On the corner of St Michael’s Church, Bryngwyn, a couple are fixed together in mortar. They are lying horizontally, one on the east wall, one on the south. Their heads meet at the edge. At some point in the many buildings and re-buildings of this church they have come to be a quoin. Now, as a quoin, they are demonstrably a pair; they exist as a self-sufficient entity, mutually dependent on the existence of the other. Any ‘meaning’ that they possess or did possess is now subservient to the fact that they are a couple. Were it not for their position on the corner, perhaps they would not exist at all anymore.
When I first went to see the couple, it was the kind of cold and grey December day that Radnorshire does best. At least, that is how I have come to remember it. Perhaps it was actually because the couple and the church refused to reveal themselves in any depth, that I have retrospectively blamed their impervious appearance on a lack of sunlight. From the outset, I assumed (not without reason) that the couple had always co-existed on one stone, and that their position on the corner must have arisen during the nineteenth-century restoration of the building. Having made my assumptions, I scanned the couple for further clues. Nothing, aside from my infuriating inability to read one without the other. Where I saw the hint of a dress on the southern, weather-beaten figure, I found myself reading ‘she’ – and then instantly ‘he’ for the eastern figure. Cursing my binary imagination, I gave up and traced them gently with my finger, committing the exchange to memory.
There is something about these personal and vaguely futile encounters with fragments in churches and churchyards that lodge themselves in my head. Perhaps it is the freedom to touch outside of a museum setting. I strongly suspect that it is in fact our inability to read these stone quotations beyond the sensation of fingertip to surface that makes such interactions significant. In many ways, touch is all we have left to bring these illegible forms into relief. Somebody put chisel to stone to carve the couple, and then somebody else decided to resurrect them as a pair on the corner of the building, and now all I can do is make my own – largely insignificant – gesture of acknowledgement.
For fragments like my couple, time has made so many assumptions already that the wholeness of their meaning and purpose is fractured each time a building block is moved.
When I went back to see the couple around a year later, it was raining so efficiently that the water was pouring down every crevice of the stone building. My little eastern figure, with a tiny ‘o’ hole for a mouth, was dripping so much that he appeared to be crying. The wetness obscured the stone contours even more, and once again I found myself desperately placing index finger to stone to read any dips or details that I might have missed. Nothing; or perhaps something; maybe just a furrow where rain has dripped for centuries. The crying eastern figure has his arms raised, probably in prayer, as if he is reaching to the very edge of the stone wall to touch his companion. This gesture is presumably why the pamphlet inside the church describes them as the “dancing couple”, even though the southern figure is sedate, with hands clasped just below the abdomen. Perhaps there was a time when my eastern figure prayed for someone else, but now he is forced to lunge at the coy, southern she and invite her to frisk and caper along the church wall.
My couple might not even be a couple at all. Perhaps a builder or parishioner discovered them and wed-locked them into the church like this. Maybe there are more than two of these figures, scattered or buried around the area. I surveyed the edge of the churchyard: a dry stone wall, the remaining note-taker after layer upon layer of historical boundaries. For fragments like my couple, time has made so many assumptions already that the wholeness of their meaning and purpose is fractured each time a building block is moved.
Stylistically, the couple are one. Whoever carved them did not feel the need to bring them forth from the stone anymore than necessary, and so they sink into the wall, as though cast in metal. Having been beaten by the same rain for so long, they have melded even more into a unison. This makes art-historical dating procedures difficult, and I find myself trying to play ‘snap’ with the evidence. But this is just a tiny, rural parish church on a wet day in December, and now these figures exist solely for each other and passers-by, and maybe that is good enough.
In 1607, William Camden commented on the companionship of his fellow antiquarian, Sir Robert Cotton: “he hath often times given me great light in these darksome obscurities.” Camden was complimenting Cotton’s historical insights when the two of them had studied fragmented inscriptions stolen from the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. There is something to be said for lifting this quote from its original context and inserting it into my commentary here, just like whoever lifted my couple and re-framed them on the church corner. When all that remains are fragments, it is only by cementing “these darksome obscurities” together, and giving them the appearance of a mutual purpose, that the dialogue continues. Forcing them to become a couple, a quoin, might frustrate historical enquiries, but it sets the parameters for a meaningful encounter, fingertip to fragment to fingertip.