The Misericords of Wells Cathedral

by Dr. Eric Webb

 

Misericord Seats - an Introduction

The Wells Misericords

The Colour Slides

Photographic Technique

The Scans

Illustrated Table of Misericords & Subjects

Copyright ę

Return to Site Index

 

This monograph was originally written to introduce and accompany a CD-ROM I produced privately in March 2000, containing high-definition scans of my original 35mm colour slides of the Wells Cathedral misericords taken over 20 years previously and a slide-show. It would be impractical to post up the original scans or the slide-show on a domestic web-site, however I have managed to include thumbnails.

I offered a copy of the CD-ROM to the Wells Cathedral authorities of course, but they never replied to my letter. Such is life and such also I fear is the state of the Church of England: too busy mangling the liturgy to pay much attention to heritage, or to doctrine come to that. No doubt those immense collections of historic art and artifacts, including misericord seats, of which the Church is still the custodian are capable of withstanding a period of institutional decline, but it would be a sadness if the decline proved terminal so that they became no more than exhibits in so many ecclesiastical museums. [And that is to leave aside entirely the value of preserving the C of E for its own sake, despite its occasional absurdity and its origin, as the old Irish rhyme has it, in 'the ballocks of Henry VIII'!] Their true place is as part of the temporal and spiritual fabric of living places of Christian worship. To be properly appreciated and understood they need to be viewed in that context.

 

Misericords Seats

Misericord seats are found in the choir stalls in churches, cathedrals and monastic foundations all over Europe. They are made to lift and tip back, like modern theatre seats but without the counterbalance. On the underside is a shallow shelf, supported by a wooden bracket on which the occupant can then take some weight, thus appearing to remain standing upright whilst in reality partially seated. The posture is broadly similar to that taken on a shooting stick, but with greater stability and often with additional support from high armrests.

Used in this way, the misericord provides relief [Latin misericordia = act of mercy] for those who must spend long hours on their feet in the course of worship. In mediŠval times there were 8 services in 24 hours: matins, lauds, prime terce, sext, none, vespers and compline, and properly speaking, those services were to be said and sung standing.

In Britain most misericords, and certainly those of greatest interest, are pre-Reformation, at least 450 years old. The oldest set, at Exeter cathedral, dates back 650 years to the 14th century. The oldest individual seat, at Ripon Minster, is 13th century. Many are still remarkably well preserved, perhaps in part because of their concealed location. They represent a unique survival and treasure house of mediŠval art and craftsmanship, despite which they are generally undervalued and in places at risk through neglect.

The shape of the underside of the seat, with the central bracket and a flat area to either side, lends itself to carved decoration and almost all surviving mediŠval misericords are decorated, however simply. Typically there is a main, central subject using the bracket, well modelled in 3 dimensions in many of the better examples, with flatter carvings, the supporters, to either side. All British misericords follow this pattern, some continental examples have no supporters.

Perhaps because they were mostly out of sight and certainly out of public sight, perhaps because of the misericords' purpose, to give an appearance of virtuous adherence to proper practice whilst permitting something less, perhaps also because they would obviously be in frequent, close contact with the hinder parts, the subjects chosen for misericord carvings are wide ranging and vigorous, even by the broad tastes of mediŠval church decoration. A few are carved only with abstract foliate designs but most portray men and women, birds and beasts, in great variety. For supporters, formal designs are more common and quite often the design is standard throughout a set. Sometimes the subjects of the central carving and its supporters are related and occasionally they comprise a single, coherent picture or tell a story but usually there is no discernible relationship.

Many stock subjects recur with some frequency, sometimes, as appears, because they are well suited to the physical and artistic constraints of the location; but often there is no such straightforward explanation. Biblical scenes, and overtly religious topics of any description, are in a minority, although the educated mediŠval mind, alert to Platonic ideals, was apt to find religious parallels in unlikely places. It is always tempting to seek an interpretation but it is probably a mistake to look too hard. A carving of a cat catching a mouse may represent the devil trapping a human soul, or it may just represent a cat catching a mouse. Even where some deeper symbolism can be strongly suspected, it is often obscure. It may have been equally obscure to the carver who was merely following his fancy against the background of his times, or recreating something he had seen elsewhere and liked the look of.

Some carvings depict scenes from the popular mediŠval romances, such as Reynard the Fox and the Arthurian cycle, or classic mythology. Country and domestic scenes are also common. There are many birds and animals, real and fantastic. Stock jokes are popular: the fox friar preaching to the geese, the wife beating her husband, the imp Tutivillus eavesdropping on the two ladies chattering in church. Overall there is a rich vein of humour, mostly low and occasionally descending to outright obscenity. At Chester, a Victorian Dean had 5 misericords destroyed because they were 'very improper'. The atmosphere is that of the tales of Chaucer and Boccaccio. To describe it as secular would be mistaken, the mediŠval mind understood no such distinction between sacred and secular as we now imagine, but it was certainly worldly, in a world whose metaphysical boundaries were less constrained than ours.

Sets of misericords contrast with other, more visible decoration, roof bosses, stained glass and wall paintings, and the great west fronts of cathedrals such as Wells. These are tightly organised, with a clear didactic or monitory purpose, and largely given over to biblical characters and scenes. Misericords seldom follow a tidy scheme, or any scheme at all, often they seem a complete mish-mash, and this cannot usually be explained by accumulation and addition over a long period nor by later loss or destruction. Most of the major sets were created all of a piece and many, as at Wells, are still largely complete. It may be that what has been preserved gives us a somewhat distorted view of the whole, and perhaps coherences which were once obvious are lost on us now, nonetheless there is a prevailing sense of joyous anarchy: a foil perhaps to the formal splendour and spectacle of the mediŠval church.

Early misericords such as those at Wells have nicely rounded, ergonomic under-seats; they would be truly comfortable to sit on. Later examples are more angular, more architectural; this development is consistent and along with other stylistic features it can be used in dating. Some of these later seats seem to be designed rather more for the sake of the carved decoration than of the sitter. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that they were commissioned more for show than for use; perhaps local pride in a nice set for display, to an appropriate audience, came to outweigh the practicalities.

Experiment quickly demonstrates that most British misericord seats, such as those at Wells, are now unusable as such. They are set so low that perched on the under-seat one's legs splay forwards bearing little weight, an excruciatingly uncomfortable position and certainly no improvement on standing upright. Perhaps in the course of repair and refurbishment over the centuries either the stalls have been cut down or the floors raised; in some instances, as at Wells, the seats themselves have been reset in newer stalls. Returning to the suspicion that some later sets may have been made largely for display, perhaps they have always been this height, but I have no evidence for this supposition.

Without doubt though, misericords were originally developed for an entirely practical purpose and in some places they are still used. On a recent holiday in Greece, I found a set in an Orthodox nunnery near Delphi, plain without ornament, new and lightly constructed. Confirming my British experiments, the seats proper were set high, perhaps 70 cm from the floor; with Mother Superior shepherding us purposefully onwards it was impossible to inspect very closely. The under-seats must then have turned up at about 80 cm. There were also high armrests about elbow level. If that was comfortable for a modern Greek nun, a mediŠval English choirman or monk may have needed something a little higher again. With a main seat so high, so that the feet rest only lightly on the floor when seated, it is a long way down to worship kneeling and a long way back up again afterwards. Perhaps a change in the fashion of address to God, from standing to kneeling, explains latter day alterations.

 

The Wells Cathedral Misericords

G.L. Remnant in A Catalogue of British Misericords [OUP 1969] dates the Wells misericords about 1330-40. This date is repeated in A Picture Book of the Misericords of Wells Cathedral [Friends of Wells Cathedral 1975] with supporting evidence. It appears that new stalls were ordered as part of an extension of the quire in 1325 and that each prebendary was instructed to meet the cost of making his own. There was some reluctance to pay up and it may be that the misericords were produced in rather a hurry 1337-39; certainly a few were never completed. Unusually records of 2 of the men responsible for the work survive: John Strode the master carpenter and his assistant Bartholomew Quarter.

Originally there may have been as many as 90 misericords, 50 of them in the prebendal stalls at the rear. 64 now remain, most in good condition, but in the course of Victorian refurbishment in 1848-54 they were moved and reset so that there are now 4 rows, north and south. Remnant numbers them: South side first row 1 - 14, South side second row 15 - 28, North side first row 29 - 43, North side second row 44 - 64, and I follow his scheme.

One seat, no. 62, was added in the 17th century. One of the original seats was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum and is now in the Museum's store at Osterley House in West London.

 

The Colour Slides

The original colour slides of the misericords still in place in the stalls were taken, with the leave of the Cathedral authorities, during a visit on 18/06/77, those of the seats on display on an earlier exploratory visit on 01/06/77. I include also pictures of the Wells misericords in the Victoria & Albert Museum's storeroom at Osterley House which I photographed on 22/02/75. The cameras used were Minolta 35mm SLR's, with a single electronic flash on a bracket and lenses of 35mm & 50mm focal length. The film was Kodak Ektachrome which at that time, as I recall, had an ISO of 64, not very fast, and a slightly bluish caste, more pronounced if it was under-exposed. That was not a problem here.

Of my visit to the cathedral I have recorded: 'Some misguided soul has covered the seats with embroidered cushions which are difficult to remove and have sharp metal protuberances. Some are screwed in place.' I was younger and less compromising then and perhaps the comfort of the choir is worth more than easy visibility of the carvings. At Osterley House, the Wells misericord, and others, were stacked on the floor in a rather grand junk room, one of several, along with a great many other artefacts, presumably valuable; there was no particular sense of order, or care. 25 years on, I hope it may now be on display; if not it ought to be returned to the Cathedral where it belongs and where it will be treasured, not abandoned in a dark corner, at risk of damage and decay.

For reasons I did not record, I took no pictures of some of the seats. Perhaps the carvings seemed insufficiently interesting, or perhaps I was defeated by those cushions.

 

Photographic Technique

Photographing misericords and stallwork generally is not particularly difficult but it requires some attention to detail, and experiment with the equipment to be used. It also requires personal flexibility; taking up a suitable position to photograph a seat, at low level and with the stall in front impeding access, can require a good deal of wriggling. It is usually best to sit on the floor with knees splayed, or the legs folded tailor fashion, so as not to appear in frame. Old clothes are essential; choir stall floors are rarely dust free. The worst hazard is choirboys' discarded chewing gum, encountered on several occasions. Protruding nails and screws need to be watched for and hassock hooks can be a quite literal pain in the neck. Sometimes seats will not stay propped up; an old hymn sheet folded into a wedge usually solves the problem. Occasionally they are solidly jammed down and must be left unphotographed. Often the light is extremely poor, even with the church lights on, although this is not a problem at Wells, and to permit accurate focus on woodwork darkened by the centuries, or by centuries of varnish, a powerful hand lamp with a stand is essential. Given the option, autofocus should be disengaged. Left to itself, the camera may not select the most appropriate focal plane and at the low light levels typically encountered it may be unable to focus at all.

In the cramped conditions imposed by choirstalls it is usually essential to use a wide angle lens to achieve a picture of the complete seat: central subject and supporters. Even 35mm may be insufficient and 24mm or a wide angle zoom is probably ideal, but a 24mm lens demands a very close approach for detail pictures which may create difficulties in positioning the flash so that for these a 50mm lens with or without a close-up attachment, or a macro lens, may be preferable. Where necessary I use an N2 close up attachment on a 50mm standard lens. It is always wise to use a lens hood to minimise glare and a clear u/v filter to prevent accidental finger marks, or worse damage, to the front element proper.

Using the flash on camera risks unsatisfactory results: a flat effect with glare from polished surfaces; and at close range, flash on camera may not point very accurately at the subject. Conversely, too much lateral displacement on a bracket risks excessive shadowing and uneven coverage. Ideally a flash diffuser should be used, so long as the guide number is sufficient. A reflector might help fill deep shadows but this would be difficult to manage without an assistant and I never use one. Working so close to the subject, a white shirt sometimes seems to help. For consistency and maximum power I always use the flash, at full power, never automatic exposure. Importantly, when taking pictures of misericord seats and other dark stallwork the somewhat generous guide numbers quoted by flash manufacturers need to be divided by a factor of about 2.5; experiment with the individual flash is essential and ideally test pictures should be taken on location before proceeding to the full set. I seldom achieve this and in consequence not all my pictures are ideally exposed. Depth of field needs to be watched, but the combination of a reasonably powerful flash, the short flash to subject distance and a wide angle lens usually permits an aperture around f/8 - f/11, producing sufficient depth, despite that same short subject distance, the reduced guide number and a relatively slow film.

 

The Scans

The scans were made with a Nikon Coolscan III slide scanner, working with a PC running Windows 98. The scanner was driven using Nikon Scan 2.1 program. It was used at maximum resolution and basic factory settings, with a correction routine for minor dust marks and scratches switched in but with no colour, contrast or density corrections. No other processing was applied later, nor cropping, so that the slide edges still appear in the final pictures.

The scans were saved as. jpg files at maximum quality producing a file size about 4 Mb. Using JASC's Paint Shop Pro 6.0 program, these full-size scans were later resized, for user convenience, to derive smaller files, also in JPEG format. All these file series appeared on the original CD-ROM. The smallest appears here as the thumbnails in the table. The slide show was derived from resized files of about 1Mb, JPEG compressed by 75% and further compressed within the slide program itself.

 

Illustrated Table of Misericords

The numbering of the picture files in the table below refers to the filenames I gave the original scans, which have not been uploaded individually although they are used in the slide show where the numbers appear as captions. I follow Remnant's scheme, hence the names of all pictures of Remnant's 14th misericord commence we14. Close views of the main subject have the suffix 'm'. Following heraldic practice, supporters are designated sinister and dexter, left and right, but as viewed from the central carving looking outwards so that for the observer, sinister is to the right, dexter to the left. Accordingly, pictures of supporters are numbered for the seat with the suffix 's' or 'd'. Where there is more than one view of anything the alternative views are designated 'a', 'b' etc. Hence a general view of the 14th seat is we14, a second, detail view of the sinister supporter of the 14th seat is we14sb.

The table gives Remnant's number, my corresponding picture number, if any, or numbers where there is more than one picture of the seat concerned, a brief description of the carving depicted, usually Remnant's, although he is not infallible, and in the illustrated version of this document, a thumbnail of the picture.

 

 

Remnant no.

Picture no.

Description

Thumbnail

1

we01

Goat [broken]

2

we02

Griffin fighting a lion

3

we03

Man in hood and drawers riding a horse bare-back and back to front

we03m

4

we04

Hawk preying on a rabbit

We04m

5

we05

Mermaid [unfinished]

6

we06

Two popinjays [parrots] on a fruit tree

7

we07

Ape with a basket of fruit on his back [broken]

8

 

Monster with two bodies

 

9

 

Dog-headed griffin

 

10

 

Two goats butting each other [unfinished]

 

11

we11

Monkey holding an owl [unfinished]

12

 

Two dragons biting each others' tails

 

13

we13a

Ewe suckling lamb [unfinished]

we13b

14

 

Wyvern fighting horse

 

15

we15

Mermaid suckling lion

16

we16

Two men sitting on the ground disputing, the man to dexter holds a cup [broken], the other, to sinister, a pouch

17

we17

Cat preying on a mouse [unfinished]

we17m

18

 

Bat-winged monster

 

19

we19

Griffin eating a lamb

20

we20

Puppy biting a cat

we20m

21

we21

Man in a contorted posture supporting the seat

22

we22

Dog

23

we23

Cat playing a fiddle [cf. old nursery rhyme: 'Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle']

24

we24

Man seated on the ground thrusting a dagger through the head of a dragon with feathered wings

25

we25

Head of bishop in amice, chasuble and mitre [unfinished]

26

we26

Peacock

27

we27

Fox preaching to four geese, one of which has fallen asleep [broken]

28

we28

Cock crowing

29

we29

Sleeping lion

30

we30

Dragon with wings spread, asleep

31

we31

Man squatting on the ground with his hands on his knees

32

we32

Fox running with a goose in its mouth

33

we33

Remnant describes this as 'Man's head with ass's ears', I wonder whether it represents the face of a bat

34

 

Two monsters, male and female, caressing

 

35

we35

Man on his back, supporting the seat with his right hand and foot

36

we36

Lion with ass's ears

37

 

Hawk scratching its head

 

38

 

Cat sleeping

 

39

we39

Woman crouching on the ground with her right hand on her right shoulder and her left extended

40

we40

Dragon with hairy belly biting its back

41

we41

Two ducks

42

we42

Two dragons [unfinished]

43

 

Bat's head [unfinished]

 

44

we44

Man's head with bushy hair and beard and with a lion's leg growing out of each side

45

we45

Man in tunic and hood, lying on his right side and clasping his hands

46

we46

Man wearing girdled tunic and holding his head downwards, supporting the seat with his back and left hand

46

we46m

47

we47

Lady's head with hair in a curl on each side, wearing an ornate fillet

48

we48

Lion sleeping

49

we49

Bat with wings extended

50

 

Angel's head with amice around neck and extended wings

 

51

we51

Lion

52

we52

Two doves, or parrots, drinking from a ewer standing in a basin

53

we53

Squirrel in a collar and lead, held by a monkey

54

we54

Wood-pigeon feeding

55

we55

Man riding and whipping a lion

56

we56

Remnant describes this as 'Boar and a cat with cloven feet walking away from each other', I think it is more likely a boar and sow, the sow broken

57

we57

Eagle with wings spread [unfinished]

58

we58

Head and shoulders of a man who supports the seat with his hands

59

we59

Rabbit

60

we60

Two-legged beast looking back at its tail, which is formed of 3 oak leaves on one stem

61

we61

displayed in choir aisle

Man in hood and loose tunic thrusting a spear down the throat of a dragon

62

we62

displayed in choir aisle

[17th century] Boy with long wavy hair and wearing a gown, lying on his side and drawing a thorn out of his foot

63

we63

Pelican in her piety [wounding her own breast to feed her young, a symbol of Man's redemption through the blood of Christ]

64

we64

displayed in choir aisle

The flight of Alexander [Alexander was supposed to have harnessed two Griffins, which he then tempted to fly with meat impaled on two spears so as to carry him up into the sky]

V&A 1

we-va

Crouching man with his feet curled up beneath him, supporting the seat with his elbows

we-vama

we-vamb

Supporters

 

All the original misericords have as supporters bosses of naturalistic foliage. Remnant identifies specimens of oak, maple, vine, rose, marshmallow, ivy and beech, with other plants and trees.

 

 

Copyright ę

Copyright in the pictures is the property of the Wells Cathedral authorities, whose permission must be sought for any publication for profit. I shall be grateful for suitable acknowledgement in the event of any further reproduction, whether for profit or not, including reproduction in electronic form.

Copyright in the text of this document remains with myself as author. Subject to acknowledgement of authorship it may be freely reproduced in whole or in part, quoted from or cited for the purpose of personal research or study and all other non-profit-making purposes. Reproduction or quotation with a view to profit requires my leave, which is unlikely to be withheld but may be made contingent on a suitable charitable contribution.

 

Eric Webb

01 March 2000

 

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