Late Gothic coffers

Maureen Mullarkey Art

The Magazine ANTIQUES | 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 paternosters 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. One thing can be said with certainty about the original owners: they were literate. Seven woodcuts combined both text and image, printed simultaneously. Six inscriptions are in Latin; one in Old French, lone witness to the vernacular’s long struggle against the established language of officialdom. A century earlier Dante had written the Divine Comedy in his native Tuscan but felt compelled to defend his decision in Latin. That dual tradition of literacy—Latin for worship and scholarship and the mother tongue for popular literature—held sway in late Gothic France.

Closed, these boxes suggest a diversity of secular purposes; but they open onto the realm of prayer. Each interior woodcut testifies to a culture steeped in collective trust in transcendence, one in which art, like prayer itself, was a service practiced in fidelity to a scheme of salvation. God the Father in Majesty (Fig. 6) is the graphic précis of a language of eternity drawn from the Davidic psalm: “Thou that sitteth upon the cherubim, shine forth.” The judgment seat is ringed by angels and symbols of the four evangelists, a reference to the vision of Ezekial. The composition is a visual tutorial on a motif dear to exegetes: the interwoven typology of the Gospels with the Hebrew Bible.

At a time when lepers announced their approach with bells and beggars roamed in packs, theological rigor was less urgent than talismans against mortal hazards. Popular piety, often a parasite on actual Church teaching, was anchored in the miracle-working power of the saints. To a plague-ridden age, magic promised more than medicine. Enter Saint Roch, who healed the sick by making the sign of the cross over them. In Figure 2a Saint Roch wears the characteristic hat and cloak of a mendicant pilgrim and bares the plague sore he contracted during his ministry. He is attended by an angel and a standard attribute: the dog who brought him bread in his illness. A little later the saint would redeploy as a baroque chorus boy flashing a shapely thigh. But here he pulls his tunic up awkwardly, to convenience only the ministering angel.

Saint Anne, mother of Mary, grandmother to Jesus and patron of childbirth, was a great favorite. She appears on one print hold-ing a diminutive Mary too small to have borne the Christ Child in her arms (Fig. 3). Medieval sensibilities grasped the disparity as a signal of revelatory, not biological, time. Behind the story of long-barren Anne (from Hannah, Hebrew for grace) stands the narrative of Samuel, born of sterile Hannah; and, by association, that other child of miracle, Isaac. Anne’s legend was emblematic of the biblical provenance that placed the birth of Jesus within the drama of redemption.

At the local level the brief life of Anne de Bretagne (1477–1514) is its own argument for veneration of her namesake. Devotion to Saint Anne was frequently safer than premodern midwifery. By the time she died at thirty-seven, Queen Anne had been pregnant fourteen times. Wealth and royalty were no protection against numerous stillbirths and miscarriages. Three children died shortly after birth; only two outlived her.

The fifteenth-century soul, finely tuned to pathos, pulsed with recollection of the Passion. In Christ as Man of Sorrows and the Virgin (Fig. 4a), the Holy Rood separates the Mater Dolorosa from the stricken body of her son. Though the linear distortion of Christ’s anatomy jars the modern eye, the medieval one saw through to the pity of the “Word made flesh.” Distilled from Isaiah, the trope of the Man of Sorrows participates in a sign system that enlivens the theology it professes.

Marian devotion reached a crescendo in the Middle Ages. Rich in metaphor, The Virgin of the Crescent Moon Surrounded by a Rosary (Fig. 5) depicts Mary exalted, Mater Gloriosa. In a fifteenth-century touch, the Queen of Heaven’s hair, unveiled, falls loose beneath her crown. The child is in her arms, the moon beneath her feet, and the sun’s rays behind her. It is an apocalyptic image rooted in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 12:1–3) that tells of a woman clothed in the sun. Like the moon, Mary is not herself a source of light; the eternal feminine, she reflects the radiance of her son.

To be in the presence of these boxes is to stand at the cradle of more than one revolution. The democratization of Western literacy begins here. So does mass communication and our own relentless culture of images. And the printed word was the means by which iconoclastic reformers were soon to broadcast dissent from the exuberant spirituality pictured here with lapidary charm.

The exhibition catalogue Fifteenth-Century Woodcuts in French Late-Gothic Coffrets is available from C. G. Boerner, 23 East 73rd Street, New York, N. Y. 10021. E-mail info@cgboerner or telephone 212-772-7330.

MAUREEN MULLARKEY is a painter who writes on art and culture.