Object of the Month: October 2019


Choir Stalls

Oak

Jan Terwen Aertsz.

Flemish, 16th century

Churches and cathedrals throughout time have something architecturally in common: a location for the choir. Where the choir is placed differs in the various places of worship, yet the choir accentuates the central focus of the church: the altar. In many early European monasteries and later collegiate churches, the choir was positioned along the chancel which separates the nave (where the laity would sit) from the altar. The chancel is lined with rows of seating for the choir members. Every detail within Medieval and Renaissance places of worship were handcrafted, including the choir’s seating or choir stalls.

Choir stalls consist of carved, individual seats divided by armrests; these seats are attached to a long, carved dorsal panel (a short or high backrest board) and sometimes a canopy. M&G’s pair of sturdy oak Choir Stalls date to the 16th century and were designed by Gothic Flemish artist Jan Terwen Aertsz.

Little is known about Jan Terwen Aertzs. who lived a long life of 78 years. Born in 1511 and later educated at the Dordrecht School, Jan was considered a master woodcarver in Dort, also known as Dordrecht.  While the exact church in the Netherlands from which M&G’s Choir Stalls originate remains a mystery, the location of Jan’s greatest work is on view in the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht. The church’s choir stalls, made between 1538-1542, demonstrate Jan’s skill and eye for detail, and are pristine examples of Flemish woodworking in the 16th century.

M&G’s Choir Stalls provide two sets of four seats each and are covered in finely detailed carvings. For example, the fins under the armrest are devised to look like eagles with every feather individually carved into the hard oak. The dorsal and end panels of the stalls contain images from various Biblical stories, including King Solomon displaying his God-given wisdom with the two mothers, and the believing woman healed by just a touch of Christ’s robe. Every minute design is accounted for—from the patterned hem of a character’s tunic, and the hair on Jesus’ head and beard, to the scenes’ distant mountains in the background, and the patterns in the tile underfoot. Surrounding these narratives are decorated spindles and more reliefs consisting of fruit and flowers flanked by winged, mythological creatures. 

One of the most fascinating details of the Choir Stalls are the misericords. Misericords (from the Latin word for pity and heart, literally pity of the heart or compassion of the heart) are molded brackets on the underside of a seat. Choirs or monks would stand for hours singing and participating in the worship ceremony; to provide them with a modicum of comfort and stability, these misericords or “mercy seats” were added. When the choir members would stand to sing, they could lift the seat up and surreptitiously rest against this small structure while still appearing to be standing. 

The ownership history, or provenance, of these beautiful seats is long, mysterious, and fascinating. The choir stalls survived the iconoclasm that followed the Protestant Reformation sweeping through the Netherlands as staunch Catholic Philip II of Spain fought to retain Flanders, where they remained undamaged until the early 20th century. As America entered the Gilded Age with its booming economy, many American business and factory owners became millionaires; they wished to display their newly-earned wealth and position by designing grand homes decorated in the Old-World style. Men like architect Stanford White were sent to Europe to purchase whole rooms of traditional Medieval or Renaissance décor and ship the furnishings back to America. White chose the Choir Stalls to adorn Hearst Castle built by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. The choir stalls decorated Hearst’s home until his bankruptcy during the Great Depression. In 1941, Hammer Galleries acquired the choir stalls at auction. A later owner gifted the Choir Stalls to the Collection in 1968, where they found a home among objects and paintings of the same age. While they are not being used for their original purpose, the Choir Stalls allow M&G’s guests a glimpse into 16th-century cathedrals.

Ashley Ellis, M&G History Intern