By Robert A. Faleer
For more than twenty years, I have been very actively involved in extensive research on structural and decorative medieval church woodwork in the British Isles, including iconographic aspects of the carved imagery. I recently fulfilled an invitation to make a presentation to Dr. Brittany Fremion’s HST 120 course to discuss several aspects of that research. I have made similar guest presentations for a number of other courses on campus in the Department of History as well as other academic disciplines. What made the presentation for Dr. Fremion’s class unique was her request that I also include why I have ultimately focused my research on ecclesiastical woodwork, and how I initially became interested in medieval church architecture. This offered me an interesting opportunity to explore, and ultimately explain how and why I developed such a passion for this line of research.
I have been intensely interested in the ecclesiastical architecture from a very early age, and particularly in churches built in the Gothic style. As I was growing up on the east side of Detroit, I attended Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church at the edge of the historic Indian Village neighborhood, a place of worship built in 1925 in the English Gothic Revival style. One of the great joys of my childhood in that church was singing as a member of the youth choir in the large balcony at the rear of the sanctuary nave every third Sunday of the month. This wonderful vantage point allowed me to view the entire magnificent vista of the church, including the enormous soaring pipes of the Skinner organ, and the great oak-encased pulpit and choir loft, all surmounted by the great limestone Gothic archway framing the entire front chancel of the church.
As beautiful as the chancel of the church was to behold, what truly fascinated me were the massive timber trusses of the hammer beam roof. Each corbel stop of the beam-ends features a carved crowned figure representing one of the Apostles who holds out in front of him a shield on which is emblazoned the symbols of his faith and martyrdom—the heavenly crossed keys of St. Peter, the saltire cross of St. Andrew, stones and flaying knife showing St. Bartholomew’s manner of death, etc. Of particular interest to me, though, was the wooden apostolic figure that bore a shield with no symbol, only a dark blank square. This was the figure of Judas Iscariot. My young eye frequently wandered to that betrayer of Christ—why was Judas, such a profane Scriptural figure, included among the most holy patriarchs of the Faith? That question and the mystery surrounding it always remained in the back of my mind, waiting for an eventual answer many decades later.*
As a child and adolescent, Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church served as just one of the inspirations for the development of my great interest in medieval churches. Early in my life, I had also developed deep and driving passion for “things British,” which spurred my desire not only to visit the UK, but also to live there for a time if possible. In my junior year as an undergraduate at Central Michigan University, I was afforded just such an opportunity. I successfully applied to perform half of my student teaching as part of CMU’s very first foreign student teaching program, which had been arranged with many K-12 equivalent schools in the southern English cities of Winchester and Southampton. I was assigned to teach English Literature and History in a boy’s grammar school, Peter Symonds College, in Winchester.
During the three months in early 1974 in which I lived and taught in that very medieval city, I went nearly every weekday to Winchester Cathedral after school to enjoy the quiet and unwind from teaching. I eventually became acquainted with many of the cathedral staff members, as well as some of the volunteer guides, all of whom taught me a great deal about the structures and the symbolic aspects of that great church. The single event, though, that acted as the true catalyst for my interest in medieval church woodwork was the day that one of the guides got permission to allow me into the choir stalls, where she showed me the early 13th century carved oak misericord seats that had been used for centuries by clerics and choristers. Misericord seats were cleverly designed to fold up and down like theater seats, the difference being that when the misericord seat is folded up, there is a projecting corbel ledge that allowed the clerics to rest their posteriors while mainly standing through the eight daily devotional services prescribed by the monastic Rule of St. Benedict. In other words, the upturned misericord seat allowed the clerics to stand in reverence, while simultaneously putting them at ease through those long daily services!
My personal “discovery” of misericord seats, and the elaborately carved figures that are invariably found underneath their corbel ledges, is what ultimately drove my interest—my passion—for medieval church woodwork. Upon reflection, it was a long-simmering passion ignited quite by chance by a single choir stall visit. Since then, I have traveled to many medieval cathedrals, priories, abbeys, collegiate, and parish churches in England, Wales, and Scotland, spending much time examining and photographing their structural and decorative woodwork. My proudest accomplishment resulting from my research has been the publication of my reference book, Church Woodwork in the British Isles, 1100-1535: An Annotated Bibliography (2009), published under the Scarecrow Press imprint by Rowman and Littlefield.
*During my years of research, which has included extensive explorations of carved symbolism and iconography, I came to realize that the church buildings were constructed as a representation of both the spiritual and the temporal world—God’s entire universe, if you will. To the medieval mind, holy imagery, which has always been predominant in medieval churches, could not exist without the context of the profane imagery also sharing these spaces. The representation of evil, of the pagan, and even of the obscene were regularly incorporated into the physical fabric of each church in order to serve as a spiritual warning and a potent reminder to actively seek the holy, and by doing so, avoid eternal damnation.
Robert Faleer is faculty reference librarian in the CMU Libraries, where he has served as an academic librarian for 39 years. In addition to his book mentioned above, he has written several peer reviewed articles on various topics, and he has presented scholarly papers on this specific subject at the annual meetings of several scholarly conferences, including the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and the International Medieval Congress.