Fifteen years ago when in Europe for the first time I stumbled onto them in England. Then in London I had to snag at a museums store the book A Little book of Misericords by Mark Harding. I ate it on the plane trip home. Nothing like a bunch of crazy narratives and characters that were carved in pews for few to see. My kind of art.
Misericord: Created from the 13th to the 17th century (and even still created today), these were shelves that supported a folding seat that could be put down during a church service. These were made at a time when clergy stood for the majority of a service. The advantage of having a misericord supporting a secret little seat is that you can kneel or sit on it during the service, and it appears that you are standing. Largely found in the choir stalls or areas monks or clergy would be, these had an obvious advantage. Hence the name simply means “a mercy.” (Thank you Jesus, my dogs need a break!) Why it would like having a little character in church that is your own personal secret. I wonder if the monks had favorites- “Wait, I get the pigs dancing! I always sit there.”
The Misericords are an adventure in terms of imagery. Ranging from the sacred to the profane, to me they are a testimony that the church of God can handle all of man’s oddities, and is in fact, it’s a place for it. I love pointing these out in museums and churches as I travel with students. Part of me wonders where is the place for such craziness in our churches now?
Sadly many Misericords were either destroyed in a wave of iconoclastic bombasitic enthusiasm (thank you Reformation) or they were burned up when wood was scarce and folks needed to keep warm. I discovered a wonderful website that chronicles almost 150 sites. It’s a excellently researched site for one who would like explore and learn more. Have a nice time!: http://www.misericords.co.uk/