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Grotesque and Surreal:  Making Sense of Misericords - Ripon Cathedral

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Grotesque and Surreal:  Making Sense of Misericords

The misericord carvings in the quire are a constant source of intrigue and amusement for all who visit Ripon Cathedral. Ava Dance delves into the mysterious world of misericords, hoping to shed new light on their meaning and impact.

November 30, 2023

The choir stalls of Ripon Cathedral are studded with a series of thirty-four small ledges that protrude from the underside of the hinged seating. These are referred to as misericords, or the modern English translation ‘mercy seats’, and are perches that were designed for clergy to respectfully rest against during the back-to-back services of pre-Reformation Britain. However, these architectural features are far from purely functional. Underneath each of them lies a small yet fantastical world that has been intricately carved.

Although these carvings were sculpted during the late medieval period, between the years of 1489 and 1494, they have a surreal quality to them. The Dictionary defines the word surreal as ‘strange; not seeming real; like a dream’ and ‘strange, especially because of combining items that are never found together in reality’, which encapsulates the misericords of Ripon Cathedral. Their scenes are composed of a wide array of outlandish, verging on nightmarish imagery. They defy reality, or at the least, would have for churchgoers at the time of their creation. They depict mythical creatures, wild animals from different continents and hybrids of the two. Most of these were sourced from medieval compilations of beasts called bestiaries, for example, one misericord depicts a lion and dragon fighting each other, their jaws locked together. Similarly, in the scene pictured above, two seemingly identical dragons encircle one another as they vampirically bite each others necks. Each has an additional smaller head that emerges from the end of its tail, forming a pleasingly symmetrical and harmonious composition. This is true of many of the misericords and is at odds with the vicious and otherworldly nature of their imagery, which furthers their surreal quality. Furthermore, the violence and drama of these scenes is often pacified by carvings of foliage, which frame them on either side, as nature connotes serenity. This, too, intensifies the surrealness of these scenes as it presents two unsettlingly disjointed visual languages in juxtaposition with one another.

In the most famous example, a menacing gryphon clutches a rabbit which has narrowly missed its escape into a series of burrows depicted on the right-hand side of the scene, into which another more fortunate animal disappears (pictured above). This misericord is thought to have inspired Lewis Caroll’s character ‘The White Rabbit’ in his iconic children’s novel Alice in Wonderland, as he spent time at the Cathedral with his father who was a canon there. It also seems likely that fantastical characters such as ‘The Cheshire Cat’, ‘Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee’ and ‘The Jabberwocky’ were inspired by these bizarre carvings, with their dream-like morphing of real life and fictional animals. These strange subject matters stand out drastically from the images of the demure Virgin and plump Christ child that typically decorate church architecture. The juxtaposition of such troubling imagery with the serene, ordered space of a church is completely disjointed and surreal. Furthermore, their more precise positioning, beneath church choir stalls, seems obscure. However, their positioning may make more sense when we examine their meaning.

Individual figures depicted in the misericords are ‘iconographic’, meaning they each would have held different and distinct meanings for contemporary churchgoers. For example, a dragon was commonly used to suggest Satan, whereas lions were usually used to convey Christ. Similarly, gryphons represented both the divine and human qualities of Christ. These symbols were seemingly laced together in scenes to create narratives that often take the form of moral advice, acting as a visual parable for the congregation, or allegories, as they are referred to by Art Historians and Classicists. For instance, the previously described misericord depicting a lion and dragon fighting can be read as symbolic of the battle between good and evil (pictured above). These rich narratives, combined with similarly intricate imagery elsewhere in the cathedral’s decorative scheme, transform it into an enriching space of storytelling and visual education. For contemporary working-class visitors, this would have been their primary access to ‘high’ culture and such modes of learning, revealing the necessity and importance of these carvings.

Many of the misericords at Ripon Cathedral are bound together by the theme of sexual temptation. For example, one misericord shows a sow playing the bagpipe whilst two piglets dance along to the music she produces. Pigs were used as symbols of both lust and gluttony, while the bagpipes were considered a ‘low’ instrument and were thought to elicit people’s animalistic instincts. Therefore, this misercord can be read as a warning against lustfulness, as well as a surreal and comical scene. Alternatively, another misericord depicts a mermaid clasping a mirror and brush. These mythological creatures were used as symbols of sexual seduction, as well as pride and vanity, in misericords across Britain. Therefore, this carving encourages churchgoers to be wary of and resistant to sexual temptation. These ‘sinful’ themes, namely sexual pleasure and seduction, and the disturbing nature of some of the carvings could explain their positioning. Perhaps they were relegated to low space and cast in symbolic shadow.

Despite the iconographic nature of the imagery, there seems to be no overarching narrative that connects all thirty-four individual scenes. It is thought that the carvers were free to choose what they sculpted, although the designs were most likely shaped by pre-existing patterns that they had access to. Unbound by a single, linear narrative, they are distinctly playful and experimental in nature. This absence of a clear storyline can be interpreted as a metaphor for the incomprehensible nature of God and contributes the to puzzling, surreal quality of the misericords. It can also be seen as mirroring the often illogical sequencing of dreams, continuing the parallel between the two. Despite this, the misericords play a fundamental and distinct role in articulating the character of the cathedral space, particularly when in use. Their dark wood reveals the drama of the interior, and their lively figures that almost appear to be in motion hint at the animated performances of choir singers that routinely occur there. Therefore, the study of this small decorative feature reveals much about the space and beliefs of the church, offering the moral teachings of Christanity to churchgoers in an eccentric and engaging format.

It is precisely the surrealness of the misericords at Ripon Cathedral that makes them so intriguing and thought-provoking. Their fantastical imagery, unusual positioning and parallels with dreams demand close looking and prompt questions about their nature and purpose. Perhaps these dark and puzzling carvings will inspire another great work of art in years to come, as they did with Lewis Caroll’s novel all those years ago.

Article by Ava Dance, Digital Volunteer