‘The church of the waterfall in the district of Cinmeirch’ ranks very high among Welsh medieval parish churches. It has an almost unfair number of attractions, beginning with its village setting surrounded by an inn, a smithy (turned pottery), a fine range of whitewashed Georgian almshouses, and the wooded dingle of a little stream. A stream-side path from the tower winds up the dingle to the reason for its name and the source of its medieval wealth – St. Dyfnog’s Holy Well.
Here an underground stream gushes from a rocky bank, descending as a waterfall into the well tank. And here, according to tradition, lived the 6th century St. Dyfnog, doing penance by standing under the torrent in his hair shirt belted with an iron chain. His virtues gave the water miraculous healing powers, capable of curing not only ‘scabs and the itch’ but also (some said) smallpox and even dumbness and deafness. By the late middle ages his ‘mighty spring’ was among the most renowned Welsh holy wells, attracting numerous pilgrims and bardic poems in its praise. It was still ‘much resorted to’ in the 18th century, when the ‘bath’ was paved with marble and ‘provided with all conveniences of rooms for bathing built around it’. These buildings have disappeared, along with the ‘small human figures’ which bedecked them: but the waterfall and bath remain, and so (within the church) do the products of well-pilgrims’ offerings.
The late medieval rebuilding of the double-naved church, indeed, may have been among these benefits. It is entered by a fine timber porch, richly adorned with carving of about 1530 and surmounted by a niche for St. Dyfnog’s lost image. Once inside, Llanrhaeadr’s great medieval treasure is immediately apparent: the big, glowing Tree of Jesse window, called ‘the finest Glass window in all Wales, exceeded by few in England’. It depicts the descent of Christ from Jesse (father of King David) who lies asleep in a walled garden at its base. From him springs a many-branched family tree inhabited by Christ’s kingly ancestors, with King David holding his harp in the central position. The figures rather resemble ‘court’ playing cards, which took their present form at about the time the window was made in 1533, the date inscribed in Latin in the bottom right corner. Near the top, in pride of place, stand the Virgin and Christ-child in a blaze of sunrays.
Much is known about this truly magnificent work of art (whose detailed history is given in a fine colour booklet available in the church). According to one tradition, it was paid of by pilgrims’ offerings, though an inscription recorded it as the grateful gift of a priest named Robert Jones. It was preserved from destruction during the Civil War by being buried in the massive dug-out chest which still stands beneath it. More medieval glass, albeit fragmentary and overshadowed by the nearly perfect Jesse window, is displayed in the window over the vestry. Dated 1508 and including part of Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, it was found in a local farmhouse in Victorian times.
The glass is not Llanrhaeadr’s only outstanding medieval treasure, for both naves have splendid hammer-beam roofs, of much the same date as the Jesse window. That of the north (altar) nave is also decked with angels, and above the altar forms a barrel-vaulted and elaborately carved ‘canopy of honour’, an unusually fine and well-preserved example of this characteristically local feature. Its roofs alone, indeed, would make St. Dyfnog’s worth visiting.
Visitors should not miss the golden ‘pelican’ near the Jesse window, copied in 1762 from the mythical bird painted above the Virgin’s head in the window itself. Feeding its young with its own blood, it symbolises Christ’s sacrifice for his people. Nor can one ignore the imposing marble monument to squire Maurice Jones of Llanrhaeadr Hall, shown reclining in his ‘Queen Anne’ periwig amid weeping cherubs.
St. Dyfnog’s is generally open all year during daylight hours.
Enjoy Medieval Denbighshire
The Jesse window, Llanrhaeadr YC
Golden Pelican, Llanrhaeadr YC
Church of St. Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr YC