‘Glasgow is a magnificent city… Why do we hardly ever notice that?’ Alasdair Gray, Lanark (1981).
Alasdair Gray’s stunning ceiling mural in The Auditorium – commissioned by Colin Beattie for Òran Mór – is the largest public artwork in Scotland. Affectionately coined the ‘Sistine Chapel of the 21st century’, Gray’s mural has been described as resurrecting the spirit of William Blake, but on a much larger scale.
Alasdair intended to paint our celestial night sky with a random array of stars but as the church beams divided our ceiling into 12 equal spaces, he painted a constellation of the zodiac in each. In doing so, Alasdair referred to a child’s guide to the zodiac based on astrology invented 2000 years ago, in which astrological figures correspond to months three months earlier than in the horoscope calendars we know today. So here, in the east end of the ceiling looking up over the Eastern gable, Orion The Hunter can be seen in January, and The Twins in February.
Looking west, along the Auditorium central roof beam covered with many tiny stars suggesting the Milky Way. Five planets are equally spaced along it, from east to west these are the biggest – Saturn and Jupiter – dwindling to Mars, Venus and (smallest above the Gallery at the western Byres Road end) Mercury.
Between dark blue, black and silver clouds in each panel of the lower ceiling 6 moons appear, waning from full to crescent on one side, waxing from crescent to full on the other.
Òran Mór’s Gallery – a mezzanine level in our Auditorium – is the perfect spot to view Alasdair’s work.
Inspired by Gauguin’s ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’, Alasdair used the three wedge spaces created by our Auditorium roof beams to both pose and reply to Gauguin’s philosophical questions.
Left panel – ‘Where Are We From?’ is answered ‘Life is Rooted in Death’s Republic’. Here Alasdair has painted the Tree of Life, its roots among embracing skeletons and fossilised remains of the past. The roots emerge above as the umbilical cord of a baby being lifted by a midwife (as first shown on the spine of Lanark). In the top panel a phoenix emerges from a nest in the tree, symbolising eternal life, with its head among stars spiralling out of an explosion suggesting the Big Bang.
Middle panel – ‘What Are We?’ And the reply ‘Animals Who Want More Than We Need’. Mother Nature appears as a vast, calm woman sitting on the globe of the earth with Adam and Eve embracing between her feet, surrounded by civilisations most famous structures – Egyptian pyramid, Roman Colesseum, Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower and an American Space Shuttle. Below her feet creatures are caring for their young between atomic power stations, tanker, and an exploding oil rig. Alasdair added a volcano because ‘the earth too sometimes explodes’.
Right panel – ‘Where Are We Going?’ Is answered, ‘Our Seed Returns to Death’s Republic’. Death is shown here as a Valkyrie on a winged black horse, thrusting a spear through the underground corpses of a man and woman. A network of roots grow from the spear surrounded by skull shaped seeds containing winged embryos. The top of the spear grows up into a tree, where a phoenix sinks into flames – an old symbol of death and resurrection, and above the phoenix, stars and silver rays converge on a Black Hole.
Alasdair painted the Auditorium Eastern gable with two rainbows, and the clouds and showers of a stormy dawn. According to Alasdair the black athletic silhouette can be interpreted as an emblem of Hebrew Jehovah, Greek Zeus or Roman Jupiter – all associated with thunder, lightning and rain. Lightning flashes from his hands, framing the middle lancet window.
Beneath the lancet windows on Òran Mór’s Eastern gable is Bella Caledonia. Bella is a well known image in Gray’s art – first appearing as Bella Baxter in his 1992 novel Poor Things. She has been interpreted as a female personification of a modern Scotland.
Her fingertips touch the word ‘truth’ in Alasdair’s adaption of Glasgow’s motto ‘Let Glasgow Flourish’.
Alasdair once told us he added the inscription to our mural when he heard of our upcoming Scottish Parliament conference!
As soon as you enter Òran Mór, you are greeted by Alasdair Gray’s artwork.
Alasdair designed our entrance porch, and since Òran Mór is Gaelic for ‘The Great Music’ – meaning both the music of nature and of the pibroch – he painted the walls with rampant Scottish bagpipe-playing lions. The lions are made less threatening by the bagpipes they play in what Alasdair described his ‘jocular’ mural.
We also bid you welcome and goodbye in 32 languages with Alasdair’s own ‘Monumental Òran Mór’ font carved into the grey marble floor tiles.
Alasdair described his script as a compromise between pure Roman (whose serifs he believed unnecessary on a large scale) and Gill sans-serif (which he thought looked too mechanical).
The row of languages on the left are: Gaelic, Glaswegian, Scandinavian, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Quechua, Cheroke, Inuit, Urdu, Hebrew, Arabic, Kurdish, Chinese, TibetanThe rows of language on the right are: English, Welsh, Russian, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, Afrikaans, Yoruba, Swahili, Xhosa, Japanese and Korean.