Day 78 – St Petroc

C. E. Kempe & Co. Ltd., St Petroc, 1914, St Olaf’s Church, Poughill.

It’s all too easy to forget precisely how many Saints there are – probably because I doubt that anybody even knows how many saints there are. The Vatican must have an exhaustive list, but several have come and gone, some of them because even the church has deemed them to be entirely fictitious. Not so St Petroc, and as today is St Petroc’s day, I wanted to think about him. If you’ve never heard of St Petroc – shame on you! He is one of the Patron Saints of Cornwall.

I’ve also chosen today’s image because there is, of course, more than one type of picture. I’ve focussed on paintings, I know, but I have occasional shown you pictures of sculptures, or even, on rare occasions, buildings. But never stained glass. It is something that has flourished in various eras across most of Europe, but it has been especially important in Britain – even though, given the Reformation (or reformations, as they happened at different times in the different nations of the Kingdom) much of our heritage of stained glass has been lost.  I imagine that for iconoclasts, ‘idolatrous images’ in glass were quite fun to deal with. There was the most extraordinary revival in ecclesiastical decoration in the 19th Century, though, as a result of a revival in the church, and then a change in taste. The Anglo-Catholic Revival developed from the Oxford Movement, and as William Morris was an undergraduate in Oxford, it would inevitably influence the development of the Arts and Crafts movement, at the tail end of which today’s window was made. 

This is just one panel from a larger window which illustrates a number of Cornish Saints. The various legends about St Petroc are rather confused, and, given their age, it is hard to know how much of the myth is true – after all, he was supposed to have died in 564 AD.  Or 594, depending on which source you read. According to the earliest life written about him, he was the younger son of a Welsh Chieftain, and he studied in Ireland. Either before or after a pilgrimage to Rome he found his way to Kernow (Cornwall to you and me – unless you are from Kernow of course) and founded a monastery at the mouth of the River Camel on the North Cornish Coast, which came to be known as Petroc’s-Stowe – or, as we now know it, Padstow. He also founded an Abbey in Bodmin, and became its first prior – hence the crozier in his hand, a stylised shepherd’s crook, with which he would symbolically look after his flock, yanking them back in when they strayed from the straight and narrow.  After his death his remains were initially revered in Padstow, but they were ‘translated’ (i.e. moved) to Bodmin some time around the year 1000. However, in 1177 a disillusioned priest called Martin stole them, and took them to the Abbey of St Meen in Brittany (Petroc may well have preached all over Brittany: there are many churches named after ‘Saint Perreux’). Thanks to the intervention of King Henry II the precious relics were returned, and were kept in a rather fine Sicilian/Islamic ivory casket until the Reformation, at which point, with the dissolution of the monasteries, they were thrown out. Fortunately the casket survived, and can still be seen in St Petroc’s, Bodmin.

A second Life of St Petroc, written in the 12th Century, was re-discovered in Germany in a library in Gotha in 1937. It describes the saint as ‘handsome in appearance, courteous in speech, prudent, simpleminded, modest, humble, a cheerful giver, burning with ceaseless charity, always ready for all the works of religion because while still a youth he had attained by watchful care the wisdom of riper years’ – however, that can have had no influence on this window, which dates from 1914, some 33 years before the rediscovery of the Gotha Life.

Photo: Jules & Jenny on Flickr

At the top we see two angels holding scrolls, and then, in the upper tier, Sts Ia, Olaf and Keyna. St Petroc stands at the left on the bottom tier, alongside Sts Wyllow and Sampson – I’m sorry, but apart from our man, you’ll have to look them up for yourselves! The inscription underneath the last has a dedication to the memory of William and Margaret Field, and their son Francis Trevoes, and bears the date ‘mcmxiv’ – 1914. If you can pin it down, you will probably find the window attributed to Charles Eamer Kempe – but as he died in 1907 that’s not very likely, even though the designs for stained glass windows could be kept and reused.  As it happens the term ‘stained glass’ is a misnomer: the only colour you can stain glass is yellow – so only the yellow details in today’s picture are actually stained. The rest is coloured glass, made by the adding various mineral salts to the molten glass. The details – all the black lines and decorations – are painted on with a form of enamel, and fired to make them bond with the glass.

Kempe himself was from East Sussex (his father Nathaniel developed Kemptown in Brighton) and had a typical upper class education – Rugby, and Pembroke College, Oxford. It was as an undergraduate that he was inspired to become an architect, having seen the decorations of the Oxford Union carried out by, among others, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. He had wanted to go into the church, but had a rather bad stammer, and decided he could minister better by designing that by preaching. He studied with leading ecclesiastical architect George Frederick Bodley, himself a student of Giles Gilbert Scott, and became Bodley’s assistant during the building of All Saints, Cambridge. The East Window there was designed by Burne-Jones and executed by Morris & Co. Kempe himself designed three of the church’s windows. However, he wasn’t with Bodley for long, as he set up his own studio in London in 1866, which went on to be one of the leading ecclesiastical designers of its time. His windows were especially sought after, renowned for the peacock wings of his angels (this isn’t a great example), and the richly jewelled apparel of the royalty and priesthood – look at the pearls on the depictions of Sts Olaf and Sampson, for example. After his death the studio continued under the name of C.E. Kempe & Co. Ltd, and a distant cousin, Walter Earnest Tower, took over as chairman. Stained glass designers don’t often put their names on their work, but use symbols as a form of ‘maker’s mark’. Kempe’s was a sheaf of golden corn, called a ‘garb’, which came from his own coat of arms (I said he was upper class…). When Tower took over, a black tower was superimposed on the maker’s mark – and you can see it on the panel with St Petroc, in the decorative border to the left of St Ia’s feet – at the very top left-hand corner of the detail on the left.

There are not that many images of St Petroc, and, as a result, his iconography varies. The Kempe studio chose to show him holding a bowl, with a tame wolf by his side. These attributes are best explained by the various myths which survive about the saint. Here they are, retold by Anna Chorlton – you can find the full story on the website Mazed – Traditional Tales from East Cornwall:

It was always raining in North Cornwall near the monastery. One day Petroc predicted the rain would stop the next day, but the next day the rain still fell in rivers. Petroc was mortified, his power of prophecy had failed, maybe he wasn’t such a good holy man anymore. He decided to go on a pilgrimage to become more holy, so he travelled to the Holy Land and then on to India. One day he was standing by the sea, it was so hot and he was dreaming of Cornish rain, when he saw a silver bowl in the water. Petroc climbed into the bowl and floated to an island. There he lived for seven years, every day eating one silver fish he caught in a pond. The fish returned every day to be eaten again.

One day the shining silvery bowl floated up on the sea again, and Petroc climbed in and sailed back to shore.

A wolf was waiting for him. It had guarded Petroc’s staff and sheepskin for 7 years while the saint was on the island. The wolf stayed as Petroc’s loyal companion till the end of his days.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 78 – St Petroc

  1. Hardly dare to suggest – know it’s not great art – just I love it – “Penelope and the Suitors”, Pintoricchio. POTD
    WONDERFUL. Thank you so much. All good wishes, Pamela. And you’ve written another whole book…….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pamela – and what’s wrong with the Pinturicchio? I’ve got quite a few requests, but will try and get to them all soon!
      And I must start contacting publishers… if only I had the time!


  2. Hi Richard! Good to see some stained (or coloured!) glass on your blog. One or two little titbits about Petrockstow/Petrockstowe (both spellings appear in equal numbers on local road signs); forgive me if you already know this (you probably do):
    The village is still actually called Petrockstow(e), and so were its railway station (closed by Beeching) and the widely available variety of mature Cheddar cheese. It did, as you say, also acquire the variant “Padstow”, but this is different from the better-known fishing port, of the same name, and of Rick Stein fame, in Cornwall, albeit only a few miles away.
    Petrockstow/Petrockstowe/Padstow is, in fact, in North Devon – between Okehampton and Bideford. Its parish church is of some interest: among other things, it is dedicated to St Petroc (well, who else?) and contains stained (sorry – coloured) glass from the Kempe Studio.
    Incidentally, another St Petroc’s Church, in Exeter, is now redundant for worship, but used as a bellringing centre. I rang there in 1998, in a quarter-peal dedicated to your sister Jane and me, on the occasion of our engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

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