Misericords (Kathismata)

NOTE: Misericords are found to this day on kathismata, the choir stalls used by Eastern Orthodox monastics. These tend to be much simpler than their Western counterparts, usually being a simple strip of rounded wood with little or no ornamentation. Their use is very common in the Greek Orthodox Church, though Russian Orthodox monasteries tend not to have individual choir stalls, but simple benches for the brethren to sit on. Orthodox Christians stand throughout the long divine services, rather than sit or kneel, though some seating is provided for the elderly and infirm. Whereas Greek monks will tend to lean in their stalls during the services, Russian monks usually stand upright. In the male monasteries, some of the larger monks who cannot fit comfortably in their stasidia have a blessing to sit in the comfortable arm chairs inside the altar until Liturgy starts.

With the seat lifted (left), the misericord provides a ledge to support the user (Boston, Lincolnshire)
With the seat lifted (left), the misericord provides a ledge to support the user (Boston, Lincolnshire)

As the ‘hidden’ position and ‘vernacular’ iconography of misericords have prompted them to be seen as a subversive art-form, they have re-appeared as motifs in modern art and literature. http://www.misericords.co.uk/index.html

Misericord, Norwich Cathedral
Misericord, Norwich Cathedral

According to monastic rule, monks were required to observe holy offices several times a day. They were also required to stand while doing so, in individual stalls in the part of the church known as the choir (or quire). As a concession to elderly or otherwise infirm monks, who found standing for long periods difficult, the stalls were modified to include a small shelf on which the monks could lean, thus allowing them to sit while appearing to stand. The shelf was called a misericord or mercy seat, from the Latin word for mercy, misericordia. Misericords are attached to the underside of the stall bench, which could be raised or lowered; the misericord is only visible (and useable) when the bench is raised.

Amphisbaena - two-headed mythical animal - Misericord Limerick Cathedral, Ireland (15th century)
Amphisbaena – two-headed mythical animal – Misericord Limerick Cathedral, Ireland (15th century)

The earliest misericords appeared around the eleventh century, and continued to be made into the sixteenth century. They are found all over northern Europe, though they were most popular in England. Many English misericords were destroyed or removed during king Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, but many remain.

Arrowless Centaur (Villefranchede-Rouergue, France)
Arrowless Centaur (Villefranchede-Rouergue, France)

The earliest misericords were simple shelves, without much decoration. Later ones were elaborately carved with scenes and images of all kinds; bestiary, fable, and other animal images were especially popular. The stall bench and the misericord with its decorations was usually carved from a single piece of oak, and attached to the stall sides with pivot pins.

Devil's Dance and Spectators go upside down (Chichester Cathedral)
Devil’s Dance and Spectators go upside down (Chichester Cathedral)

The misericord seat is usually rounded for comfort, is carved out of the same piece of oak as the stall bench, and rests on the main carving in the middle. The monk would sit on the bracket while leaning against the stall back; he could rest his hands on the carved arm rest at either side. In English misericords the bracket was usually continued horizontally with the supporter, which curves downward and ends in a carving. Supporters are not generally found on non-English misericords. The carving on the supporters sometimes relates to the central carving, but is often entirely separate with a different theme.

Dishonest Alewife gets sorted by devils. On the left a devil reads out a list of her misdemeanors (St Laurence Church,  Ludlow)
Dishonest Alewife gets sorted by devils. On the left a devil reads out a list of her misdemeanors (St Laurence Church, Ludlow)

The carvings highly variable in content and quality. Some are crudely carved; others are finely finished and polished. The subject matter includes simple foliate decorations; narrative or allegorical biblical scenes; bestiary animals and narratives; scenes of everyday life; satire, usually at the expense of clergy; monsters and grotesques; scenes from fables and secular tales; scatalogical images; and even scenes of profane love, romance and sex.

Mermaid with mirror but no comb-temptress of men (St. Laurence Church, Ludlow)
Mermaid with mirror but no comb-temptress of men (St. Laurence Church, Ludlow)

Animal themes are very common. Many are taken directly from the Physiologus or the bestiaries; these are often explicitly allegorical. Since the bestiary accounts were so commonly known, some of the carvings merely imply the allegory by a simple portrayal of a beast displaying one of its accepted characteristics; thus a carving of a mermaid holding a comb and mirror would be understood to warn of the sin of vanity, and a carving of a lion fighting a dragon would be understood to represent the battle between Christ (the lion) and Satan (the dragon). Some misericord carvings can be shown to have been copied directly from illustrations in bestiary manuscripts; others suggest that the carver was working from a description and had no idea what the beast was supposed to look like, and so just used his imagination. Most carvings are stylized and are arranged to fit in the available space, though some of the animals are realistically carved.

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Misericord Great Malvern Priory Misericord Norwich Cathedral 2

The tales of Reynard the Fox were a popular source for misericord carvings. The adventures and downfall of the trickster fox are shown in narrative scenes on several misericords; Bristol Cathedral has a series of them, and they also appear individually elsewhere.

Misericord Wyvern, Great Malvern Priory, UK
Misericord Wyvern, Great Malvern Priory, UK

Additional sources of animal images on misericords include the so-called “scenes of everyday life” which often include domestic animals; Classical mythology and stories from the east, including depictions of Alexander the Great’s griffin powered flight; and animal scenes from the Bible, such as Daniel in the lion’s den and Samson fighting a lion.

Harpy, Ulm Minster Germany
Harpy, Ulm Minster Germany
A triple-faced Green Man, Cartmel Priory, UK
A triple-faced Green Man, Cartmel Priory, UK

Concerning Stasidia, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes, “Compunction and tears are engendered by the outwards postures of the body; that is, when one prays with head uncovered; when he has the attitude of a condemned man standing before the judge; when he smites his breast like the Publican; when he keeps his eyes inclined downwards; when he gathers his thoughts in his heart; when he stands upright in his Stasidion. Indeed, Stasidia were designed for this very purpose, to support the arms of Christians and to maintain them in the posture of one praying throughout the time that they are standing in Church. This would be impossible if there were no Stasidia, since the arms of those at prayer would become weary if held up to God for a long period of time. That lifting the hands in prayer was a custom of the Prophets and Apostles is attested, on the one hand, by the Divine David, who says, “Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice,” (Ps. 140:2) and, on the other hand, by the great Paul, who says, “I desire therefore that men pray in every place, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and disputing” (1 Tim. 2:8). To put it briefly, Stasidia sustain Christians in Church in the form of one crucified, and through such a form of the Cross Christians overcome the passions and the demons, invoking the help of the crucified Savior. In this way, Moses, held up by Hur and Aaron in the form of a Cross, overcame the Amalekites (Exo. 17:11-12). These outward and venerable postures, I say, give rise to compunction and tears in prayer. For the soul within conforms to the outward postures of the body, according to St. John the Ladder, who says: “The soul imitates the activities of the body, is molded in accordance with what the whole body does, and is made to conform thereto” (Ladder, 25). (Christian Morality pg. 492)

Choir Stalls at Saint-Pierre Church in Coutances
Choir Stalls at Saint-Pierre Church in Coutances
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