Visiting the church of Saint Mary Derwen (Denbighshire) is a treat. As well as its post-medieval memorials it possesses a 15th-century rood screen – a rare survival from Wales.

Outside, there are many interesting churchyard gravestones and the base of a sundial.

The churchyard is circular, often taken as evidence of early medieval origins.

Yet it is the Derwen churchyard cross that is truly spectacular. The relative remoteness of this Denbighshire parish allow this monument to survive. So many elsewhere were removed after the Reformation elsewhere across the Principality.

Bob Silvester’s 2013 article in Archaeologia Cambrensis is now the best starting point for any discussion of Welsh medieval crosses. As well as considering wayside and town crosses, he addresses the surviving churchyard crosses. Together he regards these monuments as ‘the most tangible reminder of the veneration of the cross in the pre-Reformation landscape’ and yet he notes how studies have crosses have paid attention to their landscape context more than their form and character.

Surveying all of Wales, he picks out the salient features for churchyard crosses: a stepped base with often 3 steps that (at least by the 19th century) is often a feature designating them to be a ‘Calvary Cross’. A socket stone is also key, sometimes with a niche which may have contained a statuette or a receptacle for the pyx (the vessel holding the Host on Palm Sunday or displayed in Easter Day celebrations). The head might be either modest and simple or elaborately ornamented.

Silvester outlines the significance of these crosses in Palm Sunday rituals and the Annunciation, Visitation and Nativity, but especially the Assumption.

Derwen is part of a striking group of surviving churchyard crosses with elaborate cross-heads from north-east Wales. Other examples include Hanmer, Trelawnyd, Tremeirchion, Flint and Halkyn. Derwen is regarded by Silvester as the most elaborate of this group.

The Derwen cross has a two-step base and two tiers of steps. The plinth is a single chamfered stone.

The cross shaft is 2 m high and has an octangonal cross-section, chamfered to create a series of bearded human faces and foliage.

 

The rectangular cross-head is 0.9m high and has four faces, sitting on a decorated capital.

There are four scenes:

  • a crucifiction with St John and the Virgin Mary (west face),
  • the Archangel Michael weighing the souls on Judgement Day (south face),
  • the Coronotion of the Virgin (east face: or alternatively, the Wisdom of Solomon)
  • the Virgin and Child (north face).

The crucifixion and prominence of the Virgin are common themes linking the group of crosses. Above these are traceried pinnacles. The apex has been damaged and we cannot ascertain its precise original appearance as a result.

Derwen cross is thought to date to the 15th century and it deserves care, attention and many, many visitors as a striking survival of the medieval ecclesiastical landscape.

Sources

Burnham, H. 1995. A Gudie to Ancient and Historic Wales: Clwyd and Powys, Cardiff: Cadw.

Butler, L. 2005. Rug Chapel – Llangar Church – Gwydir Uchaf Chapel, Cardiff: Cadw.

Silvester, R. 2013. Welsh medieval freestanding crosses, Archaeologia Cambrensis 162: 309-37.

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