This is the third and final volume in the series The Visual Culture of Wales, written by Peter Lord, General Editor Geraint H. Jenkins, a major project carried out at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth. It is a magnificent book. From its matt black cover with mesmerizing illustration, to the artistry of every page layout, this publication exudes quality.
What it has to offer can be appreciated on several levels: initially, simply turning the pages and looking at the photographs is a delight. The quantity and variety of images left by our predecessors will be a revelation for many. The photographers, Charles and Patricia Aithie, with skilful lighting and composition, have produced some gems. I keep returning to savour Corbel Head, at Bishops Palace, St Davids, and Sleeping Beadsman, Church of St Saeran, Llanynys, Denbighshire. These beautiful reproductions make many of the images much more accessible than they are in their natural settings.
Reading the text is a journey through a thousand years of Welsh history, from the fifth to the end of the fifteenth century. In a series of five chapters, both chronologic and thematic, the author looks at the whole range of images and artefacts such as early pre-Norman stone crosses, inscribed stones, illuminated manuscripts, church sculpture and wood carvings, paintings, tombs and effigies, as well as accoutrements used in Mass. He highlights the clues they give to the religious ideas of their time, and the changing emphases in their social and political contexts. He draws interesting parallels with what was happening elsewhere, whether in other parts of Wales, nearby Ireland or further afield on the Continent. With such a wealth of source material the discussion is demanding of the readers concentration, but it is always clear and purposeful. What makes it particularly easy to read is that the illustrations and footnotes are always alongside the text and there is a constantly changing page format.
Anyone with Welsh associations will have their own familiar favourite images. As a native of Newport, Pembrokeshire, familiar with St Brynachs Church at Nevern, I was intrigued to learn that the cross-head of the Nevern cross is of a different rock from its shaft and doesnt fit properly. It should be on the cross at Carew in the south of the county, and the one at Carew should be at Nevern! This anomaly is startlingly obvious in the photographs. A case of the wrong delivery in the early 11th century?
In his introduction, Peter Lord refers to the meticulous catalogue-work of his research assistant, John Morgan-Guy. Perhaps it is the combined forces of different backgrounds and beliefs the author an art historian, former sculptor and non-Christian believer, his assistant a teacher of church history and theology and Anglican priest which gives the book its balance of authoritative discourse on the one hand and its speculative questioning on the other.
I have one reservation. I would have liked at least one location map. It would have made the hunt through Wales to find some of these images, armed with book, road atlas and O.S. maps, much easier if there had been some simple maps locating the main sites. And, as a frustrated aside, why do so many churches have to be closed with no indication of where one might obtain the key? It was a rare pleasure to find the door of the Church of St Cadwaladr at Llangadwalad on Anglesey not only unlocked but open, and to appreciate the painted glass window of 1500 in the company of Medieval Vision with its detailed discussion.
This is a hugely informative book: I applaud everyone who has had anything to do with its production and am proud to have it on my shelf.
It is possible to use this review for promotional purposes, but the following acknowledgement should be included: A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council.
Gellir defnyddior adolygiad hwn at bwrpas hybu, ond gofynnir i chi gynnwys y gydnabyddiaeth ganlynol: Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatad Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru.