Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Cathedral …

Our long-awaited informal study day at Christ College Brecon and the Cathedral, with input from the Church Monuments Society, Welsh Stone Forum, National Museum of Wales, Brecon branches of NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies) and U3A – getting all the ducks in a row on this one took some doing! A small group met at Christ College in the morning. The main purpose here was for Brian and Moira Gittos to look at the medieval incised effigy. They were very impressed by the quality of the carving – the flowing lines of the body and the drapery are very accomplished, the detailing of the hands is excellent, with the fingertips just overlapping, and there is beautiful detailing in the architectural surround. Puzzling that the face is just a simple outline, but Brian and Moira suggest that it was almost certainly designed to be painted. This would have picked up even more of the drapery as well as filling in the face and (crucially) adding an inscription. The technique would in fact have been quite similar to what we found in the wall paintings from Llandeilo Talybont, where outlines were incised into still-damp plaster to guide the later painting.

We also puzzled over the other medieval slabs drawn by Dineley.

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The filing cabinets have been moved since our last visit so it was easier to see the slabs (though I was too busy for photography – that will need another visit).

The top one is clearly this

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and with strong lateral light we were able to establish that the second one is the one to the left in this  older photo – the scallop shells were faintly visible.

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But the lettering on the third one is quite different from Dineley’s reading, and there is no damage on the surviving slab to compare with Dineley’s drawing. So we may have a fourth slab – and where is the one Dineley drew? On the other hand, we do know that he sometimes produced his drawings after the event, from notes: for example, he draws the alabaster effigy at Beaumaris with a mail coif when it actually has a full helmet.

And the lettering on the second slab is also different from the lettering in Dineley’s drawing – we are more confident about the identification of that one because the scallop shells are so distinctive.

There were some fragmentary slabs leaning against the incised effigy. We tutted and moved them away – then when we turned them over we found this

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part of another medieval slab, broken and trimmed for use as paving but otherwise in good condition; and this

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part of another of those intriguing post-medieval cross slabs with the IHS trigram; plus several fragments of a mid-18th century slab with the IHS trigram but no cross.

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The incised effigy is sandstone and it is flaking and laminating. We tentatively suggested some conservation ideas – eg not brushing it down, not stacking things against it – and ended up promising to send details of professional conservators. Apparently funding should not be a problem. Those of us who are used to churches where they have to choose between conserving antiquities, mending the roof and funding the local food bank (not to mention the bats – DON’T TALK ABOUT THE BATS) found this quite a culture shock.

Eventually we tore ourselves away and went up to the Cathedral – lunch in the Pilgrim Cafe (excellent – hope the new team there will still be able to cater for vegans), met groups from the Stone forum, the Museum, NADFAS and U3A, into the Cathedral. We got off to a bad start – in spite of all our forward planning the medieval slabs at the back are still completely hidden by rostra and raked seating. And the ones by the north wall were under benches, heavy trolleys and flower stands. We squared up to the task of moving these and enthused the NADFAS and U3A group with the gorgeous floriated crosses and Lombardic script on the stones. To my horror we found a medieval slab I hadn’t spotted on earlier visits – here we are looking at it

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and here it is in detail.

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I was misled by the style of the cross head but the script and language are clearly medieval. I need to go back and puzzle over the name: the second part of the inscription, ALME : MERCI : AMEN, is clear enough. But a new stone is going to play hob with my numbering sequence.

But then we had to put the benches and trolleys back. Like the bats in smaller and quieter churches, it’s an insoluble problem. All that stuff has to go somewhere, and the cathedral is short of storage space: the Close is tiny and all the buildings are being used to capacity. But we did wish they didn’t put such heavy stuff on the stones!

There’s also a conflict of interest in the Havard chapel, and here it’s a more specific conflict over memorialization. The chapel has lovely mellow oak panelling with plaques commemorating the South Wales Borderers (the 24th Regiment of Foot) and the Monmouthshire Regiment. But the panelling is built over a couple of medieval cross slabs and partly obscures that very interesting 1569 monument to Lewis Havard (more on that at http://heritagetortoise.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/brecon-cathedral-again-and-again/ ). The oak pews with their memorial plaques to individual soldiers are lovely – but they are very heavy and sit on top of the seventeenth-century ledger stones. What to do?

Here’s the Havard memorial with the panelling in place

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and here it is with panelling removed.

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But look again at the drawing in Theophilus Jones

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one of the NADFAS group has spotted that they are different. The design of the cross head isn’t quite right; the three bulls on the top right shield on the stone is replaced by three stars and one bulls head in the drawing; and the stag in the lower left shield isn’t quite the same as what is in the drawing either. So are we looking at two different carvings? On the other hand the inscription is exactly the same in the drawing and the carving. It could be that like Thomas Dineley the artist was relying on notes and memory and simply got it wrong. More puzzles to brood over.

At least we may be making a start on recording the stones. The members of the NADFAS group were initially daunted by the task but they were reassured that planning memorials on the floor is really no different from planning wall monuments: you need a good plan of the layout and a number for each monument and away you go. There may be differences to be ironed out between the Ledgerstones Survey template and the NADFAS template, but that surely can’t be an insuperable barrier. NADFAS will do the Havard chapel and we will hope that that will inspire others to take up the task. Brian and Moira Gittos from the Church Monuments Society have said that the post-medieval floor slabs at Brecon are the best collection they have seen – and as they have seen most things that means they are almost certainly the best in the UK. Spreading understanding of their meaning and importance is going to be the best way of conserving them.

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4 thoughts on “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the Cathedral …

  1. Very many thanks for posting this fascinating overview; wish I’d known about the Brecon,meeting and that you could have made it to the Cambrian’s at Bodelwyddan last week-end. Hope the new Dean of Brecon will have some of the clutter shifted so that we can get a better look at what is hidden.and, Ideally, produce some sort of trail for visitors to follow,

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  2. These posts are quite fascinating as I know how long you have been looking into them. I can still remember the lecture on the post medieval slabs, how far have you got since then! It’s great stuff and I can’t wait to read the next installment.

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  3. Thanks, both. We were anticipating a biggish group but the Family History soc weren’t able to make it – I put out a last-minute invite via U3A but there were clearly a lot of people who didn’t hear about it.
    I’m a bit tied down at the moment, Richard (Dave will know that my mother is getting increasingly frail and can’t be left, so if I’m out for any length of time I have to get someone to sit with her) – but do you think that at some point there might be interest in a session with the Cathedral guides talking about some of the more striking tombs and floor slabs?
    Maddy

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    • V. many thanks for the suggestion: such a meeting would be ideal in early April when the guides re-assemble for the season. I have suggested this to
      Pat Edwards who organizes the guides.
      Best wishes,
      Richard

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