Welsh Crosses

There are around 450 ancient sculptured stones, crosses and allied monuments known in Wales. Stylistic analysis of surviving early stones indicates that there were individual guilds of sculptors at various important monasteries, each of which worked in their own particular recognizable styles. Thus, antiquaries have been able to identify a number of distinct schools of ancient Welsh cross sculpture. In Glamorgan, for example, there were three major workshops: at Llantwit Major, Margam and Merthyr Mawr. Their examples account for around half of the known Welsh crosses. Other recognizable sculptural workshops existed at St David's in Dyfed and at Penmon Priory on Anglesey in Gwyncdd, areas that, unlike Glamorgan, were within the sphere of Irish influence. Before the ninth century, the Welsh did not use the more complex standing crosses favoured in Ireland, Scotland and the north of England. Then, under royal and ecclesiastical patronage, cross-slabs and high crosses comparable with them began to appear. Ring-headed crosses exist only in the north of Wales. Round-shafted pillar-crosses are found in north and central Wales, while wheel-crosses and allied forms are restricted to the south of the country.

The school of Glamorgan produced a characteristic form of Celtic Cross, known as the 'panelled' or 'cartwheel' slab, which were made from the late ninth century until the eleventh century. The finest example, preserved in the Margam Stones Museum, is a rectangular slab 193 cm (76 in) tall. The top half is carved with an eight-spoked

Roadside Crosses Wooden Crosses And

The tenth-century Conbelin Cross from Margam Abbey, south Wales. The lower part of the shaft was broken before 1690, and later the remains were re-united with the base without this portion of shaft. (The National Museum of Wales)

wheel, in which the spokes are arranged irregularly in pairs to make a splayed cross-pattern. There is a boss at the centre of the wheel that makes the whole composition resemble a shield. Surrounding the wheel-cross is ornamental carving containing spirals. The lower panel of the stone is inscribed with a text in Latin commemorating a certain liquid. A later form of cross, which developed also on the Isle of Man, is the 'disc-headed' cross. The Margam Stones Museum keeps a fine example, though this is broken and not all of it remains. Known as the Conbelin Cross, it was found at Margam Abbey and dates from around the turn of the tenth century. Set on a rectangular stone block, which has the usual horsemen at the hunt, and just a hint of the stepped 'holy mountain' form, the shaft and disc-head were carved from a single block of Pennant Sandstone. The disc-head is sculpted with a five-square cross which overlaps the interlace-bearing ring. At the centre of the middle square is a circular boss that gives the disc the resemblance to a round shield, as with the liquid slab. Like some other south Welsh crosses of this period, the Conbelin cross was carved with a Latin inscription. Although damaged, it probably reads 'Conbelin set up this cross for the soul of Ric'. Inscriptions on these old Welsh crosses are often set low down, and it is possible that this is so that devotees could see them while kneeling in prayer at the foot of the crosses.

Kept in the church at Llantwit Major, under less than ideal conditions amid a jumble of chairs, tables, other carved stones and coffin lids, arc no fewer than three ancestral memorials dedicated to the souls of south Welsh royalty. They are the monuments of King Samson, King Juthahel and Res, father of King Houelt. Llantwit Major, called in Welsh Llanilltyd Fawr after its founder, St Illtyd, was the sacred burial-ground of the local kings. It is a great pity that these royal memorials are not honoured properly in their own land. The Samson cross bears the words (in Latin): 'Samson set up this cross for his soul, Iltut, of Samson the King, of Samuel and Ebisar'; while the cross of King Juthahel states: 'In the name of God most high begins the Cross of the

Saviour, which Abbot Samson prepared for his own soul and for the soul of King Juthahel and Artmail and Tecain.' The Houelt Cross is a cross made of local gritstone for the ruler of the local kingdom of Glywysing, Hywel ap Rhys, who was a vassal of King Alfred the Great of Wessex in the year 884. It bears the Latin inscription: 'In the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, this cross Houelt prepared for the soul of his father, Res.' Its supporting 'shaft' is inscribed with a tesselation of triangular key-patterns, and the wheel-head is composed of an equal-

Kept ... under less than ideal conditions amid a jumble of chairs, tables, other carved stones and coffin lids, are no fewer than three ancestral memorials dedicated to the souls of south Welsh royalty.

armed cross made from five squares, set within and overlapping a ring of single-band interlace. The four spaces between the arms of the cross are solid, and filled with three-fold interlace. Beneath a wooden awning in the churchyard at Llangan in South Glamorgan is another notable south Welsh cross-slab. Dating from around the same period as the Houelt Cross, it bears a representation of the crucifixion, of which only a few are known from this period in Wales.

Among the stones in the church at Llantwit Major is an unusual pillar, carved from sandstone. In former times, it was set in the ground outside the north wall of the church. As a pillar, it is unusual because it has a straight, vertical groove running down the back, the function of which is unknown. The zigzag and interlace patterns on the pillar are thus not continuous, but in distinct, if curved, panels. Unlike the common Celtic Cross, whose shaft is square or rectangular in cross-section, round pillars are extremely rare. There is only one other Celtic round pillar in Wales, that of Eliseg's Pillar, near Valle Crucis Abbey in north Wales. In England, the Wolverhampton Pillar is perhaps the closest parallel. These rare pillars are the spiritual successors of the Roman columns sacred to Jupiter. Another remarkable Celtic pillar exists in situ in the churchyard of Llandough, near Cardiff, which is perhaps the site of the ancient monastic enclosure mentioned in 'The Life of St Cadog' (The Lives of the British Saints, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1908). The pillar is of a type unknown elsewhere, for it consists of four separate pieces of stone, set one upon the other. An inscription dedicates this monument to a person named Irbic. It is dated from around the millennium. The pillar's base is rather conventional. It resembles those of Irish crosses, being a rectangular pyramid with a carving of interlace, a horse and rider and a man's bust. From this rises a tapering column that has rounded pilasters carved with interlace at the four corners, with interlaced panels between them. This is topped by a small capital which supports a cushion-shaped stone whose carving makes it resemble a stack of ropes. The upper part of this cushion-stone is shaped like a cross base, and from it rises another shaft, four-sided and ornamented with interlace. The top is broken, though a similar upper portion exists nearby at Llandaff in South Glamorgan.

Unlike the common Celtic Cross, whose shaft is square or rectangular in cross-section, round pillars are extremely rare.

The cross kept in the church at Penally, Dyfcd, west Wales, in which the lower interlace patterns become the higher vincscroll, according to the same underlying geometrical scheme. The wheel-head is pierced with four holes. (The National Museum of Wales)

The cross kept in the church at Penally, Dyfcd, west Wales, in which the lower interlace patterns become the higher vincscroll, according to the same underlying geometrical scheme. The wheel-head is pierced with four holes. (The National Museum of Wales)

The former county of Pembrokeshire has several notable crosses, of which three are exceptional by any standards. The church at Penally, near Tenby, contains two crosses, one broken and one intact. The broken cross-shaft is a fragment that interlaces beasts in an even more Anglian style. The intact cross at Penally is far more impressive, for it shows the Celtic expertise in multivalent art, especially in the masterly way that the interlace pattern on the lower part of the cross becomes a vinescroll on the upper. Here, the underlying geometry of the interlace is re-interpreted by the sculptor as the structure upon which the vine is based. The vincscroll here, derived ultimately from the Roman Jupiter Columns, with its interlaced tendrils and double-beaded stem, resembles closely those on crosses in the Northumbrian region of influence. The cross's wheel-head is perforated by four holes that go right through the stone, and it is outlined by cable-mouldings.

The original base of the cross can still be seen in situ in the churchyard to the west of the church. In 1956, the Ancient Monuments Board For Wales recommended that, where possible, ancient sculptured stones and crosses should be taken indoors. Then, many stones were removed from their proper locations, marking the burial-places of the dead, to become instead indoor, 'art objects'. Neither has the result of this action been a complete success. In 1995, I was told by a church warden at Penally that, since it had been removed into the church, the intact cross has deteriorated, owing possibly to the effects of heating and the smoke from candles. Although in some cases it may protect them from further erosion by polluted air, removal of crosses from their original locations not only denies the very intention of their makers, and seriously diminishes the historical reality of the place, but may also threaten the continued existence of the cross itself.

In a roadside niche in the wall surrounding the ruined Carew Castle is the 4.12-m (13 V4-£t) high cross dedicated, according to its inscription, to King Margitcut, son of Etguin. Known by his modern Welsh name, Meredudd ap Edwin was king of Deheubarth (this part of Wales) from 1033 to 103$. The cross is composed of two stones, the lower of which combines base and shaft. T-shaped key-patterns, diagonal knotwork, the inscription panel, irregular key-patterns and more regular looped knotwork, containing two circles. The head is made as a separate piece, like its counterpart at Nevern. Dating from around the turn of the first millennium, the Nevern churchyard cross stands 3.96 m (13 ft) high. The head of the Nevern cross, like that at Carew, was carved from a separate stone, being fixed to the shaft by means of mortise-and-tenon joints in the manner of Stonehenge. There arc two short inscriptions, one of which reads 'DNS', being an abbreviation of the Latin word Dominus (Master or Lord). All four sides of the cross are illustrated here. In the church, a stained-glass window representing the founder, St Brynach, has an anachronistic representation of the Nevern Cross behind him, above which flies a dove.

Also dating from around the first millennium, and located west of Whitford in Clwyd, stands Maen Achwyfan, 'The Stone of Lamentations'. This is a monolithic cross 3.4 m (11 ft) in height. Ornamented with spirals, the X-shaped 'Pagan Cross' and irregular net-like interlace, the design of Maen Achwyfan shows affinities with Northumbrian work. The circular wheel-head is surrounded by two rings of ropelike beading, and has a cross with interlaced arms that merge with a third, inner, ring. At the very centre is a tightly interlaced central boss with a cross at the middle. One of the carvings is of an ithyphallic man.

Close to the eisteddfod town of Llangollen and the ruined Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis (Valley of the Cross) is the Pillar of Eliseg. It has no head; only a round, treelike shaft remains. Formerly the cross had an inscription, recorded in 1696, that commemorated the erection of the cross by King Cyngen, in honour and praise of Eliseg, his greatgrandfather. Cyngen, who died in the year 854, was the last king of an independent state of Powys. Today, the Pillar of Eliseg bears an inscription commemorating T. Lloyd, who, in 1779, re-erected the fallen and broken cross-shaft. On Anglesey, Penmon Priory, which may occupy the former location of the holiest shrine of the druids, contains two interesting disc-headed crosses. Dating from around the millennium, they show Norse influence, being close in their design to the crosses in the church of St John in Chester, the product of a Norse sculptural school. The motif of the temptation of St Anthony, or at least a man in combat with demons, appears on one of the crosses.

Powys has several notable cross-slabs. One of the most interesting is at Llandyfaelog Fach. Dating from the tenth century, it bears the name Briamail Flou, and has one of the few known representations of an ancient Welsh nobleman or warrior. Bearded and standing proud, Briamail holds a club across his right shoulder, while his left hand is on the hilt of a sword. Apart from being a useful weapon in the northern European martial arts, the wooden club called a baculum was a symbol of office. As commander-in-chief of the Norman army, William of Normandy carried one at the Battle of Hastings, as later field-marshals

Carew Castle Cross
Above: The cross of King Mcredudd ap Edwin at Carew Castle, Dyfed, Wales.

Opposite: The Nevern Cross, Nevern churchyard, Dyfed, Wales. All four sides are shown. They demonstrate the inventive variations that Celtic art can take.

Welsh Celtic CrossAnglesey Penmon
Solid-headed Celtic Cross with angular ornament preserved in Penmon Priory church, Anglesey, Wales. (Nigel Pennick)

carry their baton. Above Briamail is a simple cross formed of an interlaced single band. Surrounding the lord and the cross are various types of knotwork and key-patterns, while the inscription is bordered by ropelike banding. Another cross-slab, kept in the church at Meifod in Powys, has a remarkable carving of a form of Christian ankh, which resembles Coptic models. Possibly the lid of a sarcophagus, in which case it resembles Merovingian parallels in France, it is sculpted with two crosses. One is a conventional cross carved with interlace motifs. At the centre of the cross is a four-fold knot with a circular middle. Above this cross, and connected to it by a rod is a wheel-cross upon which Christ is crucified. In the four quarters between the spokes of the wheel are bosses. The rest of the composition is filled with knots and beasts without any overall pattern.

The most holy Celtic Cross of Wales was the Cross Gneth, a precious reliquary that enshrined a small part of the True Cross. Formerly in the possession of the princes of north Wales, it was taken to England by King Edward I in 1283. When he founded the Order of the Garter in 1348, King Edward III gave the Cross Gneth to the chapel of the Order at Windsor Castle, where it was enshrined as its most precious relic. Although the cross itself disappeared from St George's Chapel in 1548, when its gold back was sold, we know what it looked like. There is a carving of the Cross Gneth on a stone roof boss at the eastern end of the south choir aisle of the chapel. It portrays King Edward I and Bishop Beauchamp kneeling in adoration of the relic, which is a classic Celtic Cross. To all who knelt at the cross, which was taller than a man, 40 days' pardon for sins was granted.

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