Not all was lost when St Katharine’s By the Tower moved from its church so it could be dismantled and flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the miserichords, even now sitting in the Chapel here at the Royal Foundation. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).
In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine's by the Tower, was under the patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.
DATE: 1377, R.C.H.M., London, ii, p. 89, suggests late fourteenth century.
The essay by M.D. Anderson on the iconography (the meaning behind the art and symbols used) of miserichords offers a fascinating glimpse at how much we can learn from them. He writes:
Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study miserichords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.
In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine's as the Ordinances of Queen Phillipa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson writes:
Miserichords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them…The names of the men who actually carved particular miserichords are never recorded.
While the beautiful carvings here at St Katharine's hardly seem the work of humble or rough apprentices, this humility of position meant that miserichord carvings were often not required to follow any set scheme or design. Their craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved. They are beautiful and evocative and full of imagination. Some are funny and others grand. Reflecting on them is to reflect on a medieval faith:
Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art.
Here are the descriptions as given by Remnant, along with some of the iconographical meanings from Anderson and pictures to illustrate the whole — he seems to be a bit short on his brief listing of mythical animals and symbols, so there is more to explore here. It is a great deal of guesswork however, and left to us to reflect and decipher what their meaning may have been for those who carved them and those who used them.
I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.
2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.
3. Man's head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf
4. Man's head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.
5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.
6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.
the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection.
7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf
Dragons tend to be a 'symbol of the Evil One', and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.
8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.
The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is a plate showing various other examples of the pelican and a better picture of the Foundation's, this lovely bird also appears on one of the carved armrests.
9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.
10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf
11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.
12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man's head, one bearded, the other hooded.
'As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.'
The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant:
13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield.
On Centaurs: 'The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.'