top of page
  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Medieval and Renaissance art in Wales

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Conwy Castle, Wales, built by King Edward I

Welsh art has an amazing rich tradition just waiting to be uncovered, starting from Prehistoric and arriving till the contemporary art.

I would like to concentrate my attention on the Medieval and Renaissance Welsh art.

Medieval Wales boasted a vibrant visual culture, supported by a network of native rulers and their courts.

The last native Prince of Wales was killed by English soldiers in 1282. Despite uprisings, Wales never regained its independence. King Edward I's of England built impressive stone castles as a sign of his domination of Wales, and he crowned his conquest by giving the title Prince of Wales to his son and heir in 1301.

Wales became, effectively, part of England, even though its people spoke a different language and had a different culture.

In the destruction of war, a huge amount of native art was lost, but when stability returned there was a new dawn for art in Wales.

Medieval art was produced in many media, and works survive in large numbers in sculptures, illuminated manuscripts, stained glasses, metalworks and mosaics, all of which have had a higher survival rate than other media such as fresco wall-paintings, work in precious metals or textiles, including tapestry.

The vast majority of surviving art is religious. Churches were an important centre for the communities and they were extensively frescoed and decorated defined as “Poor Man's Bible”, as the decorations have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population.

One of the medieval masterpieces is an impressive oak sculpture of the Jesse Tree in St Mary’s Priory Church, in Abergavenny, close to the English border.

The Jesse Tree, lete 15th century, St Mary’s Priory Church, Abergavenny

Medieval sculptures and paintings were often extremely vigorous and expressive, and very inventive in terms of iconography specially in episodes of the Old Testament as the famous theme of the Tree of Jesse.

The Jesse Tree has been depicted in almost every medium of Christian art, as the Tree was an illustration of the ancestry of Christ with Jess, father of King David.

The inspiration for the whole concept comes from the prophecy of Isaiah (chapter 11, verse 1): “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots”.

The Jesse Tree sculpture was carved at the end of 15th century from a single oak tree of enormous dimension with the trunk emerging from Jesse’s side that was cut brutally short in some point, reducing the sculpture to a fraction of its original size.

The sculpture is exquisite in its details and level of craftsmanship.

The Jesse tree, detail

The human form is represented realistically: individual hairs of the beard all conjured up from one piece of wood, with enormous delicacy. Originally all the sculpture was coloured as some colours are visible in the fold of drapery. The recumbent Jesse is a majesty and sanctify figure but at the same time give a sense of peace. We do not know who created or commissioned it, for none of St Mary’s records for this period have survived.

The victory of Henry VII Tudor at Bosworth in 1485, widely celebrated in Wales, may have been the stimulus for commissioning the Tree of Jesse, especially since supporters of the Tudor dynasty in North Wales were commissioning Jesse windows at the churches of St Bridget, Diserth, St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr and at All Saints, Gresford, where Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, stepfather to Henry VII, underwrote the creation of a magnificent east window, in place by 1498, on which the Tree of Jesse is represented. The motive for so doing was two-fold: it was to emphasise the donor’s devotion and the importance of lineage.

Carol Galvin, who undertook its conservation in 1993, suggested that it takes around one year to season one inch of oak. For the Tree to be installed at the end of the 15th century, around 1495, it would have had to be sculpted in 1487, two years after Bosworth and a year after Jasper Tudor was made Lord of Abergavenny.

Jasper as the uncle of the King Henry VII of England but with Welsh heritage is suggested to be the commissioner of the sculpture.

The Jesse Tree of Abergavenny survived the iconoclasm of the Reformation as the Jesse Window at Llanrhaeadr that was removed by the community for safety in 1645, at the time of the Civil War, and replaced in 1661.

The Jesse Window, 1533, Llanrhaeadr

The artist who created the Llanrhaeadr Jesse window is unknown, though its date of completion, 1533, can be seen at the very bottom of the fifth light.

The visual representation in stained glass of the family tree started with Jesse and arrived to Virgin Mary and infant Jesus Christ. The 23 figures resemble 'court' playing cards, which took their form at about the time the window was made.

This is one of the finest medieval stained glass in Wales, it is remarkable because it is probably the most complete window in Wales. One of the things that is outstanding about this window is the quality of the painting of the faces with a realism and characterisation in the figures.

The Jesse Window, detail

This kind of windows of this size were made in a studio and all glasses would have been leaded together probably into panels, and those panels would have been brought to the church on a cart with great care and it would have been assembled onsite.

So little medieval stained glass has survived in Wales. In 16th and 17th centuries there was a degree of iconoclasm, because windows like this were offensive to Protestant reformers who did not want to see Biblical scenes in windows, and therefore, they were smashed.

Many medieval romances recount the marvellous adventures of a chivalrous, heroic knight, often of super-human ability, who, abiding chivalry's strict codes of honour and demeanour, goes on a quest, and fights and defeats monsters and giants, thereby winning favour with a lady.

One of the most famous legends is about St George and the Dragon, that was an appealing figure during the religious crusades that plagued the 11th and 13th centuries and brought about a resurgence of popularity for the saint.

St.George and the Dragon, late 15th century, St Cadoc's church in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan

In the village church of St Cadoc in Llancarfan, Vale of Glamorgan was discovered in 2008 a stunning 15th century wall painting that has been covered for centuries by a 20 layers of lime wash. The main subject is St George attacking the dragon with the Virgin Mary blessing him and in the other side the Princess, offered to the dragon, and the city walls or towers of Lacia (Lasia) with the King and Queen witnessing the miracle.

George and the Dragon is one of the finest paintings of its kind anywhere in Great Britain if not Europe, but there are more surprises in the church as the most marvellous and rare the “Death and the Gallant”, coupled with this the Seven Deadly Sins in most excellent condition and then on the opposite wall the Seven Acts of Mercy, which whilst not in good condition are certainly worth seeing.

Seven Deadly Sins, St Cadoc's church
Death and the Gallant, St Cadoc's church

This was an educational painting for the community. The paintings probably are from the late 15th century about 1480’s or 90’s dating by the fashion of the costumes in the stories and paid by some members of the congregation as there are two heraldries of the leading local inhabitants.

In the passage from Medieval to Renaissance, art doesn’t celebrate anymore just the glory of God but also the glory of man. Welsh art was not focusing in the English art but was more open to the fashionable influence of Europe.

One extraordinary work of the glory of a man is the The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling.

Hans Memling, The Donne Triptych, 1478, National Gallery, London

Memling a German painter settle and active in Bruges, was the most fashionable painter with patrons included burghers (bankers, merchants, and politicians), clergymen, and aristocrats, loved specially by Italians customers: Genoese, Venetians and Florentines as the managers of Medici’s bank in Bruges. Bruges at that time was a multicultural city, very rich with its trades and banks and one of the capitals of the court of the Duke of Burgundy, ruler of the Burgundian Netherlands.

Sir John Donne (c.1420s – January 1503) was a Welsh courtier, diplomat and soldier, a notable figure of the Yorkist party (in the War of the Roses). Donne travelled several times to Bruges: to celebrate the extravagant wedding in Bruges in 1468 of Charles the Bold and Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV; and probably he may well have accompanied Edward in his Burgundian exile in 1470–71.

The Donne Triptych by Hans Memling, now in the National Gallery, probably was painted in 1478, when he was the Imperial ambassadors in Burgundy. Comparing this painting with paintings by Memling of the Florentine Tommaso di Folco Portinari, the branch manager of the Medici bank in Bruges and Florentine ambassador in the court of Burgundy, and his wife Maria Portinari, it is possible to see some similarities.

Hans Memling, The Donne Triptych, central panel, @ National Gallery

Hans Memling, Tommaso di folco Portinari, Maria Portinari, ca1470, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Firstly, the black dresses colour of the court of Burgundy, secondly the same men’s haircut fashionable in the court of Burgundy, thirdly the two women are dressed in the height of late fifteenth-century Flemish fashion, with a long black hennin with a transparent veil and an elaborate jewel-studded necklace.

Both Portinari and Donne dressed in the Flemish fashion as members of the Court of Burgundy, willing to show the new status of Ambassadors in Bruges.

In the Donne Triptych by Hans Memling, Sir John Donne kneels before the Virgin and Christ Child enthroned and attending by music-making angels in the triptych’s central panel, facing his wife Elizabeth Hastings and one of their daughters. Donne is depicted with incredible vividness and realism. There’s a real present and you can really tell that Memling would have definitely see him and probably painted him from life.

They are being presented to the Virgin by Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Barbara.

Both of the Female Saints have their martyr symbols, the wheel and the tower, placed in the landscape.

The scene is in a portico opened to a gentle landscape that does not resemble the flatlands around Bruges but the Donne family’s ancestral home of Kidwelly.

Donne’s patron saints, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, appear on the triptych’s wings with an unknown man that probably is a self-portrait of Memling; on the outside of these, Saint Christopher and Saint Anthony Abbot are painted in grisaille to look like stone statues in niches.

Memling as an artist was loved for some innovations: the naturalistic landscape, the three-quarter view, the way to place the hands in evidence in the foreground and the ability to create a psychological portrait of the sitter.

In the British Isles, no-one had seen anything like it. It was a commission of a very important person that had a central role in the English Court, as Donne and his wife were buried in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

More and more individuals are taking the central stage in art specially in the Renaissance.

A Renaissance man was a soldier, scholar, diplomat, traveller, historian, musician and poet, and nobody can represent better this idea than the Welsh Edward Herbert, 1st Baron Herbert of Cherbury.

Living in a courtly world in which great power was brokered through personal relationships, Lord Herbert understood that the highest rewards came to those talented few who could present themselves and their abilities with the greatest panache.

Portraits promoting the different aspects of his personality and achievements played an active role in his rise from son of a country gentleman to international statesman.

English Painter, Sir Edward Herbert, c. 1603, Powis Castle, National Trust

William Larkin, Sir Edward Herbert, c.1609–10, Charlecote Park, National Trust

From his earliest portrait showing him as a handsome young gallant at court with the official robes of that chivalric order to the Divine Hero portraited by William Larkins a memento of the events of 1609 when Herbert rescued Sir Thomas Lucy from a sinking ship.

Foremost amongst these works of art is the miniature by the court artist, Isaac Oliver, whose attempt to capture the many layers of Lord Herbert’s complex character in a single, exquisite likeness resulted in one of the masterpieces of British art.

Isaac Oliver, Sir Edward Herbert, ca 1613-14, Powis Castle, National Trust

Such full-length miniature likenesses, exquisitely rendered in bright pigments and precious metals, are exceptionally rare. The artist Isaac Oliver was a famous miniaturist of the time, who painted for the Royal family. It was so finely painted that he was using brushes with individual hairs to paint some of the detail of it.

The cabinet miniature cleverly plays out a debate in Renaissance ethics between the merits of two contrasting ways of life: a secluded existence spent in pursuit of the arts, philosophical meditation and private devotion (in Latin, the vita contemplativa) as opposed to a public life of military and political service (the vita activa). Sir Edward is poised between both spheres, showing off the virtues of both.

High on a tranquil wooded hilltop, he reclines beside a clear stream as it bursts out of the ground. A spring was a symbol of poetical inspiration and is perhaps prominently featured here as an allusion to Sir Edward’s reputation at the time for lyric verses and lute songs.

With his head propped up thoughtfully on his hand, he adopts the classic pose of a melancholiac, understood as a disorder of the mind and body.

One of the most eye-catching details of the picture is the ornate shield with his motto, MAGICA SYMPATHIAE, (the magic of sympathy) and the device a heart borne aloft by sparking flames.

The heart on Sir Herbert’s shield was a symbol of love. Also like today, the sensation of romantic longing was described as burning with desire. The meaning of the heart amidst flames thus sits ambiguously between the immortal soul in heaven and the consuming fires of earthly passion.

The identification of Sir Edward as a courtly lover in his portrait helps to explain why his pose is so lilting, his expression so seductive.

In the background, courtly display and power politics await. As Herbert’s squire prepares his jousting gear, the landscape stretches to the horizon promising adventure symbolising travelling by the sailing ship.

Conversant in French, Italian, Spanish, Ancient Greek and Latin, his thorough education had prepared him to take his place as a ‘Citizen of the world’.

Tiny details draw you closely in to this microcosm of a portrait, inviting you to marvel at the skill of its creation and the different facets of its remarkable subject.

This is an intimate portrait usually kept in ‘cabinet’ or ‘closet’ – where such precious works of art were enjoyed, a whole range of ingenious interpretations could have been devised out of the portrait’s symbols, concepts and themes by its erudite viewers.

90 views0 comments


bottom of page