Last week, I moved the exhibition to another stop on the St Thomas Way – Ewenny Priory – in South Wales, near Bridgend. Actually, in medieval terms, it’s near Ogmore Castle and the stepping stones across the river that William Cragh, the Hanged Man of Swansea, likely crossed on his pilgrimage from Swansea to Hereford Cathedral.
The exhibition, to me, looks at home here. Once again, the medieval architecture just knows where I should put the artworks – it took barely a few hours to hang all 17 pieces (there are 4 new works). So here, I thought I’d give you some history behind the actual building, which I was very curious about myself. I’d never been to Ewenny before becoming involved in the project and when I did visit, with artist Jess Stephens, we both thought it was an amazing sacred and enigmatic place. It just has a wonderful feeling about it…
Ewenny Priory is a Benedictine monastic church dating back to 1126. Set into the side of a massive fortified wall near the Ewenny River, this was once part of the Normans’ takeover of South Wales – the tombs of the De Londres family who built it are in the South transept.
In medieval times, it was part of Gloucester Abbey (now Gloucester Cathedral) and run by about a dozen Benedictine monks, who used the eastern part of the church – the presbytery and transepts – for their monastic prayers and worship, leaving the nave and main public part of the church for parish worship for the local community. Now St Michael and All Angels, Ewenny is part of the parish of the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, in the diocese of Llandaff, and connected with the communities of 11 other churches including those in Llantwit Major, St Brides and St Donats.
The beautiful architecture is ‘Norman Romanesque’ with thick pillars supporting rounded arches. There’s an air of protected calm and peace inside and curiously, it has two guardians – the Church of Wales looks after the ‘living’ part, with its congregation of 36 regulars, and CADW looks after the historical part – with the tombs, the simple medieval altar and the reproduction of a watercolour of the Priory by JDW Turner painted in 1795. The two parts of the church are separated by The Pulpitum Screen, the work of Alexander Beleschenko, installed in 2006.
It turns out that despite its huge castle-like walls and impressive surroundings, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536 there were only 3 monks living here. Following the Dissolution Ewenny was leased to Sir Edward Carne, who purchased the priory and all its lands outright in 1545. They built a mansion house next to the priory, which is today used for weddings and events. In the 18th century, the monastic part of the priory passed to the Picton-Turbervill family through marriage, and the family still retains ownership, though it is managed by CADW, Welsh Heritage.
The touring exhibition: Re-Making Maps of the Mind: Medieval & Modern Journeys for St Thomas Way has now been on the road for a whole year! So, if you’re in South Wales this summer, please visit the exhibition at Ewenny and visit the rest of the St Thomas Way trail too. Share your experiences of finding these medieval treasures deep in the Welsh landscape…in the autumn we’ll be moving it back to England!
The exhibition runs at Ewenny Priory through July and August 2019. Open 10am -4pm daily.