Stained Glass from Welsh Churches

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The Story of Welsh Art: the Llanrhaeadr Jesse window

A new television series on art in Wales began its journey through the centuries on 1 March 2021. The three-part series is the first to look at the long history of art in Wales since Peter Lord’s wonderful series The Big Picture, broadcast more than twenty years ago, and will also make its way to television screens in Yorkshire, Argyll, Antrim and Kent as the first series on Welsh art to air across the UK (on BBC4, which wasn’t an option in 1999).

The Story of Welsh Art doesn’t hang about, and having walked the viewer into Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey to see Neolithic markings at the beginning of the programme, the presenter, Huw Stephens, is discussing eighteenth-century portraiture with Peter Lord within an hour.

Large stained glass window, depicting Jesse and Old Testament kings and prophets.
Tree of Jesse, 1533, Church of St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch

With so few stops along the way it was good to contribute to the programme and help to bring stained glass into the story in an interview with Huw that was held in front of the big window depicting ‘Tree of Jesse‘ at the Church of St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch. Although there is a good deal of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century stained glass in north-east Wales, there isn’t time in the programme to cover any more of it. The Llanrhaeadr Jesse is a really significant work – near complete and with a characterisation in the faces (below left) that is more sophisticated than in the slightly earlier stained glass at Gresford and Llandyrnog – pointing to new directions in the medium that were cut short by the Reformation.

There are two other near-complete windows in the area, one of which is another window of the same subject at Dyserth, which was, remarkably, made within a year of the Llanrhaeadr window, and the other is the window with scenes from the Life of the Virgin Mary at Gresford. Both of these windows are about eighty percent complete, but neither have as much colour as the Llanrhaedr Jesse. The loss of the Jesse figure at the foot of the window at Dyserth leaves his tree rootless, and although some of the kings (below right) are impressive close-up, they lack the definition from a distance compared to those at Llanrhaeadr.

The next two episodes in The Story of Welsh Art focus on the period from the later eighteenth century up to the present, but I don’t expect that we will see any more stained glass in either of them. Although stained glass emerged so strongly from the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, it has often been neglected by art historians and drowned out by the painting that remains central to the popular perception of art.

The piece that we recorded at Llanrhaeadr was coupled with another section in the programme on the medieval carving of the figure of Jesse at Abergavenny, but I doubt that there will be a return to the church to discuss Helen Whittaker’s ‘Tree of Jesse‘, installed in 2016 behind the medieval sculpture, in the final episode. I’m sure Huw Stephens and the production team at Wildflame will be among the first to concede that there is plenty more Welsh art waiting to be broadcast on our television screens.

The Jesse Window explained

The new window by Helen Whittaker for Abergavenny is described, with some justification, as ‘one of the greatest new works of church art in Wales since the Second World War’ on the Church in Wales website.

A crowned figure at York Minster dating to the mid-twelfth century is sometimes described as the earliest surviving painted panel of window glass in Britain, and probably came from a Jesse window. Other important medieval survivals include the later Jesse windows at York and Wells, as well as the most complete medieval window in Wales, at Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch, dating from 1533. But the subject is still returned to. The big east window of the Lady Chapel at Llandaff Cathedral also features the Tree of Jesse, and since it was made by Geoffrey Webb in 1951, it might also claim to be one of the most important commissions for church art in Wales. But in truth, there are plenty of others to choose from, such as Jacob Epstein’s Majestas in Llandaff, and other outstanding windows on the same scale or of the highest quality, but they are just not so well known.

The new window will be dedicated on 7 July by the Bishop of Monmouth.

St Mary's Priory Church, Abergavenny

As the the new window, designed by Helen Whittaker, is installed Canon Mark Soady reflects:

Stained glass windows came in to being in Medieval times as a means of educating the largely illiterate public about the Good News of the Bible through visual images.

Helen’s window does an amazing job in encapsulating the various themes and messages that run through the Bible. It will be a great aid to teaching and a wonderful compliment to the Jesse artefact itself.

The starting point for Helen’s design is the ‘centrality of Christ as God and man’. The dual aspects of Christ are explored through images and relationships connected with the five principal themes: Christ, Kingship, Prophecy, the Church and the Sacrament.

At the top of the tree sits the Virgin Mary with the Christ child on her knee. They are shown to a larger scale then other figures in the window, recognising…

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