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Monday 10 June 2013

Misericords and carvings in St Davids Cathedral, Pembrokeshire, Wales

St Davids Cathedral is tucked away in Britain's smallest city, St Davids in Pembrokeshire, which has a population of about 1,600 people.

There has been a church on the site since the sixth century. Work began on the present building in 1181 and the nave roof and ceiling were built between 1530 and 1540. It managed to avoid the worst of Henry VIII's destructive excesses during the Reformation, largely because it housed the remains of his ancestor Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond. However, Cromwell's parliamentarians destroyed much of it in 1648 (the same sad, familiar story as with many of Britain's greatest works of art that happened to be in places of worship) although it was restored in stages between 1793 and 1910.

I found it to have a 'cosier' feel than many of Britain's other cathedrals. It isn't as soaringly grand as some and the ceiling in the nave is made of wood, not stone. I really like the slightly humbler feel that I found there. The woodwork is pretty amazing as well!

The carved stones to the left and right date to the 10th or 11th century and the one in the centre is a patterned ring cross dating to the 9th or 10th century. They are kept in the gatehouse. William the Conqueror visited the church at St Davids in 1081 to pray and probably saw these stones.

These woodcarvings are next to the entrance into the nave. I'm guessing that they date to the renovations of the 19th or 20th century, but I don't know for sure.

This beautiful lantern ceiling is at the base of the tower and sits above the choir. The ceiling is medieval and the windows date to the 14th century. Nearby, standing over Edmund Tudor's tomb, is this painted ceiling which brightens up that part of the cathedral:

The wooden ceiling above the nave was carved from Irish oak in the 16th century and features carved pendants. The crucifix (or 'rood')  is a 20th century replacement of an earlier one.

One of my favourite parts of the cathedral are the carved wooden misericords in the choir stalls. These were carved in the late 15th century from oak. Dorothy and Henry Kraus, in their book 'The Hidden World of Misericords', comment on how many British misericords were produced during the fifteenth century and that they are notable for their precocity. At that time, the French or Belgian sets were inferior in quality to those being installed here.

The name 'misericord' comes from the Latin for mercy and they are little seats which allowed the clergy to rest whilst standing for long periods of time during services. According to the Krauses, there are 3500 catalogued misericords in churches, chapel, abbeys and cathedrals throughout Britain. The collection at St Davids is one of the larger ones.

The seats fold back down, so the misericord carvings were rather hidden and medieval carvers could carve subjects that were not as reverential and religious as elsewhere in the cathedral. Instead, some carvings poke fun at the clergy or illustrate little moral tales. We don't know what some misericords illustrate, as the sayings or stories that inspired them have been lost, but they still give a fascinating glimpse into the minds of the medieval carvers who made them. 

The Krauses comment :
'That so much English underseat carving should have survived Protestant iconoclasm was no doubt due in large measure to the prevailingly secular subject matter.'

The lettering painted onto the backrests shows the names and offices of the medieval clergy who used those seats at one time.

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