In my recent publication on the Smiling Abbot of Valle Crucis Abbey I stated that it was a unique effigial slab commemorating a medieval Welsh abbot. I qualified this by stating that effigies (as opposed to effigial slabs) are known elsewhere from Wales, but they are very rare:
In Wales, there is an undated and worn fragment of a possible abbatial effigy from Tintern, and the very worn effigy of Adam of Carmarthen at Neath Abbey (Cowley 2005). Yet no comparable effigial slabs survive from other Welsh Cistercian houses.
Last year, I visited Tintern Abbey and came across the aforementioned traces of one such monument. Reproduced in Robinson’s (2011) Cadw guide is the c. 1820 illustration by David ap Thomas Powell of this possible abbatial monument discovered in 1756. Robinson (2011: 14) says it dates to ‘about 1300’ and ‘it is tempting to think that it represents Abbot Ralph (about 1294-1305) who oversaw completion of Tintern’s great Gothic church…’
This stone still survives, lain unceremoniously and without a caption to explain it, beside the gift shop as one among many spolia of architectural origin and some statuary that visitors encounter with little explanation. The carved stone is heavily worn and more has broken since its 19th-century illustration. His facial features have now long gone.
Therefore, neither Cadw guide (Robinson 2011) nor the site interpretation do little to bring this important monument to the public’s attention or explain how it would have once been part of a prominent multi-coloured tomb honouring the abbot. Admittedly the fragment is on public display, on site, and in a sheltered location. Yet like so many gravestone fragments at English Heritage and Cadw-managed monastic ruins, the stone is completely decontextualised from its original funerary associations and without heritage interpretation.
The tonsured monk or abbot lays his head on a single pillow beneath an architectural canopy, above which one can see the tiled roof of what must symbolise the church this man must have presided over and/or helped construct during his lifetime. In death he was commemorated in repose, perhaps in prayer, awaiting Salvation. He was depicted, as well as spatially located, within the monastic church or chapter house. His large ears, (and presumably originally his eyes too) are prominent. Do they articulate perhaps the monument as a conduit for the senses as his soul awaits Final Judgement? Simultaneously, is he being shown receptive and attentive to the prayers of his community?