How naughty was the past? The hidden depths of the medieval church

Hidden messages and tongue-in-cheek depictions were widespread throughout medieval churches. But was the medieval world simply rife with satire or did these etchings and carvings hold deeper meanings? Here, Dr Emma J Wells from the University of York explores seven of the most curious examples…

Sheela-na-gig-2-eeab4b7
Sheela-na-gig. (Poliphilo (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

 

1) Monkeying around

In the north nave aisle of York Minster is the famous Pilgrimage Window (dated c1330). The window is named after the depiction of the crucifixion in its main lights, which is sited above male and female pilgrims flanking St Peter. St Peter is portrayed not only with his usual attribute of the key [of heaven] but also by the less familiar image of a church held within his hand – very fitting considering he was the patron saint of the cathedral.

Advertisement

Structured much like an illuminated manuscript page, the most intriguing element of the window’s composition is the amusing animal imagery in the lower margins. Among these scenes is a funeral procession of monkeys with a bell-ringer; cross-bearer; four pall-bearers carrying a bier to which another monkey clings and a monkey doctor examines his sick ape patient; while along the vertical borders are further squirrels and monkeys, some investigating urine flasks. There is also a fox preaching to a cock; a parody of a hunt with a stag chasing a hound; a fox stealing a goose pursued by a woman, while an archer and other animals complete the border scene. But, as Bernard of Clairvaux asked in 1125, “to what purpose are those unclean apes?” And how should they be ‘read’?

Animals in medieval art need to be seen within their wider context, instead of ascribing each single motif with a meaning. Not only in stained glass, but more commonly in manuscripts, borders were decorated with exotic animals, grotesque hybrids, animals mimicking humans, humans in animal form, and mythical creatures performing lewd and humorous antics. In fact, animals are used throughout medieval art as iconographical representations or portraying allegorical qualities.

Many, including lions, were used because of their proximity to people. This could be due to their bestial human nature. An example of this can be found within the presbytery of Exeter Cathedral where a 14th-century roof boss depicts a lion standing on his rear legs, twisting his head around to face a male figure, likely Samson from the biblical tale, who is forcing the jaws of the creature apart.

Lions were also employed as representations of Christ and as the evangelist, St Mark. A great example of Mark and his winged lion attribute can be found in the 12th-century ‘Worms Bible’, housed at the British Library.

One of the more curious marginal motifs was the use of monkeys. Monkeys were often represented doing human-like activities, including playing instruments and games, hunting, eating and drinking, but the overall purpose was to suggest the folly of man. In the Christian tradition apes were seen as thoughtless, compulsive imitators of human actions, parodies of humanity, displaying gluttony, vanity and foolishness – powerful reminders of the potential within all medieval men and women to engage in depraved acts and sin.

The inclusion of monkeys in the Pilgrimage Window, then, was therefore both a deliberate and conscious choice by the York stained-glass artist. It was believed that apes were so-called as they were said to ‘ape’ the behaviour of human beings – hence the scene is thought to be an apocryphal story or parody of the funeral of the Virgin enacted by monkeys. The monkeys are included to make a serious point and a connection to the broader iconography on the window. The monkey’s funeral ‘apes’ the humility and charity of St Peter overhead, as the devotee’s eye travels between ‘the world’ in the lower margins (that filled with man and sin) and the devotional space of the main lights above (the kingdom of Heaven).

The monkey physicians also mimic the medical profession, combining satire with a serious underlying moral – they echoed the widespread suspicion and disdain for ‘Doctours of Physik’ because it was felt that ultimately only Christ could cure the souls of man. The fox stories, too, have similar allegorical meanings, most commonly highlighting the consequences of lapses in devotion and often appearing in bestiaries and art as a symbol of the sly and sophisticated devil.

2) The Mooning Man

The 12th-century Parish Church of All Saints in Easton-on-the-Hill, just outside Stamford in Northamptonshire, features a wealth of architectural styles from Norman through to neo-Gothic. Yet, as you approach the south porch you may be shocked by the 15th-century stone gargoyle perched on the side of the tower: a ‘mooning’ man! Local legend has it that his proud posterior is pointing in the direction of the stonemason of Peterborough Cathedral, in protest at not being paid.

These types of carvings can be found adorning the exteriors of churches across the country in the form of gargoyles, grotesques and also as ornamental frieze fixtures. Before continuing, here is a short explanation of the differences between their functions: though the word ‘gargoyle’ is often misused as a generic term for grotesque carvings on churches, a true gargoyle is a decorative waterspout that preserves stonework by diverting the flow of rainwater away from the roof and walls of a church to the ground below. On the other hand, ‘grotesques’, while they are similarly stone carvings or sculptures, serve only an ornamental or artistic function, and do not include a spout.

Although it is not entirely clear when this bold ‘artwork’ first emerged, it appears to have coincided with the emergence of the Gothic style or, more specifically, the Perpendicular era (1375–1530), with the majority dating to the 14th century – these include several other examples of male contortionist gargoyles, such as those at Lyndon (Rutland), Colsterworth and Sleaford (Lincs), and at Glinton (Cambs).

Several other mooning grotesques can be found across the British Isles, again dating from the same period. The example at Easton features a rather brazen pose: bent over, bottom in the air, legs spread apart but with his head peering round from the right and the strategically placed hole inserted for the practical purpose of diverting rainwater, rather than to illustrate any anatomical features (of course!), and so his proud posterior officially serves its purpose. It is hardly surprising that mischievous masons could not resist the urge to use such orifices for this purpose and that, by the time of the Easton carving in the 15th century, they were certainly embracing the humour of the secular world without feeling affront.

Yet, explaining the general purpose of these impish figures is a rather tricky task. There is certainly ample evidence that people mooned each other during the Middle Ages as a sign of insult – for example, in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ from Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 14th-century Canterbury Tales, characters Alison and Nicholas trick Absolon into kissing her behind – though admittedly this gesture is not quite the same as mooning.

Many therefore believe the Easton carvings to be ultimately protective or apotropaic – to reflect the contrast between a world outside the church beset by the devil and sin as opposed to the sanctity contained within its walls. The idea is that they were placed to deflect the evil spirits by drawing their attention to these insulting characters. So, perhaps the mooner is proudly cocking a snook at the Devil, though he may equally be intended to shock, amuse, or act as a counter and balance to the religious.

SONY DSC

Lionel Wall (www.greatenglishchurches.co.uk)

3) Kiss me quick!

Among the 14th-century misericords at Chichester Cathedral is an energetically captured carved scene of a musician with a citole (an instrument popular between the late 13th and 14th century, formerly known as a gittern, later remodelled as a violin) who is in the midst of stealing a kiss from a dancing woman or posture maker.

Misericords are the carved timber (usually oak) undersides or ledges of tip-up seats on which ecclesiastics could rest their bottoms in the choirs of English cathedrals and collegiate churches during the Divine Office (this particular seat at Chichester was reserved for the Prebend of Somerley). They first appeared in churches in the early 13th century, with the majority dating from the mid-13th to the late 15th centuries. From the Latin word meaning pity, the name literally translates to their function: a demonstration of mercy, as they were designed to support the sitter in an upright position.

The undersides depict an assortment of figural carvings that could be displayed or concealed depending on the position of the seat. This may explain why, although only seen by medieval clerics, the carvings seldom displayed sacred images of Christ, biblical scenes or the saints, but rather vernacular subjects – scenes from daily life, customs, humour and beliefs that included some crudity but also a great sense of fun, freedom and vigour. Subjects vary widely, but we again see many of the same ‘naughty’ yet allegorical representations occurring here as elsewhere in this article, such as temptations of lust, apes with urine flasks, the Green Man (usually a carving or sculpture of a man’s face surrounded by or made from foliage), birds and beasts, abstract foliate designs and medieval folk tales and legends.

What’s more, many scenes can be interpreted as sermons ‘come to life’, used to instruct common folk on principles of doctrine. While certain figural scenes may at first appear secular, they were actually reminders to their ecclesiastical viewer of his professional responsibility to educate the masses against temptations to sin. The profane and debauched images of the sexual lives of laypeople would prompt the medieval cleric to shun women, have self-control and fear the wrath of God.

Photo by Best DSC!

www.misericords.co.uk.

4) Full-frontal exposure

Although the 12th-century Church of St Mary and St David at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, comprises fairly typical architecture, it also hides some extraordinary carvings including writhing snakes and mysterious beasts. But, most extraordinary of all, is one of England’s best-preserved examples of a Sheela-na-gig.

Sheela-na-gigs are figurative stone carvings (occasionally appearing in wood-form on misericords) depicting a naked woman in a seated position with her legs wide, openly exposing her genitalia. The name likely derives from the Irish to mean ‘Sheela of the breasts’. Examples are most often found above doorways and windows on medieval churches and castles in northern Europe, predominantly Ireland and Britain, but also in a few locations elsewhere in Europe, such as the contortionist capital example at the monastery of San Pedro de Cervatos in Cantabria, Spain. Determining their date and place of origin has proved difficult, with many scholars disagreeing over the origins of the figures, as many are believed to have been reused from previous, older structures. However, they appear on churches across the 11th to 17th centuries and were likely first carved in France or Spain.

A fairly strange image to find on a church, you might suggest? Well, though Sheela-na-gigs may seem erotic in nature, it is doubtful these carvings were ever intended to arouse and were actually pagan symbols of fertility as well as warnings against lust and warders or protectors from evil – hence their positions over entranceways. Other opinions are that, given their crude form, Sheela-na-gigs were produced by local amateur carvers and therefore represent folk deities that were associated with life-giving powers, birth, death and the renewal of life. Even so, throughout the past, embarrassed or high-minded churchgoers and clerics often removed, covered or destroyed what they viewed as offensive carvings.

5) Word vomit

Known as the greatest medieval graffiti church in England (and it is, at least, the most extensively studied), the 14th-century Church of St Mary’s at Ashwell in Hertfordshire contains an etching that is believed to be one of the only surviving depictions of Old St Paul’s Cathedral. It records the arrival of the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt, but it is the Latin inscriptions scrawled across the pillars to which this entry refers. 

Varying from popular sayings to pithy comments, one seems likely to have been written by a disgruntled architect: Cornua non sunt arto compugenta sputuo (‘The corners are not jointed correctly. I spit on them’) and seems to date to between 1350 and 1400. Another is a less-than-flattering view of the local archdeacon: Archi(di)aconus Asemnes (‘The Archdeacon is an ass’). Finally, no doubt in a spate of sobriety, a wise-old drunk etched: Ebrietas frangit quicquid sapienta tangit (‘Drunkenness breaks whatever wisdom touches’).

Modern visitors are often captivated by these ‘naughty’ writings on the wall because we expect the medieval era to be more conservative when compared to our own society – but do the things that make us chuckle ever really change…? 

Fig.20520ashwell1-949f3a7
Cornua non sunt arto compugenta sputuo (‘The corners are not jointed correctly. I spit on them’). (Matthew Champion)

 

6) “Look out below – men at stool!”

The Church of St Mary in Redcliffe, Bristol boasts a remarkable collection of more than 1,100 ceiling bosses dating from 1330 to 1446 (when much of the vault had to be rebuilt after the spire collapsed) and features a variety of symbolic and mythological subjects including the famous ‘maze’ boss that is actually a model of the church’s transept roof.

Ceiling or roof bosses are carvings crafted in wood or stone specifically to cover the intersection between the stone ribs of vaulted ceilings or where the roof timbers join or meet at an angle. Again, this medieval art form depicts many of the contemporary craftsmen’s favourite subjects: biblical scenes, animals, leaves, flowers and heraldry, but with crude humour often casually sited alongside scenes of everyday life. Curiously, though, very few bosses actually carry a date.

The boss sited under Redcliffe’s tower is the most fascinating of all: it depicts a rather bizarre male exhibitionist with his posterior waving in the air, proudly defecating on all who walk beneath him.

Their purpose was to signal the especially holy parts of the church such as the position of important altars, shrines or chapels. Due to the fact that they are located among the less immediately visible parts of the church building, some scholars have argued that these unseen areas became dens of artistic iniquity for marginalised subjects –  they certainly offer a curious commentary on the mentality of medieval craftsmen! Accordingly, there is little doubt that the Redcliffe ‘man at stool’ was located closer to eye-level than some of the other bosses for shock value – to inspire reflection, the withholding of temptation and to illustrate that the repetition of such incongruous behaviour would lead to one’s own spiritual distortion. Reader, take note!

7) Drinking with the enemy

Situated above the chancel arch of the Church of St Thomas and St Edmund in Salisbury is a powerful mural that catches the eye of visitors immediately upon entry. Executed in 1475 as an offering of thanks for a safely returned pilgrim, this depiction is believed to be the largest Doom in England.

Doom or Last Judgment paintings were the most commonly painted subject of the medieval parish church and are thought to have once adorned the wall above the chancel arches of most churches across the entire country from the late 11th century. The reason for this was that they were sited at the symbolic point at which the nave of the laity, sphere of the parishioners and world of sin met the holy and consecrated sanctuary reserved for the priest. They present the final judgment of humanity, drawing on imagery from a range of scripture, particularly the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.

A most interesting feature of the Salisbury composition is down in the right-hand corner where a dishonest alewife with a jug in hand hugs a demon, leading to her serving short measures. As a result, her ‘naughty’ act has doomed her to hell for all eternity. It was believed at the time that alewives encompassed a multitude of sins: encouraging idleness and overindulgence, tempting with provocative clothing, and overt displays of wealth, greed and excess, not to mention corruption – ie over-charging customers and watering down the ale (sinful!). They occur on many doom paintings, often giving their tormentors seductive glances, as if looking forward to a diabolical party. They were also standard characters of the medieval mystery plays – again, figures of ridicule, the buxom wench.

An obvious yet literal interpretation of the scene is to emphasise that rank or position counts for nothing on the day of judgment, as all are judged equally according to our sins in the eyes of God. A scroll towards the bottom of the painting reads: Nulla est Redemptio or ‘There is no escape for the wicked’/ ‘There is no redemption’.

Fig.207.20Salisbury20Alwife-4005dc3
Amanda Miller @ Amanda’s Arcadia.
 

Dr Emma J Wells is associate lecturer and programme director in parish church studies at the University of York and an historic buildings consultant. She is the author of the forthcoming Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles (Robert Hale, out 11 October 2016).

Advertisement

To find out more, visit www.emmajwells.com or follow her on Twitter @Emma_J_Wells.