History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Final Part (5) , Warriors of the Heart
Their age is uncertain, but most observers place them as medieval. I’m no expert in ancient Christian symbolism, but, on my first visit to Caldey, a decade prior, I knew that the uncovered plaster etchings on the lower walls of St Illtud’s church were unusual. My first reaction was that they could also be partly alchemical, but I have no evidence for this, other than the initial impression of certain visual similarities.
Now, I was back, with a better camera, and determined to obtain a good set of photographs despite having to crouch low to take the shots of the old stone etchings which line the lower walls of St Illtud’s church.
A sun drawn as a circle (see first photo, above) with a smaller circle inside it. Four straight lines radiate from the upper and lower verticals, and the left and right directions. Further straight lines radiate out in each quadrant, but the mid line of each quadrant is wavy, as we might draw a ‘wavelength’ line in physics.
A dove descends (second photo) – a common Christian symbol of the Holy Ghost – but this dove descends from a figure of the sun above, and it’s own body radiates the ongoing life to those below.
Three fishes swim in a sea clearly marked by its surface (third photo). The three fishes form what looks like the head of an arrow pointing downwards. Smaller fishes curl at the lower edge of the piece, but these are not part of the power of three represented by the core group. Three is, of course, a symbol of the Trinity; and, prior to Christian thought, the mystical symbol of creation, ‘three primary forces in one’, the radiating of divine will into the ‘primal stuff’; the embodiment of that will; the projection from the ‘male’ energy of a receptive ‘female’ form into which the potency of the male may reside… leading to the birth of the world, or should we say, our realisation of the birth of that world…
Esoteric Christianity contains some of the most profound mysticism in the history of mankind and I wondered how much of this was being shared by the creators of these designs, etched in the past, where the ‘past’ is anything from one hundred to one thousand years ago.
There are over twenty of the ‘etchings’. When I first came to Caldey, they were dilapidated; and many were mouldy. Now, they had been lovingly restored under the supervision of Father Gildas, the Abbot of Caldey, though he recently confessed to the local newspaper, The Western Gazette, to knowing very little of their origin.
What is known is that the site of St Illtud’s church was the original home of the 6th century Celtic Christian church; the medieval Benedictines; and the more recent group of monks who created the modern religious landscape of Caldey in the last century. Although the present Abbey is Cistercian, the founding group of monks of the recent cycle of habitation were also Benedictines, and led by a very unusual man – Dom (Father, from Latin Dominus, master) Aelred Carlyle, also chronicled by some as the “Lord Abbot” and the “Druid Abbot” due to his highly unusual approach to his calling…
Dom Aelred Carlyle began his working life in London, where he tried to establish an institution that helped underprivileged young men to fit themselves for gainful work. This failed and he found himself in a series of roles, culminating in a vision that the restoration of Caldey Island as a place of isolated Benedictine worship should be the goal. He was, to say the least, an unusual man, not to mention an very ‘different’ priest. We would expect the word Benedictine to be associated with the Catholic faith, but Dom Aelred Carlyle’s followers were Protestant Benedictines – a line descending from the survivors of Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of the monasteries in 1536.
Dom Aelred’s proposition attracted some sponsorship, and, in 1906, the then owner of Caldey Island, the Rev Done Bushell, Chaplain of Harrow School, agreed to the sale of Caldey with certain strict provisions, including the construction of a formal guest house for visitors, who would be expected to pay, handsomely, for the privilege of being ‘part of the community’ for a while. A train was chartered to bring the Don Aelred’s existing Benedictine community from North Yorkshire to Tenby, where they were allowed to rest and wash, before making the short crossing to Caldey, their future home, in a local boat.
We have to admire their bravery, as they worked to restore what is now St Illtud’s church, at the same time as trying to feed themselves from the land and sea. The site of the Celtic and medieval communities had become, once more, the home to monastic worship on Caldey.
Sadly the story goes downhill from there. A series of grandiose plans for one of the largest abbeys in Europe were expensively shelved. But the present Italianate abbey was designed and built – taking Dom Aelred’s group massively into debt.
By 1929, the project was no longer viable, despite the construction of the present set of buildings, and the abbey was taken over by the Belgium (Catholic) Cistercian monks whose spiritual ‘descendants’ are today’s inhabitants. It is a tribute to them that they have continued to maintain and further restore St Illtud’s church and its long history. Today, the abbey is financially secure and the community is growing.
There remains one more treasure to document before closing this set of posts: that of the stained glass window in the sanctuary of St Illtud’s church.
One of the unsung heroes of the present day story of St Illtud’s is the Rev William Done Bushell, who restored the church in the closing years of the 19th century, and was the man who sold Caldey to Dom Aelred’s Benedictine group. To crown the restoration, he installed the large sanctuary window, which shows St Illtud (also written St Illtyd) as a young Arthurian Knight, being visited by an angel who urges him to turn away from Arthur’s court and return to the religious life of his youth. It’s an interesting and potentially controversial message, given the mystical interest in the inner symbolism of the Arthurian stories today.
Perhaps we are best ending this by thanking the present monks for their care of precious things from the near and far past, and for keeping those treasures alive for us all to see… and wonder at…
I will conclude with a view of Caldey’s ‘Calvary’ monument, overlooking the arrival and departure of its visitors, and the borrowed sentiment we often use in the Silent Eye School: “there is only one truth but a thousand windows through which to see it…”
Previous parts of this series: