We’re just about to start the process of cataloging the many boxes of papers and photographs sitting in our basement before they go on loan to Tower Hamlets archives. This is just one of the things our initial explorations unearthed:
We devoted a blog to A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998). Druce’s account contains much more detail on our wondrous medieval stalls from the period before St Katharine’s moved back to the East End — it’s undated but the photos seem to have been taken in 1909.
Somewhere in one of the boxes should be the rare history of St Katharine’s by Ducarel mentioned by Druce, where a plate reputedly shows the existence of 23 stalls and 15 miserichords in 1780. We’re down to 14 stalls and 13 carved miserichords. But they are spectacular.
A pamphlet focused entirely on our own carvings, this provides a number of fascinating insights into the carvings to be seen in the chapel. On the subject of our pelican, it quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.
It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.
As archaic as these beliefs may seem to us, they open up an earlier world rich in symbolism and stories where everything served as a reminder of our relationship with God.
On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes
It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.
It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’):
But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire ; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.”
There is the hawk also, seen here swooping upon a duck:
While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging form the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:
The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters , which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird, when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.
A wonderful little owl can be found on one of the elbows as well:
The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.
Birds are not the only things to be seen in the chapel, of course. There are dragons in plenty, an amphisbaena, and other strange creatures including an elephant carved by someone who had almost certainly never seen an elephant. It is only recognisable through the castle on its back.
…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.
If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death
that he might raise mankind…
The carvings are wonderful without knowing their histories, but take on a new depth with some idea of what they might have meant both to those who carved them, and those who rested on them during worship.