In the 7th Century St Melangell (also known as Monacella), the daughter of an Irish king, came to Powys in Wales to become a Hermitess and escape an unwanted marriage. One day, Brychwel, the Prince of Powys was hunting with his hounds, and pursued a hare which ran into a thicket where it took refuge under the robe of Melangell, who was engaged in prayer. The hounds retreated, refusing to attack the hare.
The story goes that the Prince asked Melangell how long she had lived in the area and she replied that she had lived alone in the wild seeking God for more than fifteen years. Moved by the woman’s piety, the Prince gifted to God and Melangell a piece of land to be used as a sanctuary for any person or animal seeking refuge. A religious community for women was founded and Melangell became their Abbess.
A church was later built on the site, parts of which date back to the 12th Century, and the legend of the hare and the saint is represented in carved wood on the gallery in the church of Pennant. Hares were once called in the parish of Pennant ‘Melangell Wyn Melangell’, or St. Monacella’s lambs. It was believed that if anyone cried out when a hare was being pursued, “God and St. Melangell be with thee,” it would escape, and even now no one in the parish will kill a hare.
Surprisingly, the story of St Melangell (pronounced Mel-an-geth) does not seem to be very well known, and it’s only in recent years, during my time in Wales, that I learned the tale of the Patron Saint of Hares. Her humility, care for animals and giving up of position and wealth for a life of simplicity reminds me in many ways of the better-known St Francis. It’s not only for her care for hares that I admire Melangell, but also for the single-minded pursuit of her chosen path which would not have been easy, especially as a woman, even in those less complicated times.
By the time Brychwel found Melangell, she had been living the life of a Hermitess for fifteen years, according to legend. I imagine she would have been comfortable in her wilderness home and familiar with the creatures she shared her wooded valley with. The hare that sought her protection may even have already been known to her – one of the many possibilities that I pondered when I first painted her, several years ago.
That first painting now resides in a private collection in America, but the story of St Melangell is one that has stayed with me since I first learned of it. And so I decided to compose this new painting, which is both smaller and simpler than its predecessor. I wanted to create a sense of quiet intimacy and prayerful stillness where the hare is comfortable in Melangell’s presence (indicated by the lowered ear) – a moment that represents the essence rather than the events of the story.
Prints of St Melangell Patron Saint of Hares can be found in The Honeybee and the Hare Etsy Shop