Origin : France, Picardy
Period : Late 15th century, circa 1480-1500
Set composed of two isolated stalls and a two-seats stall with high quality gothic characters and scenes carved on the hand-rests and misericords.
State of conservation : consolidations, restoration of use and maintenance.
Height : 106 cm
Length : 87 cm
Depth : 62 cm
On the first stall’s misericord is depicted a gryllos eating up a rooster. The hand-rests are shaped in the round as a pious woman and as a monk.
Height : 107.5 cm
Length: 87 cm
Depth: 61 cm
The misericord depicts a wood-carver supervised by his master with a civilian and a hooded personage as hand-rests.
Height: 107 cm
Length: 151.5 cm
Depth: 63 cm
On the left hand side a peasant accompanied by wild pigs under an oak tree. On the right hand side a barber giving a monk his clerical crown.
Two jesters and a woman bearing on her back a rat serve as hand-rests.
Stalls designate the row of seats defining the capitular space where took place priests and canons during the sung office. Allowing its user to fight the cold by keeping him isolated from the stone walls, the stalls importance in the religious community, beyond practicality, attained a symbolic position.
For it is through the attribution of a stall that the friar entered officially the community. The verb ‘install’ (put in a stall) means the attribution of an ecclesiastical office.
The stalls appeared in the church furnishing as soon as the first centuries of the Church but the misericord appeared latter. The oldest mention of the misericord is to be found in the Constitutiones, rules of the monastery of Hirsau (Germany) dating back to the 11th century.
Once the seat fold up, the corbel fixed under it permitted to get some rest while standing. A comfort addition established after many arguments with the hostile part of the clerics. Petrus Damianus (1007-1072) even talked about the ‘depraved habit of the clercs to seat during the offices’.
Because of its position and function, the misericord did not permit the growth of a religious iconography without being perceived as sacrilege. This is the reason why wood-carvers favored mainly profane motifs such as animals, depictions of proverbs and scenes of daily life. The motifs linked to the Scriptures do not represent more than 4% of misericords in France.
At the complete opposite of the complicated programs elaborated by the clercs for the other church’s decors, the misericords draw its iconographic sources from popular incunabula and secular life. Sayings and maxims was for the artisan a pretext to depicts humoristic and licentious subjects. It seems it could be the case for our first misericord. It evoked probably a proverb then easily recognizable but today forgotten. We can see a rooster, beak and eyes wide open, being devoured by a gryllos. This monster, originating from antiquity, is characterized by the absence of torso, the head standing right on top of the legs. During the gothic period the gryllos came back in favour particularly as drolleries in the margins of illuminated manuscripts.
The daily life scenes are represented on the majority of our misericords. Three reliefs depict characters practicing their craft, expressing an iconographic phaenomenon that has no counterparts in the religious sphere. The diversity and realism with which the scenes are depicted lead us to believe those crafts were practiced by the church’s parishioners.
On our set of stalls the image-carver has represented a wood-carver seating in front of a tree stump, squaring pieces of wood. Behind him is his master supervising the worker, ready to correct him. On the left, planks testify the job done.
On the following scene a swineherd is depicted with a stick in his hand ready to strike the oak tree and to feed the wild pigs with accorns. The image-carver has represented the man in a profile view with the arm frozen in its movement, testifying the narrative ability of the artisan.
Finally, a barber shaves gently the clerical crown of a monk sat on a linenfolds gothic armchair with a large napkin around his neck. Another linen hanging on the left hand side gives an idea of the image-carver’s taste for anecdote.
The misericords are not the only details giving insights into the parish’s daily life, for the hand-rests do too. While the crossed-arms devotee or the monk meditating on his readings mock gently the clergy, the two jesters seating astride echo another type of comedy.
Easily recognizable with the bells on their clothes the jesters were paid for the performances during which they entertained as well as alerted and advised. From the 13th century until the Renaissance this ambiguous role was embodied by the very members of the clergy. During those ‘fool festivals’, festum stultorium subdeacons played within the stalls satirical and provocative scenes mocking the divine service and bishops elections. This peculiar habit where all the excesses were allowed under the guise of madness was frequently pointed at by disapproving athorities. In 1435 the council of Basel reiterates its prohibition.
One last element insists on the sharp depictions of characters ; the rat represented on the back of the woman. Since the beginning of the early medieval times, the Church has used animals as ideological tools. Rats and mice for instance are traditionally identified as devil’s creatures, assimilated with heresy. Its depiction on the back of a woman needs no comment.
The tradition of profane misericords reached its peak during the 15th and early 16th century. The council of Trent puts an end to those ‘witnesses of their time’ (D. et H. Kruss) by bannishing secular out of the church. Becoming rare after centuries of degredations due to revolutions and wars a good comparison can be drawn between our misericords and those exhibited by the musée de Cluny in Paris. Coming from the abbey of Saint Lucien in Beauvais (Picardy) the same taste for anecdotes and a similar treatment on the environement thanks to significative motifs can be seen. Furthermore we can observe a true proximity regarding the face’s style with frank angles and the depiction of cloths.
Those late 15th century stalls with relief misericords and hand-rests shaped in the round, compose an ensemble of high quality. The image carver who has worked on this authentic testimony of an era, very rare in sculpture, has proven himself to be skilled for composition and expressivity.
KRUSS Dorothy, KRUSS Henry, Le Monde Caché des Miséricordes, Les Editions de l’Amateur, Paris, 1986
BARIDON Laurent, GUEDRON Martial, Hommeanimal Histoires d’un Face à Face, Editions Adam Biro, Paris et Editions des Musées de Strasbourg, Strasbourg, 2004
12 000 €