- Place of origin:
ca. 1441-1445 (made)
Bruyn, Claes de (possibly, carver)
- Materials and Techniques:
- Credit Line:
Given by Mr J. H. Fitzhenry, Esq.
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Medieval and Renaissance, room 10, case FS
'Misericord' is the name given to the ledge supported by a corbel or bracket, set on the underside of the hinged seats in the choirs of churches. They had no religious function but gave some support to the monks and clergy in the long parts of the services when standing was required. This explains the name 'misericord', which comes from the Latin for mercy. The decoration was often amusing and sometimes moral.
This misericord is one of a set of eighteen which were given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1910 by a Mr. J.H. Fitzhenry Esq.. It was originally thought to come from a church in Northampton but the lack of supporters (the name for carved extensions on either side of a misericord, which were a feature typical of English misericords) suggests that it comes from Continental Europe.
Parallels between these misericords and those in the church of St Peter in Leuven, Belgium has lead the Dutch misericord specialist J.A.J.M. Verspaandonk to suggest that they may have been carved by the same person – a Brussels craftsman named Claes de Bruyn.
It is not known what this particular misericord was meant to signify to its contemporary audience of monks. However, the subject fits into the general tradition of misericords depicting material related to everyday life or moral tales rather than overtly religious subjects. It is possible that the design for the birds was based on a contemporary playing-card illustration.
Made of a solid, rectangular (landscape) piece of oak. From the lower edge of the choir seat the left side goes out at a slight angle to about half the height of the seat (approx 15 cm). The equivalent part of the right side (approx 13 cm high) is straight. At this 'half-way' point both sides slope inwards for a length of approx. 15 and 12.5 cm respectively before the edge is cut away, approx 2cm further into the seat. The edges then continue at the same angle as previously for 7.5cm on the left side and 10cm on the right. This creates a step effect along the upper half of the left and right edges.
Two bolts for hinges are visible on the front face (the face with the misericord on it) near the lower edge toward the left and right side. A recess of approx 4cm width occurs on the underside of the lower edge to accommodate a hinge. The eqivalent recess toward the right end of the lower edge has been eradicated by the loss of wood at this corner. However, in both instances the hinge, formed of two hinge plates, is still in place - in each case one hinge plate is nailed (with 3 nails) to the back face (the face you would have seen when the choir seat was down to be sat on) and one swings freely, held in place by the bolt referred to above (when in use, the 'swinging' hinge-plates would have fixed the choir seat to the stalls).
The misericord itself comprises a pseudo-rectangular ledge, the front of which has rounded corners. Beneath this is a collar of wood set about one or two cms in from the edge of the misericord ledge above. Beneath this collar is a smooth tapering bracket. Some of the bracket is obscured by a carving of two birds, probably storks, positioned back to back and with their necks bent backward so that their heads touch - in effect they form the mirror image of each other.
Place of Origin
ca. 1441-1445 (made)
Bruyn, Claes de (possibly, carver)
Materials and Techniques
Height: 30 cm, Width: 77.7 cm maximum, Depth: 10 cm, Weight: 4.6 kg
Object history note
This misericord is one of a set of eighteen which were given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1910 by a Mr. J.H. Fitzhenry Esq. of London. He had purchased them from Sir Edward Barry (who had himself offered them to the V&A for sale at an earlier date but the offer was not accepted) of Ockwells Manor, Berkshire. Sir Barry had acquired them in 1903 from Fenton & Sons of 11 New Oxford Street. The misericords had previously been sold at a sale in 1902 at Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, prior to which they had been in the possession of a Mr. Naylor.
It was originally assumed that Mr Naylor had obtained the misericords from a church in Northampton. However, the lack of ‘supporters’ (the name for carved extensions on either side of the misericord), a distinctive feature of almost all choir stalls in England but rarely found in examples from Continental Europe, immediately suggests Continental origins.
The likelihood that the misericords originate from the Southern Netherlands has been investigated at length by the Dutch misericord specialist J.A.J.M. Verspaandonk. He draws some very convincing parallels with these misericords and the remainder of the set found in the church of St Peter in Leuven, Belgium (see J.A.J.M. Verspaandonk, ‘Laatgotische Zuidnederlandse misericorden in het Victoria & Albert Museum to London’, Antiek, June/July, 1986, pp.12-21). He even goes so far as to suggest they were carved by the same hand – that of Claes de Bruyn, a craftsman from Brussels who worked at St Peter’s between 1438 and 1441. Verspaadonk also draws less emphatic parallels between the V&A misericords and a set dating to 1440 found at the Gote Kerk, Breda.
Historical significance: It is not known for certain what this particular misericord was meant to signify to its contemporary audience of monks. However, in general, most figurative ‘art’ of this period was intended to be read in a certain way or to evoke certain specific associations. The subject of two birds, almost certainly storks, standing back to back with their necks and heads bent backwards in the act of ‘bill-clattering’, a display most commonly performed when the stork is on the nest, fits into the general tradition of misericords depicting material related to everyday life or moral tales rather than overtly religious subjects.
It is likely there is some link between the inclusion of these birds and their representation in the Bestiary, a medieval text (derived from the work of Pliny), often illustrated, which interpreted the characteristics of specific birds and animals to draw moral parallels for society (a bit like Aesop’s fables – think the hare and the tortoise). However, I have not been able to find out the nature of the moral message associated with the stork. They were known in medieval times for their hostility to snakes, a fact which may have carried some sort of biblical connotation (for discussion of storks in the medieval Bestiary see The Naming of the Beasts, Natural History in the Medieval Bestiary, Wilma George and Brunsdon Yapp, London, 1991, pp.126-128 NAL ref. NB.98.1797) but their exact significance is unclear.
While the Dutch misericord specialist J.A.J.M. Verspaandonk makes a good argument for the storks in the V&A misericord being based specifically on a contemporary playing-card illustration (see below), storks in the act of ‘bill-clattering’, have been depicted in Bestiary’s since as early as the twelfth century. It is therefore possible, especially when you consider the other misericords in the V&A set, such as W.38-1910 depicting a pelican with its young, a representation which has strong roots in the Bestiary, that the storks were based on other sources or perhaps even taken from real-life observation.
Verspaandonk draws no parallels between this misericord and those at St Peter’s, Leuven, beyond pointing out that the shape of the corbel, which tapers at the bottom of the misericord between the two storks, is a distinctive feature of the composition of several examples from both sets of misericords. He does however point out the likelihood of a similar source for the depiction of the storks on this misericord and two at the Church of Our Lady in Breda. Verspaandonk argues that the storks found in both sets of misericords are based on a set of playing cards illustrated by an Upper-Rhine engraver active between 1430 and 1450 and subsequently known as the Master of the Playing Cards. The card game originated in about 1435 and was copied, apparently becoming a source for wood carvings such as the misericords and also medieval manuscripts – for example the Book of Hours by the Master of Catherine of Cleves. According to Verspaandonk the V&A storks are based on the central bird depicted on the five-of-birds.
Historical context note
Misericord is the name given to the ledge supported by a corbel which is revealed when the hinged seats in medieval choir stalls are tipped up. The word comes from the Latin misericordia which means pity and alludes to the original function of the ledge.
The rule of St Benedict, introduced in the sixth century AD, required the monks to sing the eight daily offices of the Church (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers and Compline) standing up. They were only permitted to sit during the Epistle and Gradual at Mass and the Response at Vespers. Such long hours spent standing was particularly arduous for the older and weaker monks and they soon adopted a leaning staff or crutch to help take the weight off their feet.
By the eleventh century the rules were slightly relaxed and misericords were introduced – the monks were able to perch on the ledge and lean back slightly, taking much of the weight off their feet whilst still giving the appearance of standing up straight. They were in use wherever the monks were required to sing the daily offices, including cathedrals, abbeys and collegiate churches. They sometimes even appeared in Parish churches.
The earliest mention of misericords appears in the eleventh century in the rules of the monastery of Hirsau in Germany. It is not known when they were introduced in Britain but the earliest surviving examples are found at Hemingbrough in North Yorkshire and Christchurch in Dorset. Both date from the early thirteenth century. The earliest complete set of misericords is in Exeter Cathedral and dates from 1240 to 1270.
The choir seat, the ledge and the corbel supporting it were made of a single piece of wood, usually oak. The corbel provided an ideal platform for medieval craftsmen to carve all manner of narrative scenes and decoration. British misericords differ from those elsewhere in Europe by having subsidiary carvings on either side of the central corbel. These are known as supporters and are often used to develop the theme introduced in the carving of the corbel.
Over half of the misericords in Britain are decorated with foliage but of those which do have narrative decoration, both in Britain and on the Continent, very few depict religious subjects. More common themes included scenes of everyday life and moral tales, often being depicted in a humerous way.
Whether, as has been suggested, the lack of religious scenes was because the hidden location of the misericords meant craftsmen were more free to be creative with their carving, or whether the monks would have thought it inappropriate to sit on images of Christ, Saints or biblical scenes is not known. However, their lack of overt religious content together with their concealed physical position probably contributed to a large number of them surviving the Reformation and still existing today.
Information taken mainly from:
Church Misericords and Bench Ends, Richard Hayman, Shire Publications, Buckinghamshire, 1989 (no copy in the NAL)
The World Upside-Down – English Misericords, Christa Grössinger, London, 1997
(NAL = 273.H.95)
Misericord depicting two storks back to back with their necks bent backwards, Southern Netherlands, ca 1441-45, oak, possibly carved by Claes de Bruyn
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Continental Church Furniture in England - A Traffic in Piety, Charles Tracy, Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 2001, pp.253-255, pl.315
'Laatgotische Zuidnederlandse misericorden in het Victoria & Albert Museum te London', Antiek, J.A.J.M. Verspaandonk, June/July, 1986, pp.12-21
The possible name of the carver, date of manufacture and place of manufacture are all taken from Charles Tracy's catalogue entry (for the collection of eighteen misericords that W.35-1910 is a part of) in Continental Church Furniture in England - A Traffic in Piety, Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, 2001, p.253.