The Studious Cat

Misericord from Sint-Petruskerk, Oirschot, Netherlands. Photo from the Elaine C. Block Database of Misericords held by Princeton University.

While sorting through a file of misericords (originally amassed in 2016 for a three-part series on the woodworkers found in misericords), I rediscoverd this photo and decided to find out more about it.

The Message in the Misericord

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Part of the study of misericords involves determining which parable, proverb or fable is depicted. With the mouse on the table we know this is a cat and not a fox, dog or bear. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Nederlandse Spreekwoorden” (Netherlandish Proverbs) painted in 1559 is once source used to match a misericord to a proverb. The only proverb in the painting involving a cat is this one:

To “bell a cat” (even if one is armed to the teeth) is interpreted as carrying out a dangerous plan, or a plan doomed to failure. There is also the proverb “while the cat is away, the mice will play” or the alternative “when the cat is at home the mice are afraid.” None of these options apply to this misericord. One writer thought perhaps the cat was reading a Bible which would be an example of “the world turned around” with an animal performing human activities. The reading of this misericord may be to show the stark contrast between a well-fed cat studying in a comfortable setting compared to its normal “job” of being a mouser. This would be a reminder to a cleric or monk that the effort to study should be taken seriously, whereas a cat has no choice but to work continuously for its next meal. Not all scenes can be deciphered to have a particular meaning and this misericord may just show the typical cat trait of curiosity and their annoying habit of taking over their owner’s chair.

The History of This Misericord

The misericord was carved in oak by Jan Borchmans between 1508-1511. He worked in churches in Oirschot, Netherlands, and in Averbode and Aarschot, both in Belgium. The photograph was taken in 1941 by Martien Coppens. In 1943 Hans Sibbelee also photographed the church in Oirschot as part of a war-time effort to document important monuments and works of art. We are fortunate to have this photographic record. On October 2, 1944, Sint-Petruskerk was shelled during the Battle of the Scheldt, the World War II campaign to free Belgium and the Netherlands. The shelling caused a fire that destroyed all the choir carvings and misericords. Twenty-two days later and after tremendous losses, Oirschot was liberated on October 24, 1944.

Although the story of this misericord is poignant, we have a photograph that allows us to appreciate Jan Borchmans’ craftmanship and perhaps his sense of humor. He very kindly provided a footstool to accommodate this well-fed cat’s very large hind feet.

I don’t know about you, but this misericord has three elements that remind me of a workshop on Willard Street in Covington, Kentucky, where chairs are made, books are edited and cats roam free.

Suzanne Ellison

P.S. If you would like to check out my 2016 series on misericords featuring woodworkers you can read about them here (the woodworkers), here (the carvers) and here (the workbenches). The Carvers post includes these misericord carvers:

Church of Notre-Dame des Grands-Andelys, France, dated 1413.

Christopher Schwarz also wrote something about workbenches and misericords and you can read about it here. Altogether that should take care of your weekend activities.


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