Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches, by Martin Crampin. Hardback, xvi + 256pp, approx. 585 colour illustrations. (Talybont, Ceredigion : Y Lolfa Cyf, 2023) £35. ISBN 9781912631162.


Reviewed by Adrian Barlow

Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches is full of stained glass, but it is not primarily about stained glass. It is a scholarly and richly illustrated book about the saints of Wales –a work both of hagiography (writing about saints) and of hagiology (studying their history, cults and representation in visual art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries up to the present time). 

Martin Crampin, whose knowledge of the iconography of Welsh saints must be unrivalled, rightly includes the words ‘from Welsh Churches’ in his title. The images in the book, certainly the images from the nineteenth and twentieth  centuries, come from Welsh cathedrals and churches, nearly all of which now belong to the Church in Wales rather than the Church of England.

In the opening section, ‘Who Were the Saints of Wales?’, Crampin explores what is known about the men and women who collectively formed ‘the Age of Saints’ and what can be gleaned from the few early records or accounts.  He then illustrates, in ‘The imagery of Welsh Saints’ how the facts, legends and traditions deriving from this surviving literary evidence have been interpreted in the visual record found in churches throughout Wales and along the Welsh Marches. He does not ignore the inconsistencies and sometimes downright contradictions found in these early sources; even the sex of some Celtic saints (e.g. Elli) is disputed.  More than this, though, he is scrupulous in assessing both the historical significance of saints – whether or not they can be positively identified as the founder of a particular church or local religious community, for instance – and their cultural significance, too, especially in the context of the Romantic revival of interest in Welsh saints as part of an emerging ideal of Welsh national identity.

Welsh Chapels do not feature in Crampin’s book, images of saints being traditionally associated with the Catholic rather than the Protestant tradition. Indeed, the disestablished Church in Wales is frequently characterised as leaning more to Anglo-Catholic than to evangelical churchmanship. Nevertheless Crampin is careful to allow that, while the adoption of saints may indicate in some churches a nostalgia for pre-Reformation Catholicism, in others it may suggest a looking further back towards Celtic, pre-Roman, Christianity.

The third section of the book is headed ‘Visualising the Saints and their Iconography’ and deals first with such questions as the historical (in)accuracy with which saints have generally been portrayed, wearing, for instance, medieval costume or vestments. There follows a fascinating discussion of a subject central to the representation of saints in stained glass, the ‘recycling’ of saints through the re-use of cartoons from one church to another, sometimes with only the substitution of one distinguishing ‘prop’ – a bell, for instance, for a lantern – to establish the new identity of the recycled  saint. This then leads into the final topic: an investigation of the different ways in which the image of a saint can be projected. In 1940, a window by Christopher Powell in St Asaph’s Cathedral depicted A.G. Edwards (Bishop of St Asaph and first Archbishop of the newly created Church in Wales) alongside an image of St David. As Crampin comments, ‘With the arms of St David’s and St Asaph above them […] Archbishop Edwards not only supplants Asaph, but as the first archbishop of the disestablished Church in Wales, he is presented as a modern successor to David.’

Inevitably, most of the images in this book are of stained glass, though by no means all. Sculpture and carving are well represented, especially saints on roodscreens and reredoses, modern as well as medieval.

Fig. 1 Rachel Phillips: St Non’s Well; lightning striking the stone where St David was born (2015; Roman Catholic Church of Church of St Benedict, Clydach, Swansea). Photo: © Martin Crampin.

Paintings also feature, as do icons in 20th century Orthodox churches in Wales. The book is determinedly up-to-date, demonstrating that the representation of saints in Wales has not become fossilised in the way the Bardic tradition has remained embalmed in the Gorsedd rituals of the National Eisteddfodd. One of the most modern images in Welsh Saints is a work of 2015 by Rachel Phillips (Fig. 1), depicting a flash of lightning at St Non’s Well striking the stone on which Non, (mother of St David) pressed her hand during the pangs of childbirth. Crampin labels this as a window to St David, perhaps implying that the stone metonymically represents the patron saint of Wales, but the artist herself has clearly identified St Non’s Well as the subject of the window.

The final section (though not identified as such) of Welsh Saints is an alphabetical compendium of more than forty Welsh saints. Starting with Aaron and Julius, Roman soldiers who were the earliest Christian martyrs in Wales, and concluding with St Tysilio, Crampin provides a series of mini essays on individual saints as seen in sculpture, painting and glass. Two examples from his selective A-Z will demonstrate what this book does so well.

Fig.2 St Asaph holding a crozier with foliated hook (late 15th / early 16th century; Church of St Tyrnog, Llandyrnog, Denbighshire); possibly the earliest surviving stained-glass image of St Asaph. Photo: © Martin Crampin.

With only 350 words but no fewer than eleven images, Crampin illustrates the evolution of portraits of St Asaph from the sixteenth century (in the east window of the Church of St Tyrnog, Llandyrnog, Denbighshire, Fig. 2) to a mid-twentieth century image by Shrigley & Hunt which depicts Asaph as a very young bishop. There is an interesting contrast with another more elaborate image, 45 years earlier, from the same firm and shown alongside a 1929 window by Powell & Sons from the Becket Chapel of St David’s Cathedral. Crampin generally lets each window speak for itself, inviting readers/viewers to study them with attention. Croziers, for instance, often reveal significant symbols: their hooks may spring into life, sprouting leaves, and in the Becket Chapel window, St Asaph’s crozier is topped with an eye-catching hook that coils itself symbolically into a fire-breathing serpent about to entrap a sheep.

The cover of Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches depicts a huntsman striding through a forest towards a young woman (St Melangell) who sits reading while a docile hare rests patiently beside her. This scene comes from a 1905 window by the pioneering artist Mary Lowndes and illustrates the legend that Melangell sheltered a hare escaping from the hounds of the huntsman, Brochfael. ‘Impressed by her sanctity,’ according to Crampin, ‘Brochfael granted land for the establishment of a nunnery and a place of refuge’.  There are three illustrations of 3D images of the saint: the earliest, from the saint’s shrine church at Pennant Melangell (Montgomeryshire); the second, a late nineteenth century image carved in wood by Thomas Earp for the reredos of another church in Montgomeryshire (St Beuno, Berriew) and finally a resin sculpture (2005 by Rory Geoghegan) at the Saint Melangell Centre. These are shown in small illustrations, more for reference than close study, but opposite them is another Mary Lowndes window (Fig. 3), this time from the Church of St. Tydecho, Cemaes (Powys).

Fig. 3 Mary Lowndes: St Melangell as Abbess (1905; Church of St Tydecho, Cemaes, Powys). The large Romanesque abbey, pictured behind, bears no relation to the small nunnery founded by the saint or to her shrine at Pennant Melangell (Montgomeryshire). Photo: © Martin Crampin.

Melangell is shown here as abbess of a large (Catholic) abbey, bearing no relation to the small community she founded. It is a compelling, if confusing, image, one designed to place Melangell firmly as a Celtic saint within a Catholic tradition: she wears a Celtic pectoral cross, her cloak is bordered with a characteristic knot design and her crozier has an almost fantastically embellished Celtic hook.

With so many high-definition images, Welsh Saints offers exceptional opportunities for studying the evolution of nineteenth and twentieth century stained glass. Is there any other book that provides more scope for comparing work from the studio of C.E. Kempe with that of Burlison & Grylls, or of noting the ways in which the style of artists such as Herbert Bryans, C. E. Tute or Christopher Powell evolved after they had left Kempe to work on their own or join other studios? Crampin also highlights the work of the Celtic Studios, established post-war in response to the urgent need for war memorial windows and for replacing glass lost from churches in heavily bombed areas of South Wales. An early window in St Gabriel’s Church, Brynmill, Swansea, included ‘the largest number of Welsh saints found in a single window’ and Crampin records the Vicar’s excitement at seeing ‘a real “Church in Wales” window’ in which ‘strong vigorous men’ offered ‘such a change from the anaemic gentlemen that we have seen portrayed in so many of our Churches’. For Crampin, the hallmarks of the Celtic Studios’ early work include the ‘dense blacks […] suggestive of the influence of the successful London firm Powell & Sons, as are the blue and yellow borders, although their glass painting lacked the refinement found in Powell’s windows.’

Judgments and comparisons such as these, though only offered sparingly by the author, amply demonstrate the rewards of reading this book with the same care that Martin Crampin has devoted to its research, writing and layout.  He himself has been writer, photographer and designer of Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches, and his collaboration with the Ceredigion printer-publisher, Y Lolfa Cyf, has resulted in a book deserving to be recognised – in Wales and beyond – as a landmark publication.

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