In 1893 the Irish artist Phoebe Anna Traquair, a notable adherent of the Arts and Crafts movement, was asked to decorate the Catholic Apostolic Church on Mansfield Place. Completed eight years later, the result is an unexpected gem in the heart of Edinburgh: An exuberant meeting of Giotto and William Morris, devotion and modern embellishment. The Neo-romantic church is airy and uncluttered, allowing the murals to shine in all their many-hued glory. Startlingly rich colours are all the more striking for having been preserved and restored by the Mansfield Traquair Trust, who administer the venue.
Traquair’s vision is a joyous take on Italian frescoed churches, tempered with a late Victorian sensibility and the spirit of Pre-Raphaelitism. There is a rainbow theme which struck me as rather kitsch, but the genuine talent and beauty of the art is undeniable. Murals depict Biblical scenes such as the parable of the ten virgins and a gentle Last Judgement. The figures are decorative but lack the character of Giotto or the anatomical power of something like the Sistine Chapel (a comparison suggested by the press release). The murals glow brightest in the borders – it’s here, in the space between the stories, that the church becomes a must-see. The goats, monkeys and other animals which cavort along these edges are enchanting, as is the foliage which fills the walls. Standing in the wings is like stepping into a medieval illumination. Earning this charming attraction its extra star is the friendliness and knowledge of the staff, who stand by ready to answer questions or provide a free guided tour on request.