Looking down the Vale of Clwyd

Llandyrnog

The Annunciation: stained glass at Llandyrnog

One of the larger Vale of Clwyd villages, with not one but two pubs, a village shop and plenty of local accommodation. Of the pubs, the Golden Lion is a traditional pub with pool table and music. The Ceffyl Gwyn (the White Horse) is run mainly as a restaurant, but this is also the place for a quiet drink – or you could eat there and go on to the Golden Lion for a bit more entertainment. Just down the road at Hendre’rwydd is another Ceffyl Gwyn which has awards for its cooking – and you can also get meals at the Golden Lion in Llangynhafal. Confused? We were – but at least you won’t starve.

The church is dedicated to St Tyrnog – one of those virtually unknown saints so common in Wales. It must be an old church, as it has a typically ‘Celtic’ circular churchyard. It was virtually rebuilt in the late 1870s by the Pre-Raphaelite architect William Eden Nesfield – look out for his favourite trademark, sunflower ‘pies’ in the timber and plaster of the porch and carved on the stalls in the chancel.

Nesfield kept the church’s great medieval treasure, the stained glass in the east window of the north nave. Some of this had to be reassembled from fragments found in the parish chest or hidden under the church floor. It must originally have been two or even three windows, as it has bits of several iconographical sequences. The window is dominated by the great central panel of the Crucifixion. Angels hover around it with chalices, reminding viewers of the links between the Crucifixion and the central sacrament of the church, the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Streams of blood from Christ’s body would originally have led to glass panels depicting all the seven sacraments of the medieval church – baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, marriage, ordination and Extreme Unction (the ‘last rites’). You can still see a touching marriage scene to the right of the window. Above it, a bishop is ordaining several priests. And to the left of the window, a priest holds a cross before the eyes of a dying person, who is dressed only in a nightcap. Above this are fragments of a scene depicting Penance, with a figure kneeling before a seated priest and confessing his sins. The other panels have been lost or destroyed. These Seven Sacrament windows are very rare. This is the only surviving example in Wales, and there are only eight others in England.

Above the Seven Sacraments is a row of female saints. From left to right, they are St Marcella, St Winifred, St Frideswide and St Katherine. The best-known of these is St Katherine. According to legend, she was an Egyptian princess who defied the Roman emperor’s attempts to seduce her. He had her beaten and tortured but she still clung to her vow of chastity. He sent forty philosophers to argue with her: she converted them all. He tried to break her on a huge wheel but the wheel exploded, killing the crowd who were watching. Eventually, she was beheaded. Frideswide was another defiant princess – this time in Anglo-Saxon Oxfordshire. Her father built a convent for her in Oxford, but a neighbouring king, Aelfgar of Mercia, fell in love with her. She was forced to run away to escape him, and took refuge in the marshes around Binsey, where she spent the rest of her life as a hermit. Eventually, she became the patron saint of Oxford University. She is an unusual saint to find in a Welsh church, but she is mentioned in several poems by the poet Lewis Glyn Cothi. It is possible that the rector of the church when this particular stained glass was installed was an Oxford graduate. Winifred is obviously in good company here: another aristocratic saint who resisted the passion of the local ruler and ended up as a woman of power and learning. Marcella is the odd one out. We know even less about Marcella than we do about her brother Tyrnog: just that she was Tyrnog’s sister, and that she is said to have lived as a hermit near Denbigh, where the church of Llanfarchell is dedicated to her. Cleverly, the artist responsible for these windows has constructed an identity for her by the company she keeps. Like Winifred and Frideswide, she is depicted holding a book and a palm branch. She too, the artist is saying, was a woman of learning and chastity. She has the palm branch because she was a martyr - not the ‘red martyrdom’ of death for her beliefs but the ‘white martyrdom’ of a life of sacrifice and self-denial.

In the middle of this row of female saints are two windows showing the story of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that she would miraculously conceive the infant Jesus. Like the saints, Mary is shown as a learned young woman: she is sitting with an open book in front of her. Above these are two more saints, the local bishop St Asaph and St David, the patron saint of Wales. Between them the Virgin Mary is being crowned as Queen of Heaven. All around are fragments of more stained glass, including some of the Apostles with the words of their Creed, and the symbols of the four evangelists. You could spend a long time disentangling the complex design of this window and mulling over its meaning.

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