What the Misericord Carvings Mean

Misericords evolved in a world where the majority of people were unable to read or write. Churches were full of visual imagery with religious stories portrayed in wall paintings, stained glass windows and statues of saints. Every form of decoration was used to convey messages about good and evil, right and wrong, the stories of Christ and the saints.

There are no religious scenes depicted on the misericords in the chancel of Holy Trinity, although they are to be found in other churches. The carvings here depict, in the main, the same sorts of mythical animals and humans that also feature in illuminated psalters, manuscripts, mosaics and woven into tapestries of the mediaeval period, laden with allegorical meaning. Misericord seats in churches and monasteries across the country were all carved to the same format, with three elements on each seat. Also in Holy Trinity, the armrests that separate the seats each display a beautifully carved angel.

The carvings are a mixture of bawdy and satirical with a theatrical, almost carnival-like element, but with an underlying sacred meaning. They are a stark reminder that the devil is everywhere in everyday life and is poised to drag souls to hell.  In this carving of a merman and a mermaid, the mermaid is combing her hair and holds a broken mirror in her right hand: these signify earthly vanity. The merman holds a stone in his right hand.  Mermaids were a sign of danger and represented female seduction of men who are being enticed onto the rock of sin. The merman has clearly succumbed to the dangers represented by the mermaid.