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Misericords In Limehouse

August 26, 2017
by the gentle author

Celebrating the eighth birthday of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

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


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

Winged beast with a long tail and human head


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


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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    August 26, 2017

    In the decades I’ve spent pottering around old churches, one of my greatest delights is to find examples of this surreal and subversive expression of medieval piety. The set in St Katharine’s is magnificent.

  2. August 26, 2017

    Well done you!

  3. Ronald McKenzie permalink
    August 26, 2017

    Wonderful photos of a time long gone bye….

  4. August 26, 2017

    When training as a London cabby the two St Katherine’s came up on the Knowledge of London get from one point to the other but after 26 years of driving one around town this is the first time I have seen inside the wonderful little church it’s now on my list of must sees , thank you for highlighting this gem of a place.

  5. Christine Roberts permalink
    August 26, 2017

    Thank you for a fascinating set of photos! You’ve whetted my appetite to see these carvings and connect with the mind(s) that carved them.

  6. Gary Arber permalink
    August 26, 2017

    I am surprise that a wood carver in 12th century England knew enough of Lions and Elephants to be able to create accurate carvings.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    August 26, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, really enjoyed viewing these intriguing British misericords which survive at St. Katherine’s in Limehouse. The first time I encountered these creatures was in the magnificent cathedral in Toledo where they decorate the extensive choir stalls.

    Well said – “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 also had to look up AMPHISBAENA – “a mythological, ant-eating serpent with a head on each end.”

  8. Archaic permalink
    August 26, 2017

    I wonder if there is anyone left in the world who can carve wood with such delicate artistry? I wrote a college paper on the symbolic beasts in Arthurian legends. The mother Pelican was believed to pierce her own chest with her beak to nourish her brood with her blood, so became a popular symbol of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross.

  9. Robin permalink
    August 26, 2017

    Thank you for showing these photos again. They are magnificent. Done by a true master carver.

  10. August 26, 2017

    The carvings are wonderful and in real life even more so, I can only recommend people to go and see them. Valerie

  11. August 28, 2017

    Magnificent photos; I hope it’s OK that I’ve reproduced the angel bagpiper on our bagpipe map; I’ve linked to your blog which I’m thoroughly enjoying

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