Heaven under our feet: the Laleston triple cross
Visit this monument
Vale of Glamorgan
Vale of Glamorgan
Cross slabs are the unsung heroes of the medieval monument industry. Lawrence Butler and Colin Gresham taught us to look at them, and more recently Peter Ryder and Aleksandra McClain have done sterling work in elucidating them, but there is still much more to learn.
Part of the problem is that they are usually set in the church floor, and very vulnerable to damage and erosion. This triple cross slab at Laleston, just west of Bridgend in the western Vale of Glamorgan, is so worn as to be almost indecipherable, and partly hidden by the twentieth-century choir stalls. Generations of worshippers have walked over it without realising its meaning. Even the incumbents who have stood on it were not aware of it.
Fortunately, it was drawn by the antiquarian T. H. Thomas and the church architect John Rodger in the early years of the twentieth century, and it is really from their drawings that we can appreciate its significance.
The slab has a very distinctive design with a plain central cross flanked by two others, all branching out from a stepped calvary plinth. Thomas and Rodger also drew a very similar slab at Llangynwyd, a few miles north of Laleston, and a triple cross slab with a slightly different design in the ruins of Margam Abbey, a little way to the west. There are plenty of incised slabs with miniature crosses as part of the decoration, but the subsidiary crosses on these three slabs are clearly intended as full-size crosses. They are as far as I know unique (an impression confirmed by Sally Badham, Peter Ryder, Philip Lankester and Lawrence Butler, all of whom kindly looked at Rodger’s drawings for me). It looks as though these crosses are intended to show the actual scene of the Crucifixion, with the two thieves as well as Christ.
What could link these crosses? They are almost certainly medieval, judging from the style of the crosses, the location of the Margam one and the absence of inscriptions (the lettering on the Laleston cross is almost certainly a later addition). The one thing which links these three sites in the Middle Ages is the pilgrimage to the Holy Rood of Llangynwyd. The church at Llangynwyd belonged to the monks of Margam, and Laleston sits on one of the major pilgrimage routes to the shrine, the Ffordd y Gyfraith.
This raises the intriguing possibility that the Laleston slab and the other two triple cross slabs reflect the design of the Llangynwyd rood. Depiction of the thieves is unusual in the Welsh visual tradition. However, the thieves do appear in the Welsh mystery play of the Crucifixion. More to the point, several Welsh poets wrote in praise of the Holy Rood of Llangynwyd. Christine James of Swansea University (the current Archdruid of Wales) has made a detailed study of these poems and points out that two of them make reference to the thieves.
There are other reasons why depiction of the thieves would be appropriate for a tomb. Late medieval spirituality had a strong focus on the need to prepare for a good death. Books on preparation for death were among the earliest best-sellers. Among other things, they advised on dealing with the temptations that might assail the dying person. One of these was the temptation to despair, illustrated by woodcuts showing demons reminding the dying of their sins and failings. Against this the dying were promised the help of saints who had themselves fallen and been saved. Among these, as well as St Peter, St Mary Magdalen and St Paul, was the Good Thief. (Some of these woodcuts can be found online at http://www.bdnancy.fr/ars/ars.htm .) The thief had not even had time for repentance and confession: but he had recognised Jesus and said ‘Remember me when you come to your kingdom’: and he had been promised ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise’. These were comforting words to be remembered in a tomb carving.
We also need to think about the decorations above the cross. As well as the three full-size crosses, there are two small crosses potent in the angles above the main cross. Many medieval cross slabs feature small circular decorations above and to either side of the cross – either minature crosses or small stylized flowers. These may be purely decorative. Similar designs appear on seals, and as diapering in wall paintings. However, the placing of some of the miniature crosses and circular designs is reminiscent of the depiction of the sun and moon in so many representations of the Crucifixion. This is of course a literal reference to the narrative with its eclipse. However, there is also a wider symbolic significance. The sun and moon are witnesses of cosmic salvation: their presence in the Crucifixion scene symbolises the relationship between Christ the sun of justice and the moon as the church which reflects his light. Further, according to St Augustine the moon represents the Old Testament which can shine only by the light of the New.
So much cosmic significance from one cross slab, so battered and worn that no-one in the parish knew it was there. Now that it has been identified, though, it will feature in a new heritage trail designed to link some earlier carved stones at Merthyr Mawr on the Welsh Coast Path and the deserted village site of Llangewydd, just north of Laleston. The trail will use part of the pilgrimage route to Llangynwyd, and reconstruction drawings of the crosses have been commissioned. The church at Laleston has also commissioned a local photographer, Nigel Nicholas, to photograph the stone under raking light. His photograph, shown above, will be the centrepiece of an interpretative panel. The church is always open and has plenty else of interest, including a medieval altar stone and some endearingly naive eighteenth-century memorials.
Dr Madelaine Gray PhD