Posted in Decorative Arts, History

Treasures of Christchurch Priory, Dorset

The 14th Century Jesse Screen, Christchurch Priory, Dorset.

Christchurch Priory, Christchurch, Dorset had been an Augustinian Priory between 1094 and 1539.  After the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) the Priory became a parish church for the citizens of Christchurch.  The Priory has many interesting features including a stunning Jesse Screen and thirty-nine Medieval and Tudor, wood-carved, misericords (sometimes known as mercy seats) located in the great choir.

The Jesse Screen dates from the fourteenth century and displays fine examples of stone-carved reredos. The image below depicts the birth of Christ, visitation of the three wise men and adoration of the shepherds. On the bottom left-hand side sits the Virgin Mary with her Child, not wearing the traditional swaddling clothes but instead dressed in a long garment. Behind her, to the left, is Joseph and on her right stands one of the wise men offering a gift of gold. The other two wise men can be seen above, on the right-hand side. Between the two wise men and Joseph are the shepherds, who are kneeling in adoration.

Detail of The Jesse Screen, Christchurch Priory, Dorset.

To the right of The Jesse Screen is a fine, stone-carved tomb erected in memory of Lady Corisande Emma Harris (neé Bennet, 1807-1876), Countess of Malmesbury.  Lady Bennet was the daughter of Charles Augustus Bennet, 5th Earl of Tankerville.  On 13th April, 1830 she married James Howard Harris, 3rd Earl of Malmesbury (1807-1889). The couple did not have any children.

Tomb of Lady Corisande Emma Bennet, Countess of Malmesbury, to be found at the foot of The Jesse Screen in the Choir. Christchurch Priory, Dorset.

The misericords date from 1250, 1350 and 1515.  The carvings include scenes inspired by religious iconography (St. Mark and St. Matthew) as well as vignettes from Aesop’s Fables. The name ‘misericord’ is derived from the Latin name misericordia meaning pity or compassion.  When the choir stalls were in the upright position they provided support for the monks during daily services. The rule of St. Benedict required tha the monks engaged in these services standing-up.  The misericords were hidden beneath the seats and only seen by the monks or priests who used them.  Churches and Cathedrals, such as Durham, Whalley, Winchester, Hemingborough, Ripon, Wells, Kidlington and Salisbury all have surviving examples.  Exeter Cathedral has a set created in 1250, the year the first set were installed at Christchurch Priory. Misericords were usually made of oak and could be highly elaborate,  some even had coarse undertones. In St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle there is a misericord showing a monk’s excrement morphing into a demon. Another in New College, Oxford shows a naked woman posing in a seductive manner. The beggar is a common theme in several of the Priory’s misericords. The wide range of images shown in the carvings provide the historian with an illuminating snapshot of popular imagery and everyday life during the middle ages.

Jester in long cloak with a large face and ass’s ears. In his hand a bauble containing Death’s Head, with its pointed ears and belled hood.
Long-haired man with a pointed cap and long, flowing robes. He supports the bracket with his left-hand and right foot. The Diaper work is surrounded by foliage.
St. Matthew seated and depicted as an angel wearing a crown and holding a scroll. This misericord dates from 1350. St. Matthew is flanked by a couple of two-legged animals with human heads.
The king is wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. He wears long, flowing robes and is supporting the bracket.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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