Lincoln Cathedral may not strike you as the home of exotic beasts, but hidden among the choir stalls, capitals and carvings is a silent menagerie of creatures. In celebration of Monkey Day on the 14th December, Lincoln Cathedral and the Young Journalists from Monks Abbey Primary School indulged in some monkey spotting.
Monkeys were often used in medieval art as a symbol of man unburdened by constraint. This stemmed from their similarity in appearance and mannerisms to humans. That monkeys can also imitate human behaviour meant they were linked to the trait of vice masquerading as virtue. It may seem surprising that medieval Lincolnians knew about monkeys, but trade links with the East resulted in the import of exotic animals to our shores from the 12th century. Often used for street entertainment, monkeys would attract large crowds.
Several examples of monkey carvings are known externally and internally. In St Hugh’s Choir, where the oak choir stalls are richly carved with an array of animals, foliage and other motifs. The choir stalls are fine examples of late 14th century carving and Pugin, the 19th century architect and designer, proclaimed them to be the finest choir stalls in the kingdom.
The poppy-head finial located at the Precentor’s stall in the Choir contains a troop of monkeys playing out a moral scene with a very clear message: the first monkey is stealing a cake, the second is shown hanged and the third is lying in this grave. Also in St. Hugh’s Choir are two cavorting monkeys, one of which is riding a lion and the other a unicorn. Unicorns were one of the most important imaginary animals in the medieval period. Described as wild woodland beasts, they were a symbol of purity and grace, and could only be captured by a virgin. Lions also had an important symbolic meaning, particularly in Christianity where they are associated with Christ, the Lion of Judah. In medieval bestiaries (medieval books with allegorical descriptions of animals) lions represented God: a lion sleeps with its eyes open as does God who never sleeps but watches over us. The monkeys clinging to their backs possibly symbolises uncivilised behaviour (they literally and allegorically have a ‘monkey on their back’).
The Young Journalists report
On the 14th December the Monks Abbey news team went to Lincoln Cathedral to find out about Monkey Day. Monkey Day is about thinking of endangered monkeys around the world. The Cathedral celebrated Monkey Day because it has loads of monkeys carved out of stone and wood hidden all over the Cathedral.
On Monkey Day this year the Cathedral invited The Young Journalists to try and find them all. The Young Journalists enjoyed this trip and learned lots about Monkey Day. They also got to monkey around a bit while they were there, which was fun!
More pictures are to follow in the first edition of Monks Abbey’s ‘Cathedral Comics’, out very soon! Keep an eye on the Junior News website for more info!