Hidden Carvings: Misericords

Of the many beautiful works of art and ornament at Christ Church Cranbrook, I have noticed one type is much less documented than others: the misericords. I set out to explore the story behind these little hidden carvings. Misericords are hinged wooden seats that swing up to provide a supportive ledge in the choir stalls of churches and cathedrals—the choir, in the architectural sense, is situated within the chancel between the nave and the sanctuary.

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Christ Church Cranbrook choir stalls in the chancel taken from the south aisle of the nave, ca. 1946. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The seat appears to be quite ordinary until you lift it up to reveal its carved underside. Traditionally, they were carved with mythological or real animals, foliage, or humorous scenes.

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The history of misericords goes back to the monastic churches of the middle ages, when the monks spent many hours praying in the choir. Their name comes from the Latin ‘miserericordia’ meaning ‘mercy’ or ‘compassion,’ stemming from ‘misereri’ (to have pity) and ‘cor’ (heart). Misericords were introduced into churches and cathedrals around the thirteenth century, so that elder monks could lean on them and didn’t have to stand unaided for the entire service.

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Architectural Drawing for Misericords in Choir Stalls Nos. 1-4 depicting pride, envy, gluttony, and covetousness, January 10, 1928. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates/Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The misericord carvings for Christ Church Cranbrook were drawn by a designer with the initials ‘TCM’ at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates, who were also the architects of the church itself. The carvings for choir stalls 1-7 depict the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, covetousness, anger, sloth, and lust). Choir stalls 8-16 depict more contemporary images reflecting life in 1927, including charlatanism in art, politics, machinery, jazz and prize fighting (8-12) and building the church, speed, big business, and prohibition (13-16).

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Misericord depicting “Speed,” represented by different modes of transportation (choir stall 14), the metal braces are a later repair. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The misericord design for ‘building the church’ (choir stall 13) is particularly noteworthy for its representation of Oscar Murray and George Gough Booth extending the church by pulling it apart and adding another bay:

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Misericord depicting Oscar H. Murray and George Gough Booth lengthening the church (choir stall 13). Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

In George Gough Booth’s correspondence, I found this letter, which is instructive in discovering the creative process from idea to design to finished object:

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Letter from Oscar H. Murray to George Gough Booth regarding the misericord showing the building of the church, July 3, 1928. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The letter tells us that the carver used a photograph of George Gough Booth (depicted on the right side of the misericord) to help with the details of the carving.

The misericords were carved by Irving and Casson of Boston, who also carved the screen between the narthex and the nave and the canopied vaulting above the choir stalls. However, the name of the carver is not recorded. Christ Church Cranbrook is celebrating its 90th anniversary on September 29. Also stay tuned for our ‘Ecclesiastical Structures of Detroit’ Day Away trip in the fall.

-Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

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