More Misericords: The Carvers

Quarreling Carvers, 1520, Beverley Minster, Great Britain

Quarreling Carvers, 1520, Beverley Minster, Great Britain

Over the weekend I plowed through several thousand photos on my mission to gather together misericords featuring woodworkings. I found enough examples to split into two posts: today are the carvers and (perhaps) the carpenters will be posted by next weekend. The carvers and their tools are from France, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and Great Britain.

Mallet, 1520-1525, St. Laurent Church, Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland.

Mallet, 1520-1525, St. Laurent Church, Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland.

There is a huge range of detail from one misericord to the next. From the simplicity of the mallet to a highly detailed scene of a carver at work on a statue. One carver might have been contracted, and paid by the day, to provide all the misericords in a church. In other instances a master carved was hired to plan all the carvings and oversee a crew of carvers.

Carver working on a figural piece, 1497-1503, Cathedral of Plasencia, Spain.

Carver working on a figural piece, 1497-1503, Cathedral of Plasencia, Spain.

The misericord below was categorized as ‘Forestry’ but it looks like a woodworker is riving a block of wood for a misericord.

Riving, 1457-1470, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Rouen, France.

Riving, 1457-1470, Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Rouen, France.

In another French church two carvers are found working on a misericord.

Misericord Workshop, 1413, Church of Notre-Dame des Grands-Andelys, France.

Misericord Workshop, 1413, Church of Notre-Dame des Grands-Andelys, France.

In the entries for two churches I found the same misericord listed.  The lighting and angle of the photos are different but the missing piece on the carver’s face, his clothes, number of fingers and tools are the same. This misericord mystery is just a case of to which church in East-central France does it actually belong.

Left: 1490-1500, Church of St. Paul, Bletterans, France. Right: 15th c. St.-Thomas-de-Cantorbery, Cuiseaux, France.

À gauche: 1490-1500, St. Paul, Bletterans, ou à droite: 15th c. St.-Thomas-de-Cantorbery, Cuiseaux ?

Some of the oldest misericords in Great Britain are in Exeter Cathedral. The elegant arms in the misercord below are dated 1220-1270. If you would like to read a short section (54 pages) about the Exeter misericords including a bit about their construction, how they were moved within the cathedral and some destructive ‘work’ here is a link to “The Misericords of Exeter Cathedral” written by Kate M. Clarke in 1920. Note: the remainder of the book is about other non-misericord sites in Devon

Possibly a gift of the Glovers Guild, 1220-1270, Exeter Cathedral, Great Britain.

Possibly a gift of the Glovers Guild, 1220-1270, Exeter Cathedral, Great Britain.

If you have any confusion on the configuration of a seat in a choir stall and the location of the misericords the two figures below should help. In the photo the red arrow points to a seat that is down. At the front edge of the seat you can see a small ledge or bracket. The back row of choir stalls shows the seats up and the location of the misericords.

Seats down in front row, seats up in back row. Aren't those stools at the front of the photo fabulous?

Seats down in front row, seats up in back row. Aren’t those stools in front of the choir stalls fabulous?

Another view of ‘Seats Up/Seats Down’ is from the delightful little book “Choir Stalls and Their Carvings – Examples of Misericords from English Cathedrals and Churches” written and illustrated by Emma Phipson in 1896. You can find it here.

From "Choir Stalls and Their Carvings" by Emma Phipson, 1896.

From “Choir Stalls and Their Carvings” by Emma Phipson, 1896.

The gallery has several more carvers or ‘kervers’ for you to enjoy.

Suzanne Ellison

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14 Responses to More Misericords: The Carvers

  1. Thank you, thank you. A wonderful feast of delicious tiny carving of great importance preserved largely because they remained hidden when ignorant religious bigots destroyed or defaced all images of people in churches throughout Europe. It is exactly the same as the recent destructive efforts of ISIS terrorists in the Middle East – thats right they learnt it from our vandals.

    This set of pictures is particularly useful to me as the carver preparing a blank by cleaving provided information about grain direction that is difficult to determine from the carvings themselves. It explains why damage is often of parts that form the closest point to the viewer as the weakest grain would be there. It also explains why the figures are beautifully wound around to use the strongest grain sections of the blank.

    It has to be realised that most of these are of oak which is so hard it is difficult to carve full size let alone in these miniature scenes. They must have selected very fine grained oak from areas that tended to make trees grow slowly i.e. thin hungry soil in windswept dry areas. This dense grain structure would have made the wood even harder. Goodness only knows how I am going to get hold of the wood for my project to replace one stolen from a church near me. I shall have to download and print off all these posts and their photographs.

    • pfollansbee says:

      Bernard – a couple of thoughts about oak. If it were difficult to carve, “they” wouldn’t have carved so much of it. Close-grained oak, i.e. slow-grown oak is actually weaker & less dense than faster-grown oak. Being ring-porous, each growth ring has a series of open pores – the “spring wood” or “early wood” – the more rings, the more open pores. I always carve oak – usually riven from green wood. I carve it while it still has a significantly high moisture content. works great. I prefer slow-grown oak when I can find it, it works more easily. for me, the real trick/question about the misericords is how they worked such large sections without them checking.

      • Yes I agree that checking is a potential problem and I suspect they were only carved in well seasoned wood. Then they would have been much harder. There again they might have been so small that they did not check – who knows. I will stick to seasoned timber normalised to where it will be displayed. I use lime wood so in comparison oak is extremely hard. Do you find that you need to use a carving mallet and a different cutting angle to work on oak.

      • Mr. Follansbee does indeed use a mallet. He detailed his carving kit here: https://pfollansbee.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/carving-tools-i-use-for-oak-furniture/

        I am a novice carver myself, but I can say from what little experience I have that lime/basswood requires a much lower bevel angle than oak. I have tried to carve lime with tools that worked beautifully on oak, walnut, and even yellow-poplar, and I found that the end grain simply crushed rather than slicing cleanly. The low bevel angles that you can get away with on lime would fold over if you tried to use them on oak. They are very different woods and the tools that are optimized for one will not work well on the other.

        Also, I will say that I doubt that these carvings were done exclusively (or even predominately) in seasoned wood, though I have no physical evidence to support my belief. The time required to fully dry such thick stock, as well as the additional effort in carving it, would probably not have been a fair tradeoff for the reduced risk of checking.

        • They probably stored up a stock of cleaved wood over any years much as we might today. Having looked at these for many years and being acquainted with the publisher of the definitive book on the subject.plus study of many other liturgical oak carvings I have never seen one single check. In the same building oak beams that were always worked green had split and checked all over the place.

  2. I forgot to say that the last picture is not a knife but a bill hook a tool still used in country areas in England. It and its long handled cousin the slasher were common Saxon hand tools indispensable to the woodsmen and farmers of the first century AD. They are still used for the same purpose here. I learnt to use these at about eight years of age being a country lad. They were very sharp so I soon learnt to take care after the first couple of deep cuts.

    They were also used as offensive and defensive weapons and were later developed to become halberds and similar weapons. If I were in a Saxon battle against the Danes I would rather have a slasher than a sword.

    And this is all relevant to working wood. Aint the world wonderful.

  3. momist says:

    Suzanne, I am loving your research on these misericords. Trying not to be picky, but:
    The misericord at Knife, 1520-1525, St. Laurent Church, Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland, appears to me to be a billhook. This is really a forester’s or a farmer’s tool for brushwood or small growth, although I have one myself and do use it.
    Your description of misericords almost gives the impression that they are supports for hinged seats. They can and have been used that way, and in some cases have been adapted to function that way, but most of them that I have seen in England have no seat associated, and are simply there to rest your bum on whilst remaining apparently still standing.

    • saucyindexer says:

      The photograph was chosen to show choir stalls with seats up and misericords visible (back row) and seats down with only the ledge or bracket of the misericord visible (front row). The ledge/braket/mini-perch portion of the misericord is not supporting the seat when the seat is in the down position.

  4. miathet says:

    This is amazing! I can’t believe I’ve never noticed these.The variety and ability to show the carvers personality is great. It is interesting to see what they carved when not being held to the strict standard of the Church or wealthy patrons.

    • Because they were upside down when being sat upon it is often found that they depict scenes of which the church would not have approved in other worlds upside down from normal. The other theme you see are things contrary to life such as a hen chasing a fox. This is part of the guild story much of which has been lost. For example carpenters working on first and second fittings in a house would complain loudly and long about the useless bricklayers or masons that made their work so difficult and wasn’t it a good job that carpenters were able to get them out of the mire. They were quick enough to copy masons when furniture making began to be a specialist craft. Using chamfers at the edges with masons, mitre, stopped, moulded etc. stopped ends.

      Then there was the way that trades worked together for example the local smith would fashion hinges and in return the carpenter would repair his window frames. No money was ever mentioned nor did it change hands. This is why I am sure that block planes were nothing whatsoever to do with specialist planes used by butchers to level their chopping blocks. They would have no idea how to sharpen and use such a tool and would have called upon their local carpenter for a favour, returned when convenient with a bit of prime meat – no hurry. Block referred to the fact that this plane was a block of wood with a low angles iron.

  5. Dave Fisher says:

    I really appreciate your research and organization, Suzanne. These are fascinating and invaluable. Absolutely wonderful!

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