IN medieval churches the seats in the choir stalls could be tipped up like modern theater seats. But unlike modern theater seats, these medieval seats often had hidden assets: Narrow wooden shelves were carved on their undersides. This meant that when the seat was in its tipped-up position, the shelf was revealed. And it provided a second, higher-up sort of seat. It was high enough, in fact, for a person to support himself on it without appearing to actually sit down. This was important, because the monks and canons who said their prayers for many hours day and night in these choir stalls were compelled to do so standing. So the little hidden shelves were a slight relaxation of this strict monastic rule - an act of mercy for the old or infirm. For this reason, they came to be known as ``misericords,'' from the Latin misericordia, meaning ``pity'' or ``mercy.''
The name misericord, however, applies today not so much to the shelf or seat itself as to the carving underneath it. These carvings provide us with some of the most imaginative, humorous, and vigorous examples of sculpture that survived medieval times.
Because they were not seen by the public, they were apparently considered suitable places for apprentice carvers to learn their craft. Some of the misericords are quite crude and rough. But others were made with canny skill. Practiced master carvers must have also enjoyed the inventive freedom they offered. The ``roof bosses'' in the churches and cathedrals invited a similar range of down-to-earth, grotesque, or fantastic subjects: They too were sufficiently far away from the public view. Here were opportunities for the artist-craftsmen to depict secular rather than religious subjects.
In Britain you might find an angel playing the pipes or King Solomon delivering his judgment as a misericord carving, but you are much more likely to find, grinning away down there, the giant from ``Jack and the Beanstalk'' or a tusked boar bowing away on a viol, or a knight being knocked unceremoniously off his horse by an opponent. The seasons are sometimes the distinctly rural theme: scenes of scaring birds in spring, scything corn in summer, fattening pigs in autumn, hedging and ditching in winter.
Important personages may be depicted, but generally the misericord's cast of characters is composed of peasants and commoners. There are acrobats, dancers, children, husbands and wives, shepherds, beggars, and jesters. Some of these lively figures have simply been identified as ``grimacers.''
A large number of misericords were carved in the form of heraldic shields, crests, or badges. Foliage and flowers from hawthorn and holly to thistles and waterlilies are to be found. Roses abound.
But animals provided one of the chief delights of the misericord carvers. These secret seats provide a veritable bestiary, and like the drawn and painted bestiaries of the middle ages, the creatures range from the well-known and scrupulously observed to the totally fantastic. Rabbits, squirrels, and mice are no less likely than unidentified composite creatures: wyverns, unicorns, dragons, and basilisks. These animals are the stuff of sermons, folk stories, and fables.
But the elephant at Exeter Cathedral (where the earliest existing complete set of misericords in Britain is to be found) is exceptional. Most carved elephants carry howdahs, or towers, on their backs. They are the tanks of the day, machines of war. As elephants, zoologically speaking, the carvings often leave something to be desired. But the Exeter elephant is so accurate (except for its hoofs) that it can actually be identified as an African elephant. And at least one expert, M.D. Anderson, has identified it with a particular elephant.
In his ``Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain'' (1969) he writes: ``In 1255 an elephant was given [by Louis IX] to Henry III, and the drawing made of it by Matthew Paris is so like the Exeter carving that we may safely assume this to have been based upon a similar sketch of the royal beast - an interesting example of the way in which iconographical features can sometimes help us to date carvings.''
The dates of the Exeter misericords are not recorded, but a local tradition places them between 1238 and 1244. If the elephant connection is right, the last date has to be extended a little.
On each side of the central elephant are typical secondary motifs. These are known as ``supporters.'' In this case they show the head of a man and woman, presumably husband and wife. She sports fashionable headdress. Anderson comments: ``Possibly the donors'' - the people who commissioned and paid for the carving. If so, nicely carved though they are, they are still completely upstaged by the great, strange animal standing between them, with its thick and wrinkly curling trunk and enchanting ears.