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Misericords At St Katharine’s Chapel

September 22, 2016
by the gentle author

Tutivillus the demon eavesdropping upon two women

I spent yesterday morning on my knees in St Katharine’s Chapel in Limehouse, photographing these rare survivors of fourteenth century sculpture, believed to have been created around 1360 for the medieval St Katharine’s Chapel next to the Tower of London, which was displaced and then demolished for the building of the docks in 1825.

These marvellous carvings evoke a different world and another sensibility, combining the sacred and profane in grotesque and fantastical images that speak across time as emotive and intimate expressions of the human imagination. I am particularly fascinated by the sense of mutability between the human and animal kingdom in these sculptures, manifesting a vision of a mythic universe of infinite strange possibility which was once familiar to our forebears.

Intriguingly, these misericords appear to have been created by the same makers who carved those at Lincoln and Chester cathedrals, and a friary in Coventry.

After a sojourn of over a hundred years in Regent’s Park, the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, originally founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, moved back to the East End to Limehouse in 1948 where it flourishes today, offering an enclave of peace and reflection, sequestered from the traffic roaring along the Highway on one side and Commercial Rd on the other.

Centaur with club and shield

Tutivillus holds the parchment on the Day of Judgement

Owl

Bust of a bearded man in a striped cap with a cape and trailing drapery

Winged beast with a long tail and human head

Dragon

Edward III

Queen Philippa

Bishop’s head

Green man

Bearded man wearing a cap

A former Master of St Katharine’s was Chancellor of the Exchequer

Angel playing the bagpipes

Pelican in her piety with three chicks, supported by a pair of swans

Lion leaping upon the amphisbaena, supported by reptilian monsters

Coiled serpentine monster

Woman riding a beast with a man’s head

Elephant and castle surmounted by a crowned head

Beast with a hooded human head

Miser

Choir stalls with misericords

St Katharine’s Chapel was built in 1951 on the site of St James, Ratcliffe, destroyed in the blitz

Late fifteenth or early sixteen century carving of angel musicians playing a psaltery, a harp and tabor

The Royal Foundation of St Katharine, 2 Butcher Row, Limehouse, E14 8DS

With thanks to the Master of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine for permission to photograph the misericords

If you are interested to visit St Katharine’s Chapel please write to info@rfsk.org.uk

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Janet M permalink
    September 22, 2016

    Gorgeous work!

  2. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    September 22, 2016

    What great photos! Thank you.

  3. September 22, 2016

    Wonderful carvings! Valerie

  4. James Harris permalink
    September 22, 2016

    Beautiful. Seductive. Treasured.

  5. September 22, 2016

    The medieval psyche seemed to embrace the weird and wonderful so well
    I Iove the way strange beasties found their way into church. So good the foundation had preserved these treasures from a former home.

  6. September 22, 2016

    I remember now viewing the misericords you mention in Coventry over 50 years ago. You have brought it all back to me: “manifesting a vision of a mythic universe of infinite strange possibility which was once familiar to our forebears.” Thank you TGA!

  7. September 22, 2016

    Also of great interest is that the carvings were in the original Royal Foundation of St Katharine from the 1140′s until 1825. It was affectionately referred to as ‘Old Kate’ and 4000 people lived in its Precinct. Queen Matilda’s ancient Hospital and Church was razed to the ground, the houses and people removed, to make way for Thomas Telford’s Docks, which opened in 1828. On 25th November each year, we gather at 11 am, on the original site (near Starbucks) to pay homage. My book, telling the whole story, is on sale at the current Royal Foundation of St Katharine’s (well worth a visit, as this blog shows).

  8. BeckyB permalink
    September 22, 2016

    oh I am so pleased to learn this .. . . . . .

    We walked from the Tower to Limehouse Kiln a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday I wrote up a post about the section through St Katharines (It is scheduled to appear in a few days). We walked with the excellent ‘Guide to a Dockland of Change’ by James Page-Roberts, and Gilly Cameron-Cooper’s ‘Walking London’s Docks, Rivers and Canals’. I was horrified when I read about the 11,000 people displaced and destruction of the church. I feel a little bit better now seeing your superb post, so thank you.

  9. September 22, 2016

    This is a marvelous post. These wonderfully-eccentric beasties remind me of the “marginalia” that often appears in medieval manuscripts. Thank you for this daily treasure trove.

  10. September 22, 2016

    Queen Philippa and quite a few others are smiling! How wonderful.
    Very immediate and enchanting

  11. pauline taylor permalink
    September 22, 2016

    Grand, thank you. I love wood carvings full stop and these are the best, there is so much imagination and mystery attached to them with the dragons and the green men, plus all the other weird and wonderful images. Where did they get their inspiration from I wonder. So much of this kind of fascinating ‘tongue in cheek’ carving must have been lost to us, but it is great to know that these have survived and are being given such loving care now, well done to everyone concerned, and thank you again for spending so long on your knees GA.

    Unless my memory is failing me I seem to remember being shown similar carvings in the church in Assisi many years ago now, I wish I had taken more notice then!

  12. Shaun Peters permalink
    September 22, 2016

    Thank you for posting photographs and details of these strange and beautiful carvings. I have seen examples in Chichester at the cathedral and St Mary’s Almshouses and always find myself entranced by them and think about the carver, the time and world which produced them.

  13. September 23, 2016

    Correction: my previous comment didn’t come out quite complete (modern systems). My point was simply that we gather at 11 a.m. on November 25th (St Katharine’s Saints Day) each year and have a short remembrance ceremony. It takes place close to the Starbucks site (which used to be the Coronarium) at St Katharine Docks, which is the approximate site of the ancient Hospital and Church.

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