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Misericords At St Katharine’s Precinct

June 7, 2021
by the gentle author

Tutivillus the demon eavesdropping upon two women

I spent a 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

8 Responses leave one →
  1. June 7, 2021

    The Royal Foundation of St Katharine returned to East London in the 1950s after a long exile at Regent Park. We now offer retreats, hospitality and community projects. Anyone can come and stay and enjoy http://www.rfsk.org.uk. This Friday 11 June at 7pm we have a special classical concert with piano trio. Come earlier and see the Misericords.
    :2 Butcher Row, London, E14 8DS

    https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/trio-sonorite-recital-tickets-154119506593?aff=eand

    Roger Preece – Master

  2. Barb Drummond permalink
    June 7, 2021

    You make no mention of their purpose. When church services extended to hours some clerics were unable to stand for duration. Public cd see them through screen so they rested their nether parts on the shelf when stall were upright. As they were not sacred objects carvers cd let loose on subject matter. Some were later removed due to profanity esp by Victorians

  3. David Gooding permalink
    June 7, 2021

    Until reading/viewing this article I hadn’t been aware of what misericords were. So thank you for the illumination.

  4. June 7, 2021

    I do love a good Misericord! Angel with bagpipes looks like her eyes are about to pop out of her head.

  5. June 7, 2021

    Beautiful pieces. We are no longer capable of understanding most of the symbolic value of those times, but I’m always amazed when looking at misericords in church choirs from the 13th to the 16th century. Thank you, dear G.A.
    .

  6. June 7, 2021

    Some time ago my daughter in law bought me one of these misericords which, at the time I knew nothing about. However, this raised my interest in them so I began collecting reproductions of them. They are fascinating and tell us much history. Thank you for sharing all these lovely examples.

  7. June 7, 2021

    The owl!!!! The ability of the artisan to make the most of a tight limited space…….and yet still convey the endearing spirit of the bird. In the US, a work of art like this might be called a “sleeper”. A small detail that could easily go unnoticed — and then just POPS.

    Thanks for always shining a light.

  8. Pennyy Gardner permalink
    June 7, 2021

    A lovely place. I always stay there when ever I visit London .

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