Posted on: 7 January 2022

The Joy of Misericords

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.

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 a standing 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.

lot 437 – A late 15th century carved oak misericord

Though the purpose of misericords is more practical than decorative, medieval church leaders only commissioned 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. The vast majority of English misericords, for example, 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. 

lot 450 – A late 15th century carved oak misericord section

By the 13th century misericords were common place 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, and 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.  Today, the majority of remaining examples can be found in churches or other religious buildings in France or the United Kingdom, with smaller numbers scattered throughout Europe.

Pre-16th century examples rarely come under the hammer, but when they do, they attract tremendous interest. This month, we are excited to be offering a 15th century oak example modelled as a green man mask. “This is a rare opportunity for bidders to purchase a unique piece of ecclesiastical and social history” says Managing Director Christina Trevanion. “Misericords of this period are rare, and it’s unusual to find an example in such lovely condition.  It has a beautiful patina, and it tickles me to think of the thousands of  bottoms that have contributed to this over the years!”

View the fully illustrated online catalogue (including the items pictured above) for our auction on Wednesday 12th January here