Misericords of Ramsey Abbey
Misericords are small tip up seats with elaborately carved corbels projecting from them. They are designed to give the appearance of standing combined with the comfort of sitting for use by the elderly and sick monks.
The bestiary of physiologous was a book that provided inspiration for the design of these carvings. It was an aggregation of fact and fiction classifying the animals as beasts, birds or fishes. The chapters generally begin with a biblical account of a creature followed by a description of it’s habits and spiritual significance, the struggle between good and evil underlying many of the carvings which include geese. They fly in order as do those who live an orderly Christian life and are always on the watch suggesting a watchfulness against evil.
The four evangelists were widely represented in symbols. This practice started in the late 2nd century and owed much to the four faces of the living creatures in Ezekiels vision and to the 4th chapter of Revelations. By the end of the 3rd century the symbols were linked to the opening verses of the four gospels. By the end of the 4th century St Jerome was teaching that Christ was
Man in the incarnation: St Matthew
An Ox in his death: St Luke
A Lion in his Resurrection: St Mark
And an Eagle at the Ascension: St John
St Matthew is represented as a man because his gospel starts with the human ancestry of Christ and stresses his human nature.
St Luke is the winged ox as the sacrificial animal, for his gospel starts with Zacharias making his sacrifice.
St Mark is the Lion because he writes of the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’, stresses the the royal dignity of Christ and wrote much on the Resurrection with which the lion was associated.
St John is the soaring Eagle because his gospel begins with the divine nature of Christ and the eagle flies straight towards the sun, ‘in the beginning was the word’, so we are immediately in the presence of God.
The Griffin, was the front of a eagle and the hind of a lion, was so strong it could carry off an ox, it is often depicted with some large prey in its talons thus symbolising the Evil One with a soul on its grip. This creature is carrying off a prey so it shares the symbolism.
The name Lion was said to have come from a Greek word used for a king, so the lion represented Christ. According to the bestiaries the lion slept with its eyes open just as Christ did in the tomb while his soul was alive with God. Cubs, it was thought, were born dead and were brought to life by the lion’s roar on the third day, a clear parallel with the resurrection.
The Fox is a creature of evil and is one of the creatures used to satirize the clergy, Apes and Monkeys also belong to the devil’s followers.
Throughout the Middle Ages there was widespread celebration of a spring festival in honour of the pagan god of nature, the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green and some of the misericords bear this image as does the gateway now at Hinchingbrooke House taken from Ramsey Abbey.
On the 8th September 974 A.D Ramsey Abbey was dedicated to Our Lady, St Benedict and all Holy Virgins. Two of the misericords depict the fluer de lys, which is the symbol of Our Lady, so it is particularly fitting that they should find their way to two churches also dedicated to St Mary.
Some of the misericords are representations of nature, including one of a hart, one of Ramsey Abbey’s symbols and some are just carved from the imagination.