Tag Archives: medieval art

The carvings of the stalls of St Katharine’s: Medieval iconography

Druce.Misericords_Page_01

This is quite a lovely pamphlet by George Claridge Druce, F.S.A. (Fellow of the Society of Antiquities) from 1917, unearthed by me years ago now (sweet Christmas, how many years ago?) while engaged in a bit of rooting through archives at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. I’m returning to them now because I’m on holiday! And giving a bit of time to this sadly neglected blog and looking at the many things half written. I’m working on photographs as well, like the ones I took a few weeks ago at Salisbury Cathedral and full of wonder at them. Thought I’d polish this off instead of looking at the things on landscape I’ve half done as was the original intention…

Once upon a time for work I was reading a bit about misericords — like many people I so love the odd grotesqueness of much medieval carving. I was quite little the first time I saw Winchester Cathedral with all of its mysterious faces and monsters and many wonders, and remember how amazing I thought it all. Misericords are a bit harder to access, inside cathedrals and often behind ropes. It is tragic. The ones of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse are truly glorious.

So much was lost when the old liberty of St Katharine’s By the Tower was flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825-26. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the misericords and related carvings from the mid-14th century. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).

In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine’s by the Tower, was under the patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.

Both sources I found in St Katharine’s archives argue that misericords tell us more than most things about the lives of medieval carvers — but from reading them it is obvious that they tell us in the most subjective manner possible. In fact, interpretations may tell you more about the person drawing such conclusions (and your own self, through your own reactions to the carvings and to what they say about them). In his essay included in Remnant’s A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain (1969) M.D. Anderson writes:

Misericords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them. The names of the men who actually carved particular misericords are never recorded.’

Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study misericords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.

They were considered so lowly that usually they were not required to follow any scheme of iconography, so that craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved…Because of the freedom the carver’s work is often amusing in a naive way, and sometimes includes subjects which are mysterious, because he has divorced one incident from the identifying context of the full story or has worked from his inaccurate memory of a picture he had seen but not fully understood.

In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine’s as the Ordinances of Queen Philippa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson continues:

Biblical themes are always in the minority, and, even where they do appear, seem to have been chosen at random. (xxiv)

The moral allegories which figured largely in other forms of church imagery seem to have had curiously little appeal to the carvers of misericords. (xxv)

‘Amusing in a naive way’ is annoying, the desire to escape biblical themes and moral imperatives in carving quite wonderful. Instead inspiration comes from the natural world as well as bestiaries and secular literature. I suppose it’s why I love them so much.

At the same time it must be remembered that medieval beliefs embraced a very different kind of iconography, Anderson continues:

Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art. (xxvi-xxvii)

So these two impulses blended perhaps, hybridised. Anderson states that we have discarded the romantic 19th century image of ‘medieval carvers delighting in their own creative powers, as wholly original designs took shape beneath their chisels‘ (xxvii). But what he means by that is curious, in that woodcarvers often seemed to be working from some knowledge of standard designs, which were repeated with free variations alongside carvings of their own invention. Others were copied from wall paintings, manuscript illuminations, and woodcut pictures — he speculates that carvers were given rough sketches or spoiled pages only, due to the high value of books. These designs are often shared by the team of men doing such carving.

The loveliest, most curious oldest carvings (apart from those at St Katharine of course) he says are found in Worcester and Lincoln, Chester and the Holy Trinity in Coventry, and then there are some stalls rescued from Roche Abbey, now in Loversal Church, Yorkshire. There is a side mention of the ‘sinister quality’ of the face of the green man found in both Lincoln and Coventry and again at Loversal, which makes it recognizable as the same artist. Amazing, I will find them.

Like I will find this — he describes that in Bristol a naked woman has been carved leading a pack of apes into the jaws of Hell. This illustrates the supposed fate of the woman who dies unmarried, to which Shakespeare refers in both The Taming of the Shrew (II i) and Much Ado About Nothing. The apes are the souls of unmarried men.

Anyway, to St Katharine’s incredible carvings, that I would often visit, particularly when work was hard. This one is my favourite:

They have returned to the East End from Regent’s street where Druce recorded them, and sit in a lovely modernised chapel. They came back under the radical Father Groser, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for the working classes and I imagine loved them also.

I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.

2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

3. Man’s head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf

4. Man’s head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.

5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.

6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.

the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection. I love this one immensely.

The amphisbaena in its unmolested-by-a-lion form:

7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

Dragons tend to be a ‘symbol of the Evil One‘, and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.

8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.

The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is this lovely bird as it appears on one of the carved armrests.

Druce gives an illustration of just such a pelican in a medieval manuscript, from which these were likely copied

On the subject of our pelican, Druce quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.

It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.

On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes

It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.

It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’), that it sings

right sweetly when dying. Likewise when the proud man departs out of this life, he is still charmed by the sweetness of this present time, and what evil he has done comes back to his memory when dying. But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.

9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.

This begs the question, WTAF, but I love it immensely also…

10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

Images of hunting are common, Druce gives another manuscript example:

While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging from the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:

The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters , which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird, when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.

12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man’s head, one bearded, the other hooded.

‘As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.’

The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant, really the stars of the show are the man-headed beasts.

It was most likely at some point drawn from a manuscript like this one…

A great bestiary quote about the elephant:

…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.

If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death that he might raise mankind…

13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield. (I had to do a bit of work to find this one, it sits least easily I think with our current conceptions of High Anglican tradition).

On Centaurs: ‘The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.’ That’s pretty awesome.

The carvings on the armrests are also splendid, a whole collection of beast curled upon themselves

And then there is this about owls:

The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.

These night birds are also used as a type of those who study the stars at night time and the shadowy realms of spirits, who believe that they can see to the very topmost height of heaven, describing the world by a circle. But they cannot see the light, which is Christ, nor faith in him which is close to them, because they are blind and leaders of the blind.

Yet my favourite carving is I think an owl, and he hardly seems of ill-omen. but he might not be an owl at all.

There is obviously much outdated scholarship on these lovely creatures and so much more to explore about them (the woman on the beast with Artistotle’s head? So much more to explore there…), but I enjoyed the musings of antiquity.