The Lion and the Unicorn

stcuthbert'scoatofarmsThe lion and the unicorn are the heraldic supporters of the royal coat of arms.  The lion represents England, while the unicorn stands for Scotland.  This current combination of supporters dates back to 1603 and the accession of James I of England or James VI of Scotland depending upon your viewpoint.  There is a fine example of James’ coat of arms in the church of St John the Evangelist, Leeds.

Earlier kings used different supporters.  Tudor kings used a Welsh dragon and sometimes a greyhound.  Richard II used a white hart.  In addition, the arms  have changed over the centuries as Ireland, Scotland and Wales were added.

The royal coat of arms in its various guises, usually supported by a lion and a unicorn, began to appear in English churches and cathedrals in the aftermath of the English Reformation – a reminder to congregations that the monarchy was in charge of matters spiritual as well as temporal. There was never a law, although the “great council” issued an “injunction” in 1660 (Records of Buckinghamshire, p386) to say that churches required coats of arms, they tended to be put on display during times when it was sensible to demonstrate loyalty to the crown– after the restoration of Charles II; in the aftermath of the Jacobite uprisings and upon the accession of a new monarch for example.

This means that the coats of arms on display are not always the same. The arms on display in Halifax date from the reign of Queen Ann, while in Woodkirk near Morley the arms are those of King George I.

Not every church and cathedral has a royal coat of arms. The Victorians got rid of many of them or consigned them to less prominent positions. Apparently there are even one or two arms where thrifty churchwardens turned the board around and painted ones on the back.

The Churches Conservation Trust provides an interesting summary of the way in which the royal arms changed over the centuries with examples. Double click on the image of the fairly rare King Charles I coat of arms that was added to St Cuthbert’s in Wells in 1631 to open the page.

Corbels, corbel tables and label stops

 

Wells lizard

Every profession and specialism has its own jargon.  It makes life a lot easier than referring to the ‘thingy’ or having to keep pointing and saying “that one over there.”  Communication becomes precise and efficient.  While an assortment of words (largely nouns if we’re going to be accurate)  may be helpful for people in the know, for those of us who are just getting to grips with these things, jargon can also be plain confusing – not to mention intimidating.

The other problem with jargon is that you may think that you know something but then a new word comes along to sling the proverbial spanner in the works.  Such was the case for this blog.  Half an hour ago I knew what a corbel was; ten minutes after that I read a guide on a local church website and discovered a new word which threw my poor brain cell  (yes  one – the other one seems to have gone on holiday) into confusion.

A corbel to quote Scotland’s Churches Trust is “a stone which projects from a wall-face, to support a floor or roof, or some other structure. A row of corbels, with spaces in between, at a wallhead, is known as a corbel table. A continuous row of such projecting stones is known as corballing.”  http://www.scotlandschurchestrust.org.uk/maintain-your-church/glossary/?term=73

Corbels can be seen both inside and outside buildings from parish churches to royal castles.  A corbel isn’t always decorated – sometimes it just looks like a neatly cut lump of stone holding something else up.  So far so good.   A  corbel is different from a gargoyle in that a corbel is just one end of a load bearing lump of masonry whereas a gargoyle is a waterspout jettisoning water from the roof after it rains.

Now for the new terminology that had me confused. A label stop, again to quote the excellent Scotland Churches Trust is “the name given to the lower end of a drip mould. Usually a short horizontal section of the same form as the drip mould, but sometimes a carving of a human head, a grotesque animal, or a bunch of leaves.” http://www.scotlandschurchestrust.org.uk/maintain-your-church/glossary/?letter=l

So why was I confused?  I began writing this blog thinking that the delightful little salamander munching his way through a selection of fruit just off the north transept of Wells Cathedral was a corbel – then I did my research for this blog using the Internet to see if I could find out any thing else about him. I landed on the aforementioned local church website.  The words corbel and label stop occurred in close proximity to one another without clarifying the difference between them.  The result was that my brain cell had a minor panic.  Was the lizard a corbel or a label stop?

Further research ensued.  I then found the Scotland’s Churches Trust website with its lovely clear glossary of architectural terms – the brain cell heaved a huge sigh of relief and added another term to the long list of useless information stored in the dim recesses of my skull.

To summarise my convoluted meanderings – the Wells lizard sits at the end of a shaft that shoots off to form an arch – so he is load bearing.  This means that  he is very definitely a corbel.  Look at it and pause to wonder at the engineering capacity of medieval builders as well as their creative genius.  Photographically he is delightful to behold and required me to stand only on tip toes with my arms extended (who’d have thought that a visit to a cathedral could also be an aerobic work out?)

A  label stop, on the other hand, is a dinky piece of sculpture (no that’s not a technical term)  found at the end of a length of decorative moulding so not holding up anything but pretty to look at- but still pause and marvel at the skill it took to create something so very small in so much detail.

If you’d like to browse a glossary of church related architectural terms double-click on the picture to open up the Scotland’s Church Trust glossary.

Capital

Wells capitalsI’m sitting here feeling slightly dazed – and perhaps it’s not surprising.  I’ve just spent five hours in Wells Cathedral taking photographs (okay there was a pause for a very moorish ginger and chocolate tray bake which contained absolutely no calories what-so-ever and a cup of tea.)  Aside from the scissor arch, the medieval crazy patchwork stained glass and the cathedral cat – a glorious and imperious ginger called Louis I spent an awful lot of time craning my neck for some capital shots.

A capital coming from the Latin capitulum meaning of the head refers to the top bit of a column – so it’s load bearing.  A very nice guide even talked me through the different parts of a capital this morning.  The very top of the capital is flat – that’s called the abacus.  The abacus tends to be plain – though by the late Gothic masons were decorating them as well.  Then comes the necking which thins to join the shaft of the column beneath it.  Sometimes the necking runs straight into the column but more often than not there’s a thin moulding to separate the column from its capital.

It’s possible to tell the age of a capital in an English church by the kind of decoration on the necking.  Norman capitals are solid and largely undecorated – those are the Romanesque ones.  Having said that the Normans do decorate their capitals often with symmetrical patterning and rather chunky looking people if my memory serves me correctly.

In any event  the next stage  in the evolution of the capital involved foliage – in some cases foliage that looks rather like a tree drawn by a small child – one stem and one leaf in neat rows.   Somehow the Gothic evolved out of the Romanesque so that by the thirteenth century masons were running riot carving sinuous leaves, green men, strange birds, beasts and odd little figures.

In Wells there are doves, dragons and lions as well as a fox running off with a goose in its mouth.  The fox is being pursued around the capital by a very cross farmer.  There’s a spoonbill swallowing a rather plump frog; a devil who has caught a fish; a pedlar with his pack and a string of beads; a man with terrible toothache; a cobbler; a man removing a thorn from his foot; a thief; assorted Old Testament types; someone being martyred and rather a lot of different kinds of leaves as well as a bewildering collection of heads peering down from their hiding places.  The more you look the more that you see – English Gothic at its best – at least that’s what the very nice guide told me and I’m not going to disagree.

So next time you go to a church or cathedral if you’re not crawling around on your hands and knees attempting to photograph misericords  without moving them or crossing any barriers that have been erected to keep the public at a safe distance you can vary your posture by standing on tip-toe developing a crick in your neck while trying to hold your camera steady in order to capture capitals.

 

 

Carved bench ends – a tale of elephants, men and a fox

DSCF0446Dating from the same period as misericords, bench ends in churches across the country are often intriguing insights into the medieval world.  The fox is in Burlingham Church in Norfolk and, yes, he is in pursuit of geese.

In Greystoke, Cumbria there are paired lions  with their tongues sticking out and their bottoms sticking up as though they’re sliding down the bench into an undignified slump.  There are also these barefoot, bearded men wearing something that looks remarkably like  kilts.

Further south in Ripon Cathedral one bench end sports a startling elephant with a castle on its back.

In Devon its even possible to find bench ends carved their full length to include the carvers initials.

I wonder what modern carvers would create if there was a sudden trend for bench ends – safety-pinned goths, a besuited woman in high heels clutching a mobile phone and perhaps a bateria or virus magnified to grotesque proportions.

Misericords

DSC_0046Misericords from the Latin word meaning pity are also known as ‘mercy seats’.  These are the ledges or rests in choir stalls so that clergy singing the divine offices could rest their weary legs.   The clerical perches were often hinged so the misericord carving could only be seen when the perch was raised. Many oak choir stalls with their misericords were placed in churches during the medieval period; their carvers are largely anonymous and the meaning behind the carvings sometimes lost but they remain a fascinating glimpse of the past.

Hemingborough in Yorkshire has some of the earliest examples of misericords in this country and Exeter Cathedral has a complete set dating from the Thirteenth Century.

The carvers used their imaginations when they created each misericord.  Some scenes come from the Bible; others like the foliate green men sporting leaves from their mouths come from an earlier folklore; some images such as elephants come from medieval bestiaries.  Hyenas were popular because not only were they an exotic species but they had legendary status as well according to Richard Hyman in that they were supposed to disinter and eat corpses…lovely.  In addition they represented “vice feeding on corruption.” (Hyman: 21)  Other inspirations came from everyday life; from animals realistic and fanciful and from mythical creatures such as mermaids.  A carver in Fairford captured a woman raising a ladle to hit her unfortunate spouse  .  In Ludlow a man warms himself in front of his fire and in Manchester a game of backgammon can be spotted.  Less amusingly in Lincoln a knight tumbles from his hours mortally injured.

Sometimes it is possible to spot a carver who has travelled around a locality.  Greystoke Parish Church has some delightful misericords that are matched by similar examples in Dacre and also in Cartmel.  Carlisle Cathedral has some impressive examples as does Hexham Abbey.  Perhaps the man who carved them travelled from one church to the next in search of work.

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Further south Ripon, Richmond and Chester have some intriguing misericords as does Wakefield, Halifax, Gloucester Cathedral, Worcester, Southwell Minster and Ludlow.  In fact these lovely little works of art not only give an insight to medieval craftsmanship and mindset but they can also be alarmingly addictive…you’ve been warned and I’ve not even started on bench ends, corbels, capitals, grotesques and gargoyles.

DSC_0036This misericord from Cartmel depicts a rather alarming two-tailed mermaid with her mirror and comb.  In medieval times a mermaid symbolised lust and temptation.  I’m not sure that the Cartmel mermaid would tempt anyone with that ribcage!