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Misericords for Heaven's Sake
by Chris Pye

About the author: Chris Pye has been woodcarving since 1975, originally studying under master woodcarver Gino Masero. His commissioned work ranges from architectural to figure carving; including furniture, lettering, bedheads, fireplaces, mythical and abstract sculpture. Below, an excerpt from Chris Pye's online newsletter, Slipstones, in which he answers questions and gives advice to visitors about his craft...

What's a misericord?

Misericords are found in larger churches but not just minsters and cathedrals, small rural churches too - basically wherever there was an association with, or communities of, monks.

Monk's prayed and chanted a lot - an awful lot - gathering in their stalls in the choir of the church to pray and chant many times throughout the day and night. Tiring work, but they did each have a seat in their stalls to sit on some of the time.

MisericordThis seat could be flipped up out of the way when they stood to chant. But standing to chant for hours on end was also very tiring.

At some point, monks seats were designed with a small ledge, a bracket or corbel, on the underside so that the poor monk could perch and rest while standing.

The monk looked as if he was standing while actually sitting - a bit of a cheat really!

It is this little, extra ledge or seat that is really the 'misericord'; the name comes from the Latin 'to have pity on'.

The Gothic, Medieval, period in Britain was a rich one for artistic invention and this inventiveness was quickly applied to misericords. The whole seat was carved from as solid block of oak and carvers soon used the spare material for their imaginations.

When you see a picture of a misericord, as below, the seat itself has been lifted and rests vertically against the back of the stall.

You are looking under the seat at the carving. The flat top above the carving is the second 'ledge' for the monk to rest on when he stood.

MisericordSince the carving was hidden most of the time - always when the seat was down, and mostly when a monk stood in front of it - subject matter was broad.

Subjects ranged from the educational (bible stories) to scatological humour (remember the monk was sitting just on it!); fabulous beasts such as dragons and mermaids to proverbs, stories, political satire and the hurly-burly of everyday life.

Many misericords have meanings that can only be guessed at now.

Misericords show an extraordinary diversity and were a unique opportunity for self-expression and individuality.

Humour is a strong thread in misericord carving - I've been amazed by what carvers could get away with, but this applies to other carving (such as Green Men) that you find in churches in this period. Misericord

One also finds extensions of this carving style in wooden panels, arm and hand rests, and the ends of pews for example.

Bear in mind that we are talking substantial sculpture here: a starting block in hard English Oak might be 12" x 12" in section and 18" long.

Not bad without power tools!

Carving quality ranges from the crude and poorly executed to some of the most sophisticated that we have from this period. Always, though, you can see the hands of the makers: the tool cuts and marks; and the patina of wear over hundreds of years.

I'll put up a category of links and books on misericords on the website when I can. There is plenty of material 'out there' to look at.

More resources about woodcarving on the Web:

Chris Pye Woodcarving

More resources about misericords on the Web:

The Exeter Misericords

The Misericords Lecture

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