Dorothy and Henry Kraus' fascination with misericords has taken them all over Europe. They here recount their 18-month tour of France, spent peering at the medieval carvings beneath choirstall seats.
PLACES where the best misericords are found are entirely independent of their size. Montbenoit (see the map) with its 205 inhabitants, St Martinaux-Bois with 218, Behuard with all of 85, have some of the finest underseat carvings in France.
It was King Louis XI who, in the mid-fifteenth century, built Behuard's votiuce church on its island rock. It was meant to harbour a miracle-working Madonna, to whom the monarch had prayed in a storm and later for a son — both times with success.
The narrow bridge to Behuard crosses the Loire about 15 kilometres below Angers, and the road to the link pilgrimage church passes through the same fields of hemp as were growing in Louis' time.
Were the people then aware of the plant's narcotic properties? Those in the misericords seemed to he. Entry into the chapel is by way of a high staircase behind the rock while the carvings themselves are in the organ loft.
"I like to sit contemplating these little figures," the priest had written. "They tell me all about the wonder of creation."
But the people and even the animals of the misericords seemed to be half-asleep.
They looked M. you through heavy-lidded eyes and several of them had in fact already succumbed to their lassitude, dropping their heads onto their knees or curling up on the soft ground with their backs to you and unceremoniously dosing off.
Often the original church of the carvings has disappeared, but sonic of the sculpture has found other homes. To see the most remarkable misericords of France, those of the former collegiate of St Chamant, we had to search in three repositories in the rolling Auvergne highlands, where they were first carved about a decade before the discovery of America.
On the other hand, we were at times disappointed by the most prestigious names. We had great ex• peclalions, naturally. when climbing the twisting road to the eyrie site of Conques, renowned for its stupendous facade. But the misericords proved strangely uninteresting and even poorly carved.
One cannot always trust the clerics' estimations either of the carvings in their churches or even of the iconography to which they tend to attach simplistic "vices-andvirtues" interpretations.
In reply to our questionnaire they had sometimes designated as "purely decorative" some of the moss charming sets, meaning by this, we eventually realised. merely nonreligious subjects.
Sacristans are often notoriously uncritical purveyors of historical fantasies, which sometimes raised our hackles. This happened at Saulieu, for example, which is as famed for its gastronomy as for its Romanesque, church. St Andoche.
But Georges Barbier, a wonderfully nimble man approaching 90, evidently knew whereof he spoke when he blamed the iconoclasts of 1789 for the mutilation of the stalls' terminal reliefs.
"So why did they leave this Flight into Egypt intact?" we asked, pointedly.
"That's understandable," he snapped back. "What does it look like to you? Just an itinerant carpenter, wouldn't you say, with his saw on his shoulder and leading his buxom wife and baby on their mule? The revolutionaries could sec no harm in them!"
Sacristans seem to enjoy an amaLing longevity. Madame Therese Gourlay, the caretaker of the former abbey church of St Martin-aux-Bois, in Picardy., now closed to the cult, could remember hack to "the other century" when its vault was still exposed to the weather "after the great hurricane."
Official records show that this situation had gone on fur decades, during which the delicate stalls had caught the disease from which they appear today to be disintegrating. -the vault was never well sealed.
i rig free access to countless swifts
which go screeching across the church's ceiling. After our experiences with some hundreds of rural clerics, we can understand why they may have failed to keep up with the misericords. They are simply too busy. The French clergy, secular and regular, is falling away disastrously. One cure we met had seven churches to service: another had six. And both had only scooters to cover the kilometrage between their sometimes distant parishes. But the great majority of them were cordial and even eager about our efforts. We always wrote ahead to the churches we wished to work in, not only out of propriety but also to assure ourselves of the accessibility of electricity or even of the keys, since so many of them were shut down.
On one occasion, nobody could even tell us the church's name any more. We entered the café across the street but after the woman behind the bar and her customers consulted each other with their cycs, they shook their heads. It was not until we spied a group of boys kicking a soccer ball around a courtyard that we found nut. It was St Hilaire, When we arrived at the Cathedral of St Claude in the lures on a Thursday morning, "at exactly ten." as we had said in our letter, the priest, a dark, lithe man hardly 40, with scintillating eyes, was waiting for us. He helped us unload our equipment and carry it into the large nave. Had we known then that he was also the acting bishop of the diocese, we would hardly have known how to conduct ourselves.
As we began work, he said: "I myself have a task for Monsieur Kraus.
His intense eyes glistened mischievously as we looked at him in astonishment. "Let me explain myself," he began. "I am sick and tired of having to show my ignorance whenever 'the faithful' ask me questions about the meaning of the sculpture. I want a lesson from an expert." Though his disclaimer was obviously exaggerated, he proved an eager scholar. Certainly, he gave as much as he received, in the way of church and local background and even iconography. One hour together was without doubt the high personal and aesthetic moment of our trip.
Dorothy and Henry Kraus