Llancarfan and Merthyr Mawr: faith in heritage

First to Llancarfan this morning – this time to talk about carved stonework. The wall paintings project is making superb progress. St George is now quite passé, and attention has shifted to the Seven Deadly Sins. These are depicted with crude and striking vigour. Demons encourage all sorts of people to do the things they ought not to have done. Pride is a king looking surprisingly like the young Henry VII, who would only just have claimed the throne when the paintings were installed, and the demons to either side of him look very much like the supporters of the royal coat of arms. Below the figures of the sinners, a many-headed monster gapes to swallow them up in flames. On the south wall is the third part of this moral message. A gruesome cadaver drags an elegantly-dressed young man round the window splay and out into the graveyard.

All this excitement is producing a lot more visitors to the church, which means that the PCC now has to think about more effective display for other things as well. Llancarfan was one of the most important monastic settlements in early medieval south Wales, but all that is left from that period is the shaft of a pillar cross. Once it would have stood six feet or more high, topped with a ‘Celtic’ cross in a circle, but now it is truncated and little regarded. We talked about wall fixings for it, but soon decided that it would be better displayed free-standing, somewhere in the south-west part of the church.

That bit was comparatively easy – but as we were all there (representatives from the Stone Sculpture Advisory Panel, the Diocesan Architectural Committee, the Church in Wales’s heritage and conservation officer plus the architect and heritage interpreter for the church) we went on to look at more tricky things. Demolishing George Pace’s internal vestry has exposed some more of the west wall. There is fragmentary plaster which could be whitewash over more medieval paintings. More problematic, there are also several eighteenth-century wall memorials. They are damaged and difficult to read. They could be over layers of medieval paint; and there is also the problem that their iron fixings are corroding and the stones themselves are holding the damp in the wall.

But they are also memorials to parishioners, and part of the collective memory of the worshipping community. What to do?

With the aid of my little geologist’s lamp, we were able to read several of the inscriptions and to admire the decorative carving. Even with the aid of the lamp, though, two of the stones are so badly spalled as to be virtually illegible. My own instinct is that if the wall monuments really do overlie identifiable medieval paint, and if they can be removed without damage to the structure or the paint (a big if), they should be removed and placed somewhere else. This is of course based on the rarity value of medieval wall painting and has nothing to do with the fact that it’s one of my research interests!

But what if there is no identifiable painted plaster? That’s a more difficult one. I can see that a case could still be made for removing the wall monuments if they are causing structural problems. My own instinct is that they still need to be treated with respect. Even the ones whose inscriptions have been completely eroded are memorials to members of the community.

On the other hand I am acutely aware from my own work that our predecessors in the church would not have had any of these scruples: they happily reused tombstones as memorials and even as building stones. Graveyards were reused on a rolling programme, the bones of the long-dead moved to charnel pits or charnel houses. So are we being just a bit precious here?

And are we being equally precious in fretting about the ledger stones, the flat memorial stones in the floor? Llancarfan has no medieval memorials but it has some beauties from the seventeenth century. My own favourite is just inside the west door and commemorates a series of local worthies with the little poem

My hope on Christ is fixed sure
Who wounded was my wounds to cure

It’s a popular poem for tombs and was according to tradition scratched into a window at Carisbrooke by the castle’s most famous prisoner, Charles I.

Sitting as it does just inside the door, the stone is particularly vulnerable. There are others: one in the south chapel with the chilling lines

Thou that standest and lookest on me
As I am so shalt thou be

– which brings us neatly back to the painting of Death.

We eventually tore ourselves away and moved on to Merthyr Mawr. That wasn’t as immediately successful as the Llancarfan visit, as there was confusion over the timings and a key person had come early and gone away. But we still managed to convince the DAC and local councillors that the collection of stones at Merthyr Mawr is of quite exceptional importance (a class 1 early medieval inscribed stone, several more early medieval stones, later medieval effigies and cross slabs and some seventeenth-century and even more recent fragments) and merits a campaign to house and interpret them better. Merthyr Mawr is now on the Welsh coast path but visitors often pass the church by. There is also a plan for a loop off the coast path taking in the stones at Laleston, which has medieval tombstones in the church, wayside cross bases on the road north and some early medieval stones in a field.

Now all the parish has to do is to raise the funding …


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