the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

The Mercy Seat: Spatial Politics

Posted by gninja on June 29, 2006

Not the kind of carving you’d find on a rocking chair in your granny’s house:


The questions, of course, are: why is a monk mooning us, and what could this possibly mean? As I talked about in a previous post, the carvings on misericords were intended for the eyes of clergy and, due to their location on seats in the choir, would not have been visible to a church’s congregants. What’s more, during a service, these images would have been obscured by the bodies (and more specifically, the behinds) of the standing clerics. And should this fact not convince us thoroughly of their intended concealment, the carvings would also have been out of sight when the seat of the chair was pulled down. To clarify, this is an image of the seats in the up position:


Knowing their intended audience (and the audience for whom they were not intended), we can surmise more specifically what the purpose of the misericord images was. Obviously, their purpose extends beyond the purely functional, for if such were the case, these leaning-shelves for the relief of praying clergy would have been left unadorned.

Culling through some images of misericords, I found that depictions of knights are fairly prevalent:


As are portrayals of haggard women and hybrid sirens:


(Yes, the image immediately above is a woman, and, yes, she is presenting her genitals.)

What should immediately alert us to the social implications of these images is that they are representations of non-clerical figures intended for the gaze of the clergy. We know this because of their location: misercords were situated in the choir of a church, an area cordoned off to the public by a choir screen. So, here:


This portion of the church was visible to the congregant (through grating or an open door), but it was physically inaccessible to them. So, even before we get to the concealment of misericords images by monks’ and clerics’ behinds, we have a form of visual subjugation of two social groups (knights and women) to another social group (the clergy). And, remember, medieval society was organized into three orders–those who pray, those who fight, and those who plow–the praying and fighting sectors of which were always in competition for the upper hand.

Think of the gaze as a potential tool of dominance and the image as an inactive agent lacking the inherent capacity to control its reception. Now, sure, images are also powerful and can hold such an emotional sway that they impel us to acts of iconoclasm or veneration or consumerism. In which case it could be argued that images are not inactive agents, but instead agents who move us to act. But, as is something of my mantra, context is what matters, and beyond the most basic forms of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal, there are very few forms of representation that have intrinsic meaning. In the case of misericords, there was an actual combative relationship between the clergy and the nobility, and there was gender inequality. So when we see images of groups for whom the clergy felt an antagonism, given over to the exclusive gaze of the clergy, there is little doubt that the images are at the will of their beholders.

And, to drive home the point, these images were then smothered under the asses of the clergy. Not only was this dynamic known to the monks and artists of these images, but it was also cause for joking, as seen in the above image of a monk bending over to reveal his behind. Pleasant, no?

No doubt you’re wondering how the misericord carving can function as an assertion of power over other social groups if these other social groups cannot even see the images. Good question. Certainly, from the perspective of the Church, it was important for those who fight and those who plow to be know their (lower) place, and public art often did communicate this message. Note, for example, the Notre Dame tympanum including King Louis VII paying obeisance to Mary and JC, while the bishop remains standing and on the dominant (right hand of Christ) side:


So, yes, public art was used to proclaim the authority of the Church. In the case of misericords, however, I believe the intention was to perpetuate belief in the legitimacy of the Church’s superiority among its own ranks. Not only did many monks and clerics start off as sons of noblemen (and thus might have a natural sympathy for the group into which they were born), but many of them may also have taken Biblical exhortations to humility a bit too seriously as well. But it was images like these that were instrumental in maintaining the clerics’ sense of power and authority over the laity.

A final note. There are examples of this kind of visual power brokering going on today, but I can’t quite locate the most appropriate analogy– if anyone can think of one, by all means let me know. The best I could think of is this: an airplane. Imagine an airplane, with its coach section and first class section divided by a curtain. Now imagine images and caricatures of the people sitting in the coach section silk screened on the first class seats. Not the best analogy (because, thankfully, it’s imaginary), but you get the idea of what a vulgar declaration of power this is.


One Response to “The Mercy Seat: Spatial Politics”

  1. […] In the previous post, I discussed a form of social-power statement made through controlling images of others. But what about representations of the self? Control is an important aspect of portraiture, although the manner in which it is gained can differ from the methods used in declaring power through the depiction of others. However, before addressing specific examples (which will be the subject of part two) there are various caveats to make regarding medieval portraiture. […]

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