The Trees Above The Rabbit Hole

My recent visits to Manchester Cathedral and Hexham Abbey culminated in my waxing lyrical about the woodwork, whether intricately carved or beautifully painted. In Ripon Cathedral too, the wooden structures were the ones that generated the greatest fascination.

This isn’t entirely a coincidence. There are misericords again (over 30) and they were carved over a five-year period at the end of the 15th century by the Bromley family – the same carpenters responsible for the Manchester examples. Apparently there are more examples of their work in Beverley Minster, another great Yorkshire church but one that I’ve not visited (yet).

This got me thinking. In English, Italian and Croatian churches that I’ve explored the stonework has been a common source of fascination, but I don’t recall great woodwork on my overseas trips with the notable exception of the Bologna anatomical theatre. Beautiful frescoes and statuary yes, but not the woodwork.

There are a couple of possible reasons for this; either the furniture in those Italianate chiese was fairly nondescript, or I was so distracted by the artwork on the walls that I failed to notice it.  I suspect the latter; for why would the catholic church in their quest to utilise the greatest craftsmen (whether in tribute to their god or as demonstration of power) stop short of this art?

Flip that question around and you find yourself questioning why the woodwork would be so noticeable in an English church?  Well here you’re unlikely to be staring at frescoes and statuary.  The century following the creation of the Ripon misericords was the one in which Henry VIII sacked the monasteries of their wealth and brought Protestantism in place of Catholicism.  The Reformation movement across Northern Europe pointed to the Ten Commandments and instruction against the creation of graven images.  And so centuries of artworks were destroyed (or hidden away to be rediscovered centuries later like some of the Hexham panels).  Further destruction took place during the English Civil War when puritans took a dislike to much of the stained glass that decorated our churches too.

Whether the functional aspect of choir stalls led to them being overlooked, or the fact that misericords are hidden when the seat is folded down I don’t know, but without as much competition the woodwork has proved more robust through time.  Thank goodness for now we can all enjoy such curiosities as the man with three faces (a representation of the Holy Trinity perhaps?) or the mechanical hand which was operated by the organist to as a means of conducting the choir at the same time as playing.  Or how about the representation of two great empires on a single pew end where a Greek centaur accompanies a Persian war elephant?

Then there is the imagery of the misericords themselves; where gryphons, dragons, lions and whales appear as well as the bizarre headless figures from the Mappa Mundi, and my favourite of all a fox in a pulpit preaching to a cock and a goose or duck.

It’s believed that this imagery, and the narrow passages leading down to the crypt below had a profound effect on the son of a former canon in the cathedral.

The Charles Dodgson referred to on this record had a 20-year-old son when he was here.  A son also called Charles.

You might know him better by his pen name.

Lewis Carroll.