Framed by swirling green leaves, the face of a man with protruding brows and a scraggly beard graces this misericord. Sometimes called a ‘mercy seat,’ the misericord was the small ledge that protruded from the undersides of folding seats in a choir stall in a medieval church or cathedral. Medieval liturgical services were conducted eight times a day, and the clergy who attended and performed the services had to stand during the entire ritual. Developed in the 13th century, the misericord allowed the clergy to rest while appearing to stand during services. On these small ledges, sculptors often carved fanciful scenes that sometimes seem out of place in a church: mermaids, dragons, harpies, and domestic animals. Because the misericord forms the underside of the seats in the choir, the carved images would only be seen by the clergy. The fantastical imagery of the misericords is often irreverent and secular, expanding our notion of what was permissible in the religious environment of the Middle Ages.
This sculpted face was likely one of the ninety misericords that were carved for the choir stalls installed in Wells Cathedral between 1335 and 1340. This origin has been suggested because of the similarities between this carving and the remaining sixty-four misericords at Wells Cathedral. Many of the misericords that can be found in the choir at Wells also feature the faces of men surrounded by swirling leaves. The choir stalls were carved of oak; traces of gilding on this misericord indicate that it may once have been brightly painted. In contrast to the stark stone interiors that we see today, the walls and ceilings of medieval cathedrals were brightly painted, making them veritable gardens or jewel-boxes.
Wells was an important cathedral in Somerset, in the south of England. The original church was located near a natural spring. Construction on the medieval cathedral began in 1175. The architects were the first in England to build in the latest fashion from France: the Gothic style. Like many medieval cathedrals, Wells continued to evolve after its completion eighty years later; a Chapter House and cloister were added in the thirteenth century. Further expansions took place in the fourteenth century, including the reconstruction of the choir. Remarkably, Wells Cathedral survived the destruction that was inflicted on many English churches during the Reformation Period in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century, a Victorian fascination with the Gothic period led to the restoration and cleaning of the cathedral in the 1840’s; it is likely that this misericord was removed from the church at that time.
The brooding face of the man in this misericord is striking for his presence; he seems so alive and almost magical. This face may be related to the images of “Green men” and “Wild men,” mythical, untamed humans who lived outside civilization. The Wild Man was a popular motif in the Middle Ages, perhaps relating to man’s need to be tamed. While these men, covered in vines, peer out from the raised choir stalls, they would be hidden from view when the clergy finally sat at the close of the liturgy. This mysterious, almost eerie face, may represent man’s wild nature which lurks beneath—literally under the backside of the clergy—the structure of the Church.
Elizabeth Mattison is expecting to receiver her BA and MA from Yale University in 2014. She is writing her thesis on the development of narrative sculpture in late medieval French cathedrals. She was a summer 2013 curatorial intern in Cooper-Hewitt's Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.