A Gallery of Misericords: The Woodworkers

Master Carver with Apprentices, ca. 1419, Kings Lynn (Victoria and Albert Museum).

Master Carver with Apprentices, ca. 1419, Kings Lynn (Victoria and Albert Museum).

After carving scenes from the Bible, parables, the local trades and a full range of human foibles a carver of misericords might turn his skills to a depiction of his craft. The Kings Lynn Master Carver is probably the most well-known and finely-carved misericord. In the space of about 10″ by 22″ (25:4 cm by 56 cm) the carver has the master at his bench, two apprentices at a bench to the left and a third figure approaches from the right with a jug. Their carving tools can easily be seen on each bench. Framing the workshop are the letter ‘W’ with a saw and the letter ‘V’ with a chisel. Remarkable work.

If you aren’t familiar with the misericord it is a carving on the underside of a seat in a choir stall. The top of the seat has a small ledge with the carving below. During religious services choir members had to stand for long periods. For relief they could lean back on the ledge. The modern equivalent is perching on your luggage as you wait at the departure gate because your flight has been delayed. The information sheet for the Kings Lynn misericord has excellent details on misericords and their history.

15th c., Martinkirk, Bolsward, Netherlands. Vandalised by soldiers in 1580.

15th c., Martinkirk, Bolsward, Netherlands. Vandalised by soldiers in 1580.

There are thousands of misericords in churches across Europe and in museums worldwide. Many misericords were destroyed or vandalised for religious reasons, lost or stolen during restorations, or lost during wars. Today, misericords are extremely vulnerable due to their age and also to theft. In many you will see missing pieces:  heads, arms, tools.

15th c., Musee de Cluny, originally from Beauvais?

15th c., Musee de Cluny, originally from Beauvais (?), France.

Several groups have been working to accumulate photographs of misericords and organize them by location and country. Because of differences in descriptions, or a lack of description, it can be difficult to locate misericords that feature a particular subject. A woodworking scene might be described as ‘carpentry’ or ‘occupation’ or have no description at all. There are also plenty of books that are helping to preserve the record of misericords.

Carver working on a rose, 15th c., St. Nicholas, Great Doddington, Northampshire.

Another classic: Carver working on a rose, 15th c., St. Nicholas, Great Doddington, Northampshire.

I’ve been accumulating misericords that feature woodworkers and so far have found 17 from six countries. With each one there are usually tools to note, maybe a workbench to study, or a new body position to try.

You can be your own holdfast, St. Christopher Church, Baden Baden, Germany.

15th c., Christopher Church, Baden Baden, Germany.

We can’t always see exactly what the carver is working on but at least one carver from Oude Kerk made sure we did.

Working a misericord, 1480, Oude Kirk, Amsterdam.

Working a misericord, 1480, Oude Kerk, Amsterdam.

The Rigoley Brothers carved 26 choir stalls for La Collegiale Notre Dame in Montreal en Bourgogne, France. Larger carvings of the life of Christ were done at the end of each row. Atop a few of the end pieces are three dimensional scenes. Below is St. Joseph’s workshop.

1520, La Collegiale Notre Dame, Montreal en Bourgogne, France.

1520, La Collegiale Notre Dame, Montreal en Bourgogne, France (portion).

Adorning the top you will notice a decidely non-biblical scene. The two men enjoying their wine are none other than the Brothers Rigoley toasting themselves.

The gallery has the rest of the roundup. If you happen to see more photos of a woodworking misericord please post a link in comments and include the location of the piece.

Suzanne Ellison

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23 Responses to A Gallery of Misericords: The Woodworkers

  1. What a great article. I have long been interested in misericordia having been a chorister and a carver. I was given an excellent book called “The World Turned Upside Down” that used to be about the only book on the subject. Theft of these from churches is a very real problem one has recently been stolen fro a church near me in Southern England. Once gone they can never be replaced – except I am going to try making a couple as I enjoy carving. If I can get them to look good enough I will offer to make a replacement for the stolen masterpiece.

  2. Coming from the other end of the spectrum, I was completely unaware of this art form. Thank you for sharing, that’s an amazing form of expression.

  3. momist says:

    Wonderful. I wonder what Chris has to say about the table in that seen of the Brothers Rigoley toasting themselves? Looks to me like a trestle with three legs one end, and two the other.

    • momist says:

      scene!?? I don’t usually do such typos. Sorry.

    • flatironjoe says:

      Looks like the third leg and stretcher on the other side were broken off. You can see the remnants in the second gallery picture of the table from the other back side. Interesting that the two triangles of the trestles were oriented opposite each other, as I’ve most often seen them on the same side.

  4. Fascinating as always! Now I want to make some stools of the sort that the Rigoley Brothers are sitting upon. Can you tell if the tops are actually slanted, or if that’s just distorted perspective? 😉

  5. Eric R says:

    Your finds are always top notch.
    Humbling to see work that has survived so many hundreds of years intact.
    Makes me want to carve something into my next piece that I expect to last a long time.
    Thank you.

  6. nrhiller says:

    These are fabulous. Thanks for sharing them.

  7. nealm44 says:

    Great stuff, as always. Interesting touches in the descriptions you’ve assembled (“vandalized by soldiers” during the Eighty Years’ War). Some things never change. Thanks for making the results of your research available as you do.

  8. tsstahl says:

    I’m always floored by the fine detail they manage to work into the pieces.

    Also, the cheek of seemingly most of the artists! When I was in Europe doing the tourist thing, we always seemed to find, or have pointed out, bits of whimsy, and/or irreverence in paintings, sculpture, and carvings.

  9. fitz says:

    You are a researcher without parallel; I’m so impressed. (And misericords look about as comfortable as the edge of my suitcase.)

  10. colsdave says:

    For thoselike me who are having a hard time visualizing where these were created and how they functioned, Wikipedia has some helpful images: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misericord#/media/File:Boston_Stump_misericord_02.JPG https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misericord

  11. I love these, they’re beautiful! One tiny correction: in Amsterdam it’s the Oude Kerk, not Oude Kirk.

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