En route to the EMWARG conference where I presented on the Pillar of Eliseg’s topography of memory, Dr Adrian Maldonado and myself visited Castell y Bere and then we stopped at the fabulous church of Llanbadarn Fawr, just to the east of Aberystwyth on the north bank of the Afon Rheidol. Inside the church, in the south transept, is a display of two striking pieces of sculpture that reveal that Llanbadarn Fawr was a major ecclesiastical centre by the tenth century. Written sources tell us that the site was sacked by Viking raiders in AD 988 (itself indicative of something here worth stealing, and slaves worth having) and the site produced a bishop of St Davids (Sulien, d. 1091).
Scholars and specialists, as well as laypeople and enthusiasts, can better understand Cardiganshire’s early medieval stone sculpture like that at Llanbadarn Fawr thanks to Nancy Edwards’ superb 2007 book A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales. Volume II: South-West Wales, published by University of Wales Press. Llanbadarn Fawr is the northernmost of Cardiganshire’s sites producing early medieval stone monuments. I summarise some of the key points about Llanbadarn Fawr relying on Edwards’ publication.
Llanbadarn Fawr 2 (CD5)
Llanbadarn Fawr 2 is broadly dated by Edwards to between the 9th and 11th centuries, it is a micaceous sandstone small free-standing cross. Edwards suggests that it might be unfinished and the carving is of a low standard. The form of the cross might indicate a Crucifixion, but only in a very abstract fashion. Still, as seen with Llandewbrefi 4 (CD11), not far away, early medieval Welsh carvings only rarely represent the Crucifixion and, when they do, they do so in a very abstract and implied form. As with so much early medieval sculpture, might the fact the Crucifixion requires the ‘eye of faith’ be significant in itself? If not, and in any case, this is a rather odd monument with the prominent shoulders on the shaft. Moreover, the five drill holes suggest to me that this stone form was only ever a backing to something else, perhaps metal fittings. In which case a figural scene may have been rendered through these fittings or painted onto the plain surfaces, the moulding providing panels to delinear scenes that were not themselves carved. Nancy Edwards suggests that a metal Cruxifixion figure may have been added using these drill holes.
Llanbadarn Fawr 1 (CD 4)
This is my favourite of Ceredigion’s early medieval stone monuments and by far the tallest, being a slender monolith with a hammer-headed cross over 3m in height. This monument is dated by Edwards (2007) to the tenth or early eleventh centuries.
This stone has been very mobile during its lifetime. It was first noted standing south of the church but was moved into the church and then moved on two further occasions before reaching its final resting place where it was reset in 1987. There is a photograph of it on a cart as part of the display.
Still, this stone had been good at moving long before the 19th century; it is made from quartz albit orthoclase granophyre, which means that it may have been moved up to 37km from the Cadair Idris area to reach this holy site, presumably making most of its journey by sea. This is a striking example where, for special monuments, early medieval stones could break the rule of generally utilising local stone when available. It is therefore very tempting to speculate about the stone, its origins and translation as an important component to the subsequent fame and significance of the cross once installed within the ecclesiastical landscape itself. A similar point I make about the Pillar of Eliseg.
The decoration is worthy of extended discussion, for while it is not particularly well executed, it does reveal a rich variety and potential symbolism, with an interplay of abstract, geometric, zoomorphic and figural ornamentation. The narrow sides B and D are decorated with frets, plaits and interlace. Wide side C has there are panels of interlace, plait and animal interlace, with a bizarre striple spiral at its very base. The wide side A has panels of plait, interlace and frets surrounding three scenes. One has two quadrupeds back-to-back, another has en face male figure that Edwards, through comparison with Irish crosses, suggests might be an Evangelist, and at the bottom is a very stylisted portrayal of two long-haired figures embracing.
There is something rather ‘Schultz’ Peanuts about these embracing figures in my view: reminds me of a cartoon embrace between Snoopy and Woodstock. Consequently, I imagine St Padarn on the assembly mound, crozier in hand, ready to take a swing… ‘Good grief’.
Llanfihangel Ystrad 2
Adrian and I then headed south along the coast briefly before heading inland to St Hilary’s church, Llanilar. Inside the porch of the church is another early medieval stone, dated by Edwards (2007) to the later ninth or early tenth century. This stone has also been on the move. It might have originally come from a hillfort location, being moved four times before reaching the church in1958. Made from local quartz-cemented sandstone, it is a quadrangular pillar only decorated on one side by irregular interlace in false relief. Edwards notes this as odd, but finds a parallel in Silian 2 (see the next blog). Edwards is uncertain as to the function of such a monument; might it have been a boundary marker or even a part of an architectural arrangement?
Having explored these two churches, both of which have fascinating post-medieval churchyard memorials I intend to discuss in a future blog, we headed south via Tregaron to Lampeter and the EMWARG conference…