Category Archives: Medieval church carving and iconography

Norfolk Medieval Angels. 2 in wood and stone.

There are innumerable angels in Norfolk’s medieval churches. The county is known for its angel roofs, mainly carved between 1400 and 1520. They can be easily missed if you don’t look up. There are also angels carved in doorways, on fonts and bench ends. I have used both black and white and colour and sometimes left the same photo there in both. Sometimes the angels portray images of Christ’s passion (as at West Walton and Kings Lynn, St Nicholas). There is a selection below. For more information and superb photos of angel roofs see also Michael Rimmer’s superb book, Angel Roofs of East Anglia: For more on Norfolk carving see



My first book: From Bears to Bishops

Norfolk has the greatest concentration of medieval churches in the world – 659 in one county – and this wealth of history is open to everyone. From Bears to Bishops focuses on the medieval wood and stone carving on display in these churches, all of it about 500 years old or more. The size and splendour of the buildings themselves can sometimes distract from the detail revealed in this book.

The book contains 156 high quality black and white photos mainly of oak bench ends but also stone font panels and corbels. ‘Black and white enhances the detail and texture of the wood and stone in a graphic and often atmospheric way,’ says photographer Paul Harley. ‘It helps to reveal the skill and imagination of the anonymous craftsmen who present their world to us. The voices from long ago speak to us still, revealing our terrors, suspicions and desires in lumps of wood and stone.’

Dr Rebecca Pinner of UEA says in her foreword: ‘This is a beautiful, surprising and important volume that will stand for many years to come as a key point of departure for all who want to discover and explore the artistic gems preserved within the treasure hoards of Norfolk’s medieval churches.’

From Bears to Bishops contains a useful index of more than 60 featured churches and an historical essay by the photographer on the development of seating arrangements and carving in churches before the Reformation.

Available from mid September 2018 but you can order now from Mascot Media.

120 pages (220mmx 220mm), softback. ISBN: 978-1-9998457-6-6 UK price: £17.95 Published by Mascot Media Email:


From Bishops to Bears covers.indd


People, green men, saints, and angels

These photographs are all taken in Norfolk medieval churches and are to the best of my knowledge  of medieval carvings. It is a part of my attempt to rationalise my photos of medieval carving in Norfolk. There are scenes from every day life, biblical figures and messages, and green men and angels. More detailed information on the carving can be found in an earlier post

Animals, beasts and mythological creatures in Norfolk’s medieval churches.

I have posted many of these before. This is an attempt to impose some order on the many photographs I have taken of the medieval carving I have found in Norfolk’s churches. They are all medieval to the best of my knowledge. For further information about the carving see previous post. If anyone knows some of the names of the mythological beasts please let me know. Comments welcome.


Some historical notes on medieval church carving and iconography:

Benches and church seating

In the Middle Ages, the main way of portraying Christian beliefs and stories was through imagery. Most people were illiterate but church services were held in Latin. Ideas and beliefs were conveyed in wall paintings, stained glass, rood screens, statues of wood and stone, carvings on the furniture, and on the walls and the exterior. Most of these images were whitewashed or destroyed in the Protestant Reformation, especially as a result of the iconoclasm of Edward VI (1547-53) and then a century later during Civil War. At the same time, English translations took over from Latin bibles and prayer books and beliefs could then be expressed through words that everyone could understand.

Until about 1300, congregations stood or knelt during the Mass. Stone seating in the chancel was out of bounds to all but the priest and his acolytes. The old and infirm could ‘go to the wall,’ against which they might lean, or, in some churches, they might find a stone bench.

In the early fourteenth century, some churches started to introduce seating in the nave, possibly as a result of increasing prosperity. This meant all sorts of activities, including markets, which had formerly taken place in the nave, would need to be moved to a new hall or out to the graveyard. Benches only appeared in significant numbers in churches in the latter half of the fifteenth century, a period of prosperity when many churches were extended or even rebuilt, sometimes on a grand scale. There was no change in ritual practice at this time, which would have lead to a need for benches. However, sermons, which were not universally adopted until the seventeenth century, after the Reformation, were already being preached by wandering friars, and this may have prompted the installation of seating.

Church expert, Simon Knott suggests that the introduction of benches signaled part of a major shift in the English church practice. Following the Black Death, parish churches became less places for private devotion and more the setting for corporate acts of worship. The new wealthy middle class helped to pay for the refurbishment and embellishment of churches and their interiors, for example adding rood screens, stained glass and carved benches. Patronage of the church would ensure that priests and parishioners would pray for the donors’ souls, thereby smoothing a path from purgatory to heaven.

Most Norfolk bench ends date from the second half of the fifteenth century. Many feature a poppy head and a moulded armrest with a carved figure. The term poppy head derives from the French for poupée, which means puppet or figurehead. Many are variations of the fleur-de-lys, a symbol of purity, often associated with the Virgin Mary. Sometimes the outside face of the bench was left plain and sometimes it was carved. In Norfolk, some of the best examples of carved bench ends with carved arm rests and poppy heads can be found at Wiggenhall, St Mary the Virgin, where there is an almost complete set. Most of the photos in this post are of free standing carvings on the armrest.


Seats were also installed in medieval choir stalls, found in the chancel of the church. They were hinged so that when they were tipped up they would reveal a carved bracket wide enough to perch on. This bracket is known as a misericord, a name derived from the Latin, misericordia, meaning pity. The original function of the ledge was as a ‘mercy seat’ designed to give comfort to monks, who were expected to stand during eight services a day.

Germany is home to the oldest eleventh century misericords. It is not known when they were introduced to Britain but the earliest remaining examples are from the thirteenth century and can be found in the cathedrals at Durham, Salisbury and Exeter. Misericords were fashioned from a single piece of oak and in Britain have subsidiary carvings known as supporters. Medieval woodcarvers often showed their irreverent humour with witty imagery on the underside of these hinged seats.

DSC_2253abSt A
Norwich St Andrew, Ape doctor

The Carvers and the iconography

We know very little about the wood carvers, stone carvers and carpenters who made the benches, fonts and corbels in parish churches, although more is known about the misericord makers and masons of some of the great cathedrals. But even here it is not clear if the master carpenters engaged by the great cathedrals actually carved the misericords themselves or left it to their assistants. It is probable that local workshops served local areas. For example, there are clear similarities in style between work found at Blakeney and Cley in Norfolk.

The subject matter for church decoration is varied. Norfolk, for example, has many seven sacrament fonts. Green Men can be found in the spandrels of the sedilia (the stone seats for the priest and his acolytes in the chancel). Bench ends and misericords include scenes from everyday life, sometimes with a moral message. At Grimston, there is man in the stocks. Ordinary people are often portrayed, and in some cases may even have been the donors of the benches. There are scenes of the Corporal Mercies. At Feltwell, for example, three figures bury the dead and a solitary figure welcomes a stranger. Some of the Deadly Sins are portrayed at Wiggenhall St Germain. At Horning the devil pushes an unfortunate sinner into the jaws of hell. At Kings Lynn, St Margaret, a misericord depicts a Green Man representing sin and mortality. Saints feature at Harpley and Wiggenhall St Mary the Virgin and angels appear on the font at Haddiscoe. Typical of the area, a sailing boat and a post mill are carved at Thornham and a mermaid at Grimston and Upper Sheringham. There are also many birds, animals and mythological beasts, which can convey various meanings, some of them contradictory. The pelican pecks her own flesh to feed her chicks, representing piety at Walpole St Peter; the monkey represents immoral self indulgence and the salamander at Great Walsingham, by contrast virtue; the owl, possibly wisdom, but perhaps also night, darkness and evil. Most mythological beasts and grotesques were probably intended to ward off evil thoughts.