It feels a long time since last week. At the end of February I was in discussions to hold a launch of Depicting St David at the Metropolitan Cathedral Church of St David in Cardiff, and although events were beginning to be cancelled or postponed, on Monday 16 March 2020 I gave a short talk after the lunchtime Mass to a small gathering. That afternoon, new government advice discouraged all events of this type and events for St Patrick’s Day on the next day were cancelled. Within days all church services were suspended until further notice as a result of the pandemic, prior to the requirement for us all to stay at home.
The reason why it seemed appropriate to hold a launch of the book at the cathedral – albeit not in such circumstances – was the presence of a unique set of scenes of the Life of David in the sanctuary. Two pairs of two-light windows contain eight scenes from the Life of David, more than any other set of scenes depicting David that I have come across in any other churches.
There is however some uncertainty surrounding the windows. The devastation of Llandaff Cathedral, not far from the city centre, in the Second World War and its subsequent restoration in the 1950s is well known, but St David’s, built as a parish church for the centre of Cardiff in 1885–6, also suffered, and was gutted by an incendiary bomb in 1941.
In June 1897, The Tablet reported on the intention to fill the windows of the chancel with stained glass depicting the saints. David, Teilo, Iltud, Cadog and other local saints, as a memorial to the Vicar-General, the late Monsignor Williams. Although small roundels of Dyfrig, Patrick, Illtud and Teilo are found in the upper tracery lights, the scenes in the windows now are all of David, with Latin inscriptions. Teilo does appear in one of the windows, but in the context of his visit to Jerusalem with David and Padarn, where they are consecrated as bishops.
The survival of these windows in situ, given the terrible destruction of the sanctuary in 1941, seemed unlikely, and I had wondered whether the windows had been saved from four of the two-light windows in the nave and moved there when the cathedral, which had been largely derelict for most of the 1940s and 50s, was restored in the late 1950s. The windows are commensurate with a date of around 1897, and the work of Mayer of Munich. I spoke to Canon Peter Collins, formerly dean of the cathedral, who thought that the windows had indeed survived the bombing in their present position. In support of this possibility, a small amount of stained glass can be seen in a photograph of the interior. It may of course be possible that the original intention to fill the windows with scenes or figures of Teilo, Illtud and Cadog in June 1897 was changed, and a set of scenes of the Life of the patron of the church would have been very appropriate.
My visit to the cathedral afforded me the opportunity to look more carefully at the windows now in the sanctuary, which revealed a couple of important discoveries. Firstly, the inscription to Mgr Williams remains at the foot of one of the windows on the north side, and all of the windows have lost a number of pieces of glass, including some figures, which have been replaced, although the majority of the panels are intact. An amount of restoration would be expected given the long period in which the church stood derelict.
However, comparing the very small amount of stained glass, faintly visible at the edge of the photograph taken after the bomb fell in 1941, with what is in that window now, seems to show that the glass that is there now was not there then. Furthermore, the foliate tracery lights do not clearly match the architectural tops of the present windows, which might suggest that these are the original tracery lights, with the scenes of St David inserted in the 1950s from elsewhere in the church. Although the inscription is present, its continuity with the surrounding glass is not altogether convincing, and could have been inserted into the lower decorative panel at the time of restoration. Some of the two-light windows in the nave have no stained glass, and the main lights are of a similar width and appear to be only slightly taller than those in the sanctuary. Correspondingly, the design of the architectural canopies in the tops of the main lights of the sanctuary windows seem slightly truncated, which would have been necessary if they had been moved from the nave windows, where the upper part of the arched top is taller.
Whether or not these windows are in their original position, and whether or not we have lost scenes of other local saints, these eight scenes include images of certain episodes in the Life of St David that are not found anywhere else, and are therefore a fortunate and important survival.