This is a wall painting in the mediaeval parish church of St Teilo, now in St Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life near Cardiff, Wales. The walls of the church are covered with gloriously naive paintings, lovingly restored and full of Christian images to tell stories to the illiterate parishioners.
But this painting is in a side chapel off the chancel, a place apart from main worshippers. It is called a chapel for private baptism. This is strange. Baptism was a celebration, to welcome a new life into the family, and to the parish community. The arrival of a baby signalled the continuity of both the family and the congregation. It was a public, joyful event.
This chapel was for babies about to die. Baptism ensured the child’s soul did not remain in limbo, but went to heaven. It was a place of grief, and the funeral bier is central to the painting.
We are fortunate that with modern hygeine and healthcare, children seldom die. The fact that this parish spent so much money building and decorating this chapel meant that infant death was both common and that those involved needed special treatment, a quiet place to deal with their grief in this isolated, low-lying region of south Wales.
I have often heard people claim that in the past, life was cheap; but the existence of this chapel suggests otherwise. It says people grieved for a baby. It says a family wanted to protect it after it died. Given how hard life was for our ancestors, it is possible they often valued life more than we do, as they had to fight so hard for it.
Imagine their lives: where a storm could wipe out their crops, so threatened starvation.
Imagine the absence of strong painkillers, of distress and lack of sleep.
Imagine women struggling from one pregnancy to the next, risking their lives, yet failing to provide a child to continue their family, to care for them in old age.
This was a world where faith and community offered respite. Faith that there was a better world, that there was a point to their suffering and that if they lived well they would gain their reward.
The church building was the beating heart of their community. It was the only place where they could escape farmyard smells to inhale the scents of incense and rushes, see light filtering through coloured glass windows, to find respite from their often harsh lives. In modern artspeak, it was an immersive environment. The church was always open so they could pray to a saint to intercede on their behalf with God, or just have a quiet chat with their favourite saint who was always ready to listen, and who never gossiped or judged them.
This is why old churches are so special. They tell us stories that connect us to our ancestors. We can read them and imagine lives of people who have left no other traces. In this ancient church of St Teilo’s our eyes can breathe in the history. The building speaks to us louder than mere words ever can.