There’s something about Mary

Deep in the bowels of Llandaf Cathedral, within the much-remodelled 13th century Lady Chapel, is one of Cardiff’s most delightful sights: 12 sculptures in gilt bronze of flowers whose Welsh names refer to the Virgin Mary, each occupying a niche in the medieval reredos (screen) behind the altar. They are the 1964 work of Frank Roper (1914-2000), a hyperactive, eccentric Yorkshireman who was vice-principal of Cardiff College of Art at the time.

There was a wide choice of plants to fill the 12 slots, as many have a common name in Welsh honouring Mary (Mair, or in mutated form, Fair). Slightly surprisingly, there is nowhere on the internet, in Church in Wales literature or in Cathedral guidebooks where you can find a definitive list of Roper’s Lady Chapel flowers. Here then, for the first time, is the complete inventory (with English translations, English common names and Latin family names to assist).

Top row, left to right: Gold Mair (Mary’s Gold)/Marigold/Calendula; Clustog Fair (Mary’s Ears)/Thrift/Armeria; Gwlydd Melyn Mair (Mary’s Yellow Stalks)/Yellow Pimpernel/Lysimachia; Esgid Fair (Mary’s Shoes)/Monkshood/Aconitum; Ysgol Fair (Mary’s Ladder)/Cornflower/Centaurea; Chwys Fair (Mary’s Sweat)/Buttercup/Ranunculus

Bottom row, left to right: Miaren Mair (Mary’s Briars)/Eglantine/Rosa; Gwniadur Mair (Mary’s Thimble)/Foxglove/Digitalis; Mantell Fair (Mary’s Cloak)/Lady’s Mantle/Alchemilla; Llysiau’r Forwyn (Virgin’s Herb)/Meadowsweet/Filipendula; Tapr Mair (Mary’s Candle)/Mullein/Verbascum; Briallu Mair (Mary’s Primrose)/Cowslip/Primula

Sophisticated Roper would surely have been aware that the sepals, petals, stamens and carpels on show are the come-and-get-it sexual organs of the blowsy, promiscuous hedgerow, but the conservative traditionalist in him (he wore a collar and tie every day, even when welding hot metal in his Penarth workshop) toned down the symbolism to leave a touching, otherworldly, child-like vision, oddly powerful in its confluence of pagan earthiness, Celtic devotion, Catholic madonna-cult and modernist experimentation.

One could quibble with the choice of the semi-Anglicised Gold Mair rather than the alternative, fully Welsh, Melyn Mair for the Marigold, while the inclusion of deadly poison Esgid Fair prompts a raised eyebrow, and a trick was surely missed in passing over Dagrau Mair (Mary’s Dagger) in favour of the more prosaic Briallu Mair for the Cowslip. It would have been too much, though, to expect the inclusion of some of the more vividly-named Mary plants, such as Llaeth Bron Mair (Mary’s Breast Milk – Lungwort) or Ysnoden Fair (Mary’s Vaginal Discharge – Galingale). That would never have got past the Bishop.