‘Glorious in the roll of heroes shines the name of Dewi Sant’

Harri Williams on the restoration of the Shrine of Dewi Sant

These words by Timothy Rees CR, sometime Bishop of Llandaff, speak of the importance of St David in the life of the Welsh Church and nation, and have undoubtedly been a source of inspiration for the current project in St Davids Cathedral to restore the medieval shrine of St David.

Wales of course has been blessed with many saintly men and women but there has always been one whose life and message has remained with the people of Wales throughout the centuries: David.

David was born during the sixth century and settled in ‘Glyn Rhosyn’, the site of the current Cathedral, where he founded a monastic settlement founded on simplicity of living and devotion to God. The final words he spoke to his followers on his deathbed have resonated with the people of Wales for centuries: ‘Be joyful, keep the faith and do the little things.’ It is the inheritance and example of St David which the restoration of his shrine seeks to address.

Place of pilgrimage

Before the Reformation of course, the Cathedral was an important place of pilgrimage within the British Isles, for Pope Calixtus II in the twelfth century declared that two pilgrimages to St Davids was equivalent to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to St Davids was equivalent to one to Jerusalem. It was at this time that the current shrine, located in the presbytery, adjacent to the High Altar, was constructed. Pilgrims flocked to venerate the shrine and celebrate the example of St David. Yet the shrine was vandalized and the ministry of pilgrimage was destroyed during the Reformation.

The shrine, like much of the building, lay in ruins for several centuries until the nineteenth century. The pilgrims still came, although few in number. The last few decades have seen a tremendous increase in the number of visitors and pilgrims to the building. The Cathedral welcomed over 300,000 people during the last year alone. However, many express their disappointment at the lack of a focal point of devotion to St David within the building. For as the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Revd Jonathan Lean, states, ‘Without St David, this Cathedral would not be here, yet there is so little which speaks of St David and his life within the building.’

Restoration plans

The Dean launched the Shrine Restoration Appeal in September 2010, with the support of seven shrine guardians whom he has appointed to assist him with the project. The initial drawings and preparation work were undertaken by former Cathedral Architect Peter Bird, who sadly died before the work was begun. However, his firm, Caroe & Partners of Wells, has continued with the project. The front of the shrine contains three niches, in which three icons will be installed. Historical descriptions of the shrine record that there were three images located there prior to the Reformation and therefore much of the work undertaken during the twenty-first century will merely be to restore that which was once lost.

The three icons on the front of the shrine will depict St David, Patron and founder of the Cathedral; St Patrick, thought to have been born in West Wales; and St Andrew, to whom the Cathedral is co-dedicated. There will be a further two icons installed to the rear of the shrine, depicting St Non, the mother of St David, and St Justinian, a local saint, who is reputed to have been decapitated by his brethren for having a too severe aesthetic lifestyle! A local artist, Sarah Crisp, has been commissioned to undertake the work. In addition to this a painted canopy will be installed above the shrine.

Relics of St David

The location of the relics of St David has been a source of interest for historians and theologians alike for many centuries. A casket of bones, deposited in a wall to the rear of the High Altar, was discovered during the nineteenth-century restoration of the Cathedral. Upon their discovery they were declared to be the bones of the Patron Saint and have been acknowledged as such ever since. A proportion of the relics are contained within two reliquaries. Neither of them is currently displayed in the building or available for veneration as they are kept in a casket in the niche in which the relics were initially discovered. The two reliquaries will now be transferred and located in two niches to the lower part of the shrine, where they will be visible for pilgrims’ prayers and devotions. St David was also reputed to have created an illuminated book of the Gospel, and it is hoped that a similar work will be commissioned.

Work is due to begin on the Shrine in the autumn with completion due by the early part of 2012. It is hoped that the Shrine of St David will be dedicated on his feast day, 1 March. The project to restore the Shrine is in partnership with work by the Friends of the Cathedral to establish an Education and Pilgrimage Centre within the precincts of the Cathedral. For as the Dean of the Cathedral has maintained since the launch of the project: ‘The purpose of this great work is to turn those 300,000 visitors into pilgrims.’ ND