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Book review: Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches by Martin Crampin

05 January 2024

Michael Tavinor looks at the saints of Wales

THOSE of us who have Martin Crampin’s earlier book (Stained Glass from Welsh Churches (Books, 26 September 2014)) on their shelves will need no persuasion to invest in this treasure — and an Aladdin’s cave it surely is, with a kaleidoscope of colour and superb photography bursting from every page.

Shadowy figures for so much of their history, these Welsh saints have their legends to speak of their lives, and a few are depicted in medieval stained-glass, inscriptions, and statuary. But it is to the 19th century that we owe the full re-emergence of these saints. Antiquarians such as Sabine Baring-Gould painstakingly researched their lives and brought them to the attention of the wider Church.

Both the emerging Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Church in Wales in the 19th century had reason to celebrate their indigenous saints — providing, as this did, authenticity, and linking the present with the roots of a purer and more ancient Christianity; and, from the 1880s, there was a veritable explosion of imagery.

Indeed, when English churches in the same period were filling their newly restored churches with stained glass, they had many existing templates of (far fewer) saints to copy; so it is a testament to the originality of craftsmen of the time — some of their names unknown — that they found so many different ways of celebrating the spirit of these lesser-known Welsh saints.

© Martin CrampinFrank Roper’s aluminium statue (1995) of St Issui, in St Issu the Martyr, Patricio, in Powys

After sections on the background to the saints, there is a “Gazetteer” of each saint — 43 in all — and there can surely be no image of any of these saints throughout Wales not discovered by this painstaking author.

Readers will much enjoy dipping into the volume — the illustrations are so colourful and vivid that extensive reading may lead to “ocular indigestion”, and the preponderance of these simple saints, dressed, anachronistically, in stained glass as gorgeous medieval prelates, taxes the imagination a little; but none of this can take away from the monumental achievement of this book.

Just one point: I live in Presteigne, where hardly any Welsh is spoken, so can hardly gripe, but a book entirely on Welsh saints without at least a paragraph — an acknowledgement or preface — in the Welsh language may raise an eyebrow or two in the Principality. Perhaps in a later edition?

The Very Revd Michael Tavinor is Dean Emeritus of Hereford.

Welsh Saints from Welsh Churches
Martin Crampin
YLolfa £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50

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