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.





Wooden It Be Nice

Of the two churches I visited in Manchester, it seemed right to begin with St Ann’s as archaeological evidence suggests that the first church to be built in Manchester was erected near that site though it was destroyed by vikings in the 10th Century.

_pw_4032That said my second church can also point to Anglo-Saxon origins as a carved stone from that period is embedded into the present building’s fabric.  I refer to the Collegiate Church of St Mary, St Denys and St George, or as it is now known, Manchester Cathedral.  The present structure began as a parish church in the early 13th century, but in 1421 Baron Thomas de la Warre was granted permission by his king and the pope to establish a collegiate church here, and so began a remodelling into the current building.  The use of the same red sandstone as St Ann’s produced the same issues of erosion and with wartime bomb damage contributing to the need for restoration, the building has a more youthful look and might be mistaken for a Victorian gothic revival.  It is Grade I listed.

On this occasion then I’ll turn my back on the stonework, but not on the architecture for the most impressive structural details are in wood.

The roof beams are perhaps the first to catch your eye on entering the building, or perhaps the paired cherubs of the font cover,  but these are soon forgotten when you reach the chancel area and see the choir stalls.  Is exquisite too strong and adjective?  Centuries of wear from cleric and choristers passing hands over the carvings have softened some of the lines, but once out of reach of human contact the structures are detailed and intricate and look as sharp as when they were installed installed in the Tudor period.

A recent exchange on British quiz show Pointless had two suggestions for the meaning of the word misericord, the first was that it was an organ-like musical instrument, the second that it was a medieval knife.  Neither was fully correct, though there was dagger called a misericorde.  The correct answer is that it is a protrusion on the underside of a folding seat which gives support to someone standing, for example through a lengthy set of prayers.  The term means giver of mercy – hence the dagger.  The thirty examples in Manchester are considered to be amongst the best in Europe, though several weren’t visible on the day as many seats were folded down so I didn’t see the example which apparently shows the earliest example of backgammon being played in the UK.

_pw_4044Something else that was hidden on this occasion was the choir screen for a new organ is being installed, meaning that the perpendicular gothic lines were overlaid with vertical scaffolding that camouflaged and obscured them.

Luckily I’d found myself with a moment or two to spare earlier this year when en route to catch a train at Manchester Victoria.  I hadn’t had time to fully explore, but I did have enough to see this…