conveyance of such a load to the nave (over medieval subterranean vaults) and into position under the central tower has been the responsibility of the structural engineer Bryan Edie (from Arup) and the cathedral architect, Graham Tristram.

One problem facing the designer has been how to remove the lifting straps when such a massive block is lowered into position, without leaving unseemly gaps. The answer? Ice-cubes.

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The block is lowered onto the ice, the straps are removed and, as the ice melts, the block slowly lowers itself into position – a technique used in the Renaissance by the Medici (who were envied for their ice-houses, annually re-filled with glacier ice from the Appenine mountains).

Photographs by Tim Imrie