The secrets of the sedilia and its characters

Sedilia are seats in the chancel of a church, normally of carved stone, for the use of the priests and other clergy when celebrating the Mass.

Monday, 10th October 2016, 10:05 am
St Mary's Church, Morpeth. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

They are always on the south side, and the easternmost seat is for the celebrant.

Pevsner describes Morpeth's as: “richer than usual in the county, with crocketed ogee heads and small figures on the buttresses between.”

An ogee is a curve bending first one way then another. Crockets are knobby leaves, a bit like Brussels sprouts.

Arthur Mee, The King’s England, regards St Mary’s, Morpeth, as one of the biggest and best churches in Northumberland.

“The chancel,” he says, “has some beautiful 14th century sedilia with richly carved canopies and curious little figures on the shafts — one drinking from a jug, and two others with extended wings.”

The spirelets, or finials, are also crocketed. There ought to be four of them, but the right-hand one is missing.

Arthur Mee’s curious little figures are five in number, the extra one being at the right-hand or western end. There is no sign of there ever having been a corresponding figure at the eastern end.

All of the carvings have been damaged, no doubt partly by accident, but mostly, one would think, by Puritan iconoclasts in the 17th century.

The figures with extended wings are two little angels on either side of the easternmost seat, the place set aside for the celebrant. We give a sketch of the less damaged of the two. Both are demi-figures, at best conventional and not very interesting.

The figures on either side of the right-hand seat are trumpeters. Each wears substantial boots and a generously-cut tunic gathered at the waist with a belt.

The angel and trumpeter at St Mary's Church.

The left-hand figure, shown in the sketch, is badly damaged, but we can make out most of the details of his costume.

He wears a hood with the tail hanging down behind, and possibly a cloak as well. His tunic falls to the knee, and close inspection shows that his footwear is actually a shoe, or more likely a clog.

The right-hand one is less damaged, and we can say with near certainty that his instrument is a hunting horn.

The features in both cases have been completely destroyed, but this one, assuming he had a hood, does not have a tail hanging down, nor a cloak. He has, however, tucked one corner of his tunic up into his belt. This allowed greater freedom of movement, and is something you can see in medieval pictures of men at work.

We can assume that both of them wore hose, though this does not show in the carving.

Both men face inwards, towards the occupant of the seat, and both play circular hunting horns that they carry round their shoulders with one hand supporting the bell of the horn.

The most interesting figure is the one hiding round the corner, behind the right-hand trumpeter. It isn’t part of the actual sedilia, which perhaps accounts for it being decidedly earthy and irreverent.

The figure is at least partly naked, as you can tell from the feet. The lower part of the face has been destroyed, but he has two big, bulging eyes and enormous ears. The nose and mouth have been obliterated, but it is noticeable that there is no forehead or cranium. The effigy is all eyes and mouth, and brainless to boot.

He sits on what appears to be an open-fronted close stool, or perhaps it’s a birthing stool. An animal — or is it another human being — is underneath it, with its head between the principal character’s knees.

This may be no more than a satirical and mildly rude joke, or it may be a piece of elaborate symbolism that would have been immediately recognisable to people at the time.

James Jerman and Anthony Weir, in Images of Lust, Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches, 1986, discuss sheela-na-gigs, grotesque figures, mostly female, but some male, with exaggerated sexual features. Since a sheela can only properly be female, they propose the more general term 'sexual exhibitionists’.

The sheela’s most obvious characteristic is: “its repellent ugliness: huge disproportionate head, staring eyes, gaping mouth, wedge nose, big ears, bald pate...” Does this sound at all familiar?

We don’t know, of course, what our figure’s mouth and nose looked like, but what Arthur Mee took to be a jug is clearly a not very subtle reference to an enormous, oversized phallus.

Although medieval masons had a lot of freedom in how they did their work, Jerman and Weir point out that they didn’t have a totally free hand.

They only did work they were paid for, and their clients only paid for the work they wanted doing. In other words, this was not a whim of the stone-carver, it was what the customer wanted.

We cannot know the exact significance of the animal between the legs, but ours is not an isolated example.

Prior Leschman’s tomb at Hexham Abbey, dating from a hundred years or more later, shows a seated woman with a cat between her legs.

I have searched what literature I could find, but can find no other effigies of seated figures with an animal between their legs. Perhaps ours and Hexham’s are the only two.

The Morpeth one was clearly a way of reinforcing the church’s moral teaching for a largely illiterate congregation.

This is probably why there is no corresponding figure at the eastern end of the sedilia. It would not have been visible to the lay communicants so there was no point in having it.

The angel and trumpeter at St Mary's Church.