The effigy of a smiling abbot awaiting salvation has been discovered by historians and archaeologists, appropriately, in Seventh Heaven - an antique bed store in Chirk.
An academic at the University of Chester and local historians from Llangollen are coming to the conclusion that the previously unknown stone fragment may be that of Hywel, a 13th-century Cistercian abbot of the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey at Llangollen.
Now being proudly displayed by Llangollen Museum, the smiling religious carving is believed to be the first-ever known, and previously unrecorded, effigial slab of a Cistercian abbot from Wales, making it an exceptionally rare find.
He is currently in the ownership of Meryl and Jerry Butler, the original owners of Seventh Heaven.
They discovered him years ago in an auction at the Wynnstay Hall estate in Ruabon in the mid-1990, after Lindisfarne College, which owned the Hall, closed down.
They were restoring a medieval and Tudor house in Glyn Ceiriog at the time and bought it as an ornamental stone.
Jerry said: “We just loved the smile on his face, so we bought it for the garden. It was on its side and we think it had been face down before that – had it been left face up you wouldn’t have the detail now!”
Having looked after him for years, they decided that it was time to share their find with the general public.
They were both impressed with the Llangollen Museum and its exhibits, so Meryl visited the museum and described her fascinating medieval mortuary monument to its manager, Gillian Smith.
Gill then agreed to go over to Chirk, where she found the abbot.
She explained: “He was by the door in Seventh Heaven when I went in.
My initial reaction was “Oh my goodness, that’s really special. I sat on the stairs and I just couldn’t stop looking at him.
“I sat there for about an hour, photographed him, and then dashed down to Valle Crucis, where I know the curators.
“I went to the dormitory there and saw another slab with similar Lombardic script. Stylistically, around the edges it was quite similar so I looked that up and looked at the dates… it just looked as if it could possibly even be the same craftsman.
“I also did a bit more research on gravestones with images and came up with just about nothing so I thought it must be unique.”
Gill, her colleague David Crane and the museum’s trustees then quickly agreed to bring the abbot to the museum on a two year loan.
She then contacted Howard Williams, professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester, to ask him to pay them a visit, to offer his opinion on her find. He visited soon after, with academic colleagues in tow.
Professor Williams said: “After a short hesitation of awe and surprise, I realised we were looking at a unique monument. We couldn’t think of anything like it from North Wales.
“Inscribed effigies are rare indeed. There is only one other comparable example of an incised effigy, from Rhuddlan, and while there are a large collection of medieval grave-slabs from Valle Crucis Abbey, with many on display in the abbot’s house there, none have an inscribed effigy.
“His eyes are large and widely spaced. What is amazing is that he is smiling. His mouth is curved into a clear, contented pursed and modest smile, if somewhat lopsided.
“In this monument, we have an individual depicted fully aware and awake, awaiting Salvation, who is dressed for the performance of mass, without his mitre and crozier.”