Late Gothic coffers

February 2009 | Late Gothic imagination was wed to sacred purpose in every particular of daily life. At the close of the Middle Ages, devotion itself was an art, one that lent gravity to all the other arts and shaped the tenor of living. We moderns day-trip to the Gothic world as strangers, carting with us the dry bones of a secular age. Impatient with religious sensibility, we shrink our inheritance from what was once Christendom to objets d’art. The culture that fathered the work remains a foreign country.

Princes and plowmen alike said their pater nosters in time measured not solely by clocks but by liturgical routine: the canonical hours, saint’s days, and festivals of the ecclesiastical year. Art’s task was to embellish fleeting existence with signs of life’s transcendent significance. We could say, with Johan Huizinga, that the Middle Ages knew only applied art.

One poignant starting place for a sympathetic ramble through the centuries is the rare suite of French late Gothic coffrets—small coffers—at the New York branch of C. G. Boerner. A premier dealer in European old master prints, the gallery, in collaboration with Les Enluminures of Paris and Chicago and Kunsthandlung Helmut H. Rumbler of Frankfurt, exhib-ited eight of them during the 2008 International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) print fair. Wood cases swathed in hand-tooled iron strips and embellished with wrought-iron tracery, they are fitted with complex locks and hidden compartments in the lid. The sides have metal loops for leather straps, and the bottoms are cushioned with leather stuffed with horsehair.

It is the interior, however, that brings them to the attention of print dealers. Pasted to the inside of the lids are fragile hand-colored woodcuts, the earliest form of printed illustration. Made in Paris in the late 1400s, the prints date from the infancy of printing when some books were still being hand-copied. Moveable type put an end to manual copying but color was something else. Hand-coloring, long mistaken by art historians as an antidote to deficient printing technique, was desired from the beginning and esteemed into the seventeenth century.

Each polychromed woodcut would have been recognized by cottagers and clerics alike: God the Father, the Virgin Mary, the Nativity, popular saints, and an intricate Christogram (see Fig. 7). Three (Figs. 4a, 5, 7) are anonymous, as most such prints were in their day; the other five are attributed to an illuminator known as the Master of the très petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, who was possibly Jean d’Ypres. But attribution of incunabula is risky, a sport for specialists and seasoned collectors. More than the arcana of stylistic and technical features, what matters is art’s testimony to the fabric of medieval life and its distance from the modern divide between the sacred and the quotidian. In disenchanted times, these relics will be emptied of meaning soon enough. Before they shrivel again into mute collectibles, we can spare a moment for the mentalité of the age that produced them.

Not large, the coffers were made for carrying. But what? and by whom? Medieval sojourners carried valuables on their backs, but a metal-bound box is not a congenial carry-along container. Heavy and cumbersome, iron also rusts. Would thick hide not have done as well? It is a reliable guess these were covered in metal for the same reason ciboriums, used to store consecrated communion wafers, were made of metal: to keep out mice. Pests posed no danger to jewelry or hard currency but were the curse of documents. Moreover, iron does not ignite, a small blessing under thatched roofs, near candles, open hearths, and chimneys. The boxes likely held deeds, contracts, affidavits, writs, and subpoenas—the critical paperwork that dogs us all. 

It was once thought that such boxes with their devotional images belonged only to clergymen. Doubtless, some did. Itinerant friars and ecclesiastical diplomats and couriers took to the road. But churchly traffic aside, those roads were remarkably busy. Artists, architects, skilled craftsmen, and men of letters went in search of opportunity and patrons. So did troubadours and jongleurs, who often composed their own material and carried it from château to château. A warrior class followed the call to arms. (Picture Lewis Carroll’s White Knight cantering along with his “queer-shaped little deal box” bobbing over a shoulder.) High nobility kept messengers on staff. There were sheriffs, merchants, peddlers, and notaries, all mobile. Along came midwives, herbalists, barber-surgeons, and quacks of the crossways. Add pilgrims, lawyers, and the merely restive. Portable strongboxes served a crazy-quilt of occupational trekkers sympathetic to that slippery state of grace so compelling to the medieval mind.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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