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Review: Depicting St. David is a glorious little handbook full of unexpected treasures

01 Mar 2020 6 minute read
Depicting St. David

Jon Gower

The most important source for the life of st David was written by Rhygyfarch of Llanbadarn Fawr in the eleventh century.  It tells of his miraculous birth, his studies, his wandering and his teaching.  It also chronicles the occasion when he was consecrated as Archbishop of Wales at Llanddewibrefi, when the ground rose up beneath his feet and a white dove landed delicately on his shoulder.  Rhygyfarch’s hagiography is well worth exploring, as some of it reads like very early magical realism, such as the account of an angelic visitation:

‘His father, a Ceredigion king called Sant, who had chosen faith over royal power heard an angelic voice which said, “Tomorrow on waking thou shalt go hunting, and having killed a stag near a river, thou shalt find there three gifts by the river Teifi, namely, the stag which thou pursuest, a fish, and a swarm of bees settled in a place which is called Llyn Henllan.  Of these three, therefore, reserve a honeycomb, a part of the fish, and of the stag, which send to be kept for a son, who shall be born to thee, to the Monastery of Mattcannus which till now is called the Monastery of the Deposit.  These gifts foretell his life, for the honeycomb proclaims his wisdom, for as honey in wax, so he held a spiritual mind in a temporal body.  As the fish declares his aquatic life, for as a fish lives in water, so he, rejecting wine and beer and everything else that can intoxicate, led a blessed life in God on bread and water only, wherefore David is also named ‘of the Aquatic Life.’  The stag signifies his power over the Old Serpent…”‘

A stained glass window depicting St. David from Briton Ferry

As Martin Crampin observes in this lavishly illustrated book five hundred years elapsed between David’s life and the writing of the first book about him, making so much of his actual life a matter of conjecture.  But it does tell us about the way in which David was remembered in medieval Wales and subsequently, and the fact that Dr Crampin was spoiled for choice when it came to marshalling the images in this book shows how prevalent and numerous images of our patron saint are in Wales.  There are hundreds of them, many of them in stained glass in churches: a reminder that they are, in themselves a sort of nationwide art gallery.  And the fact that they are found in churches a long, long way from St Davids underlines his centrality, albeit mainly in the south of Wales.  During the medieval period over fifty churches here were dedicated to him: in the north of Wales the cults of other saints such Beuno, Deiniol and Winifrede were stronger.  There was also a rash of figures placed in Roman Catholic churches as a consequence of the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and its subsequent religious freedoms.



The St. David revealed in its pages is a bit of a scene shifter, a man of many appearances.  Sometimes bearded, with occasionally a very bushy beard, he is sometimes clean-shaven, and in various churches is depicted both as a young man and as a wise old sage.  He can be dressed as a soldier, or carry a Celtic beehive hut, emblematic of the early church in Britain and Ireland.  There are often leeks in view and sometimes daffodils and some windows include harps, too in their stained glass designs.  He sometimes holds a crosier or a book and on one occasion a small model of St. David’s cathedral, custodially held in the palm of his hand. He is often alone but there are depictions of him in the company of other saints, such as Illtud and Patrick and even, sometimes St. George.

A stained glass window depicting St. David from Cardiff St. James.

This book is also a history of the various firms and studios who made such images, with artists such as Edward Burne-Jones working for William Morris and busy outfits such as Powell and Sons and C. E. Kempe’s studio.  One of the most interesting is the Celtic Studios, set up in Swansea in 1948 when post-war commissions for stained glass were plentiful, not least because of bomb damage.  For almost half a century this firm produced many Davids including some which depict elements of his life, such as an angel directing him to visit Jerusalem and at the church of St Teilo, Pontardulais a scene where he restores a sick boy to health.

As the book draws to a close so we see new styles emerge with work such as that of John Petts in Caerau, where the saint holds a simple cup and water flows down to the bottom of the window behind him. And with the work of Sarah Crisp in St Davids in which the saint is wearing the robes of Egyptian monks and Rachel Phillips in Clydach doesn’t show the saint at all, but shows, rather his shrine in the cathedral, and a stylised hill suggesting the land which rose beneath him once when preaching at a synod.  These works show that the tradition of depicting David is still a living one.

The fact that many churches are now empty or derelict underlines the importance of scholarly work in collating a record of them, especially when the photography shows them at their most glorious and the quality of these alone make the book a very worthwhile project.  Now, whisperingly I should suggest – and  St David would probably not approve of this suggestion – that at £ 7.99 a treasury of imagery and info such as this must be the official bargain of St David’s Day.  Just as David was a wanderer, often depicted barefoot or in sandals so too has Martin Crampin toured the land, camera in hand to produce a glorious little handbook to so many unexpected treasures, often to be found in a parish somewhere near you.

Depicting St David by Martin Crampin is published by Y Lolfa, costs £6.39 and can be bought here.

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j humphrys
j humphrys
3 years ago

Very nice post, nice to see St George there too. We argue often about regions of Wales, so why don’t we just use the dioceses already in place? One thing I notice in Finland and Sweden; Church Tax. This enables looking after churches, cemeteries and such, and it really seems to work, with these being so attractive I go there for some peace and quiet, now and again. Ponds small birds and squirrels take your stress away. Dewi Sant, I remember at catholic school we sang “Oh, great Saint David, still we hear thee call us, unto a life that… Read more »

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