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BARBICAN LIFE


The statue of Christ in the Mercers Chapel


Photo by Louis Sinclair


opened in 1617 and still provides homes for the elderly of Greenwich. Over the centuries members of the Company and others have left money in trust to the Mercers to be used for charitable purposes. In addition the Company itself owns many buildings in and around the Cities of London and Westminster and surplus income is devoted to charitable activities. These buildings can often be identified by the Mercers’ Maiden, the symbol of the Company which not only adorns the walls of buildings but which also appears on the arms, letterheads, legal documents and furnishings. The origin of the maiden is obscure.


A Mercers Maiden in Ironmonger Lane Photo by Louis Sinclair


Unlike most City livery companies the Mercers had no early grant of arms – theirs was only confirmed in 1911 – but their second charter of 1425 granted the Company a common seal, impressions of which show a glamorous maiden. At no time has it been suggested that she is intended to be the Virgin Mary even though a devotion to Mary was common in medieval times.


In a short article it would be impossible


to cover all the charitable activities with which the Mercers’ Company is associated but they tend to follow the example set by early benefactors. Education is therefore of major importance. In addition to administering schools with very long histories, in September 2011 they opened Hammersmith Academy, a brand new all- ability secondary school in West London jointly sponsored with the Information Technologists’ Company. They also organise inter-school activities amongst the 17 educational establishments with which they are associated including an annual 5-a-side football tournament. Another major interest is social welfare; the Company supports the young, disadvantaged, those with special needs, and the elderly and vulnerable through a wide variety of projects. Examples include housing for the elderly, teaching basic reading skills to prisoners, therapy for children with autism and support for young people who are the primary carers for an older family member. The Company supports Heritage and the Arts and it has a special relationship with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It also has long established links with the Church of England and fraternal links with all three of the Armed Services. Although the Mercers’ Company is


now a very different entity from that of 700 years ago, it remains faithful to its original purpose and its members meet regularly and enjoy social events together in their hall. Although the present building is of the 20th century it contains


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elements that would be recognisable to its early members – the Great Hall, the Chapel and associated public rooms. Significant treasures include likenesses of many famous Mercers – a bust of Dean John Colet, an effigy of Sir Richard Fishborne, a magnificent panel portrait of Sir Thomas Gresham, and portraits of Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery and Lord Baden-Powell. Some of the more unusual items of interest are a collection of different representations of the Mercers’ Maiden and an almost complete series of menus from 1844 onwards. Victorian dinners could feature as many as 30 or 40 dishes and Members often complained that food was cold by the time it reached their plates. The Company also has a fine collection of silver and gold plate some of which dates from before the Great Fire of London in 1666. Of special interest are the Whittington Spoons made for his almshouse which opened in 1424 and the Leigh Cup of 1513 which is the earliest known covered cup to have been hallmarked and which may have belonged to the Hospital of St Thomas Acon. But the chapel contains the most


intriguing object of all. It is a statue of Christ, dated to 1500-20, made of oolitic stone from the Salisbury area. It was discovered in 1954 buried beneath the site of the chapel during the rebuilding of the present hall. It is assumed that it was buried during the Reformation but there is no documentary evidence as to why it was buried or the identity of the sculptor. The quality of the carving is exceptional but the iconography is a puzzle. Christ is lying on a robe on what appears to be a bier. Pigment analysis shows that the robe was purple and that Christ’s body had a pink and yellow skin tone with blue veins, and he had brown hair and a white loin cloth. Around the base is a gold lettered inscription from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. Whether it was on display in the Hospital or in the Mercers’ Chapel is not known and how it was displayed remains a mystery. Unfortunately the chapel is not usually open, but twice a year, at Lent and Advent, a public sermon is preached; arrive early enough to get a seat and you could admire the statue of Christ too.


Barbican Life wishes to thank Jane Ruddell, Archivist of the Mercers’ Company, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.


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