In the dark days of December as Christmas festivities launch with lights and feasting, in the dark streets and countryside of Wales another figure appears, the Mari Lwyd or Grey Mare.
This strange and haunting custom has become the focus of artistic inspiration and a new exhibition of artworks can now be seen at Chepstow Museum entitled A Horse’s Head in the Frost. The stark white skull of a horse decorated with coloured ribbons, draped with a long white gown, with jaws made to snap, is led from house to house. She comes from the Otherworld, a reminder that winter is a time to mark the process of life, death and rebirth, and evokes a time when horses symbolised power and fertility. She is led by a troupe wearing coloured ribbons and some with blackened faces, The Leader who holds the reins carrying a stick to knock on doors as they do their rounds, attempting to gain entry. But each visit is a battle of song and rhyme between those without and those within – the Mari Lwyd gains entry when her troupe win the competition and outdo the occupants. Her entry with snapping jaws heralds entertainment, music and hospitality, beer, and money. Their parting words were a blessing on the house.
The custom has seen a great revival in recent years not least in Chepstow itself, and at Chepstow Museum this winter there is a special celebration this year.
The Mari Lwyd has become an inspiration for a whole host of artists intrigued and moved by her magic and mystery. The exhibition brings together artwork from artists throughout the UK and beyond whose work features the Mari Lwyd in some way or the mythic world from which she has emerged.
There is a wealth of imagery in a variety of media. Artists John and Sue Exton who live and work in Monmouthshire and are themselves creators of Mari Lwyds and participants in celebrations, have brought together the many artists who are contributing to this exhibition. Many of the works are also for sale.
A feast and a celebration of the Mari Lwyd, the exhibition is also an opportunity to find out more about this magical tradition.
The exhibition opens on December 14th and runs until Spring 2020. Chepstow Museum is open daily from 11am – 4pm except on Wednesdays, and will be closed December 25, 26 & 27, and January 1st.
Main Painting by Ben Edge