EXPERT OPINION Christina Trevanion
Lots of Love Christina Trevanion is upstanding in her praise of misericords, which for centuries helped flagging monks and choristers
When you walk through the doors of a church, your first instinct is to cast your eyes upwards to the grandiose ceilings, magnificent marble arches and the jewel-
coloured windows. With so much grandeur to behold, it is easy to get lost in the wonders on high. However, some of the more interesting sights may be a little closer to Earth than you might think.
Left Misericords on the choir seats in the basilica of Saint-Denis, Paris
Above right A late 15th-century carved oak misericord, designed as a dragon, c. 1480
Below left The late 15th-century carved oak misericord modelled as a green man sold for £2,800
Standing support A misericord, also known as a mercy seat, is a small ledge which can be found attached to the bottom of the folding seats of a church’s choir stalls. They originated in 11th-century Germany as an aid for devoted monks and choristers during long periods of prayer, for which they were required to stand with uplifted hands. Their name is derived from the Latin misericordia meaning ‘pity of the heart’, referring to the relief they provide for the elderly and infirm.
Though the purpose of misericords is more practical than decorative, medieval church leaders only commissioned them from the most skilled craftsman. Many were carved from a single panel of wood, usually oak or chestnut, and many carvings are of an exceptional quality with fine details. Further, as they were often hidden or obscured from public view, carvers were allowed more creative freedom and misericords became something of a subversive art form.
Pagan scenes The vast majority of English misericords depict secular or pagan scenes, entirely unlike the Christian icons that surround them. While biblical scenes were not uncommon, many examples drew inspiration from folklore, with green man masks in foliate surrounds being common. Others depicted exotic creatures such as elephants and hyenas found in medieval bestiaries, and mythological beasts such as mermaids and wyverns.
By the 13th century, misericords were commonplace in cathedrals and chapels across Europe. However, only a fraction of those produced survive today – the tradition fell into abeyance after the Reformation in the 16th century. A great number were destroyed in later years by iconoclasts and reformers, or were broken up and repurposed, often used in ship building in the Napoleonic wars.
Dedicated collector Pre-16th century examples rarely come under the hammer, but when they do, they attract tremendous interest. We recently sold a late 15th-century carved oak misericord modelled as a green man for £2,800. It had the most beautiful patina and it tickled me to think of all the thousands of bottoms that contributed to it over the years.
Christina Trevanion is managing director and founder of Shropshire’s Trevanion Auctioneers & Valuers as well as a regular face on a number of antiques programmes.
10 ANTIQUE COLLECTING
‘The misericord had a beautiful patina and it tickled me to think of the thousands of bottoms that contributed to it over the years’