Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Misery, mercy and misericords

click photos to enlarge
I spent enough of my career standing addressing people to know that there are times when, no matter how enthused you are, no matter how attentive your audience is, after a while all you want to do is park your posterior on a chair. Your back and legs start to complain, you walk up and down a little, gesticulate to emphasise a point, but the compulsion to take the weight off your legs persists. However, it's just not done to speak to an audience from a sitting position. It's all well and good for a comedian to do so, or for a night club singer to give a bit of patter from a bar stool between songs, but it's out of order for the rest of us. What is needed, of course, is a modern misericord.

The choristers and clergy of the medieval church had sturdy benches, stalls and seats, but they were required to stand for much of the service. These were often long, so they too experienced the discomfort of prolonged standing. Fortunately an insightful and compassionate person, perhaps a carpenter or a monk, invented the misericord. This small jutting shelf on the underside of a flipped up, hinged seat provides enough support to get the relief that comes from sitting, while appearing to be in a standing position. The photograph of the choir stalls shows the seats in the flipped up position for use when standing. The word misericord comes from the Old French and means compassion, pity or mercy. It's a clever invention.

Today's photographs show some of the twenty eight misericords in the church of St Mary at Beverley, East Yorkshire. They date from around 1425-1450, and each one displays characteristic carving that acts as a bracket to support the shallow seat that is the misericord. The main subjects for these pieces of folk art were sometimes from the Bible, but were more often folk tales, myths, historical or everyday subjects, animals, plants, heraldry or creatures from the medieval bestiaries. They also have scrolls of carving coming out of the left and right of the misericord, a very common feature. This is decorative and and shows subjects such as birds, flowers, leaves, a green man's head, shields etc. The carving often exhibits a charming naivety, and these pieces of wood sculpture, more so than other sculpture in churches, often escaped the Puritans' and iconoclasts' destructive hammers.

The misericods at St Mary's are in two sets in choir stalls on the north and south sides of the chancel facing each other. The subjects I've photographed are as follows:
The Ape Doctor
To the medieval mind the ape and the monkey were animals with human desires but lacking human restraint. Consequently they became symbols of greed, self-indulgence, cunning and lust. Here the doctor of the day is portrayed as a greedy ape, offering up what may be a urine flask to the rich man brandishing a valuable coin, and ignoring the poor Christian (with a cross) who can only offer a pittance for his services.
Knight and Wyverns
This could be mistaken for a depiction of England's patron saint, St George. However, the knight is attacking one of two wyverns (a dragon with only two legs), rather than the usual four-legged dragon.
The Preaching Fox
It was a widely held view that the clergy were self-serving and rapacious, and they are often depicted in medieval sculptures as wily foxes preaching to geese. Here the fox is in a pulpit with clergy to left and right and apes below, all reading from scrolls.
The Clever Daughter
The Clever Daughter was a popular tale in the medieval period. A king set the daughter of a courtier a problem to test her wisdom. She had to go to the king not on foot or riding, not clothed or unclothed, and she had to bring a gift that was not a gift. She came on a goat but with one foot on the ground, she was covered in a fishing net, and she placed a rabbit at the king's feet which immediately fled. Her actions met all the king's demands and he promptly married the Clever Daughter. On the misericord the king is inthe centre, the Clever Daughter is on the right, and the figure on the left slaying a lion is probably Richard I (the Lionheart).
Knight and Boar
A hunting scene. A man stabs a boar with his lance and reaches for his dagger to administer the coup de grâce.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 55mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/13 sec
ISO: 3200
Exposure Compensation:  0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On