Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Utrecht Psalter and its furnishings; Part II

July saw the introduction of the Utrecht Psalter on this blog, and began the examining of the furniture depicted in it; this is part two of that series. We are examining the objects in alphabetical order and the next post on this topic will conclude the matter. In the last post we got as far as boxes, so we will begin this one with chests. In general, there is somewhat of an overlap to boxes and chest, and it is sometimes difficult to decide if it is a large 'box' or a small 'chest' but for this blog the distinction is that a chest is an object large enough that one cannot hold it in his hands or arms. In the case with all of the examples from this manuscript, the chests seem to be large enough that they would require two people to carry them.


There are 9 chests depicted in the manuscript, as well as many other objects which look as though they could be chests, but are coffins. In many cases the only distinction is that the object in question contains a human figure, so it is presumed to be a coffin. Furthermore, the text of the Psalm usually supports that theory. In a few cases, there is no body, nor any detail to identify which type of object it is meant to represent, and the text must be the determining factor.

One of only two chests in the Psalter which give any indication of
hardware. Though relatively small in size, this chest is for the
transportation of money; thus the lock and carrying rings

The above pictured chest is completely void of any construction or ornamentation details and only shows an object of relative size and shape. What we can see is that the chest has extending feet and a flat lid which is more that a simple plank (in other words of inverted tray form). The lock hasp shows us that the style of split and turned ends with bulbous finials is older that the usual 12th - 15th century examples we find in museums.

From the book Zeit der Stauffers; this "ca 1180" chest, as it appears now, is actually
much simpler than the one pictured above. It is constructed of simple planks
and has a plank top. What we do not know is what its original purpose was
or if it originally had further decoration. We see here an example
of the same basic ironwork pictured in the Utrecht drawing of 360 years earlier.

Most of the chests pictured in the Psalter show extended legs, but there is never any indication as to the manner in which they were formed. Only one other chest has any indication of hardware on it.

Two chests standing against one another; the front one has an indication of having
a lock and hasp but no hinges. They both show extended legs indicating
more than simple plank construction. 

Though very prevalent in smaller 9th century caskets and boxes, and seen often in later medieval chests, there is only one example from the manuscript which shows anything other than a flat topped chest.

A curve topped chest gives someindication of post and panel construction. 
Other 9th and 10th century manuscripts show such construction in more detail. 
This type of chest goes back at least 3500 years BC and can be found in Minoan,
 Greek, and Egyptian artifact. Its form is also prevalent in 3rd to 8th century
 Western European stone sarcophagi. 


It might surprise some to find coffins associated with a treaties on furniture, but coffins have usually been constructed much the same as chests for thousands of years. As mentioned earlier, there are many Minoan clay coffins (actually large boxes for ashes, as opposed to long objects for the internment of an entire corpse.) which are clearly fashioned to represent wooden chests. In Roman times, coffins were often made of wood, clad in lead sheets, in much the same manner as chests were made of wood and covered with ivory, silver, or gold. There is enough overlap between the definition of a 'coffin' and a 'chest' that we have the English word "casket" which can mean either a coffin or a small chest.  Additionally, the English word 'coffin' shares the same origin as the borrowed French word 'coffer'.

These coffins give no indication as to what material they could be constructed
of, but they do indicate some manner of border-and-field form.

Obviously anyone seeing an actual coffin would probably not confuse it with a chest, but this further drives home the point that in the representational nature of artwork of the medieval period, not enough information is given to show actual details of objects. There are several coffins and two chests represented in this manuscript which are absolutely identical and the only way to distinguish them is from the text. In one psalm the reference is to the dead, so obviously the object pictured must be a coffin. Likewise, on another page, the reference is to storing up treasures, and therefore the same form of a lidded, four-sided object must be a chest.

Coffin or chest? Only the text can solve the mystery

Though there is absolutely no indication of any sort of decoration to any of the 27 coffins (the single most common form of object in the manuscript) there are many examples in stone, wood, and lead which have survived from the late Roman and Early Medieval periods; these help us to see the relationship between furnishings and sarcophagi. 

A 7th or 8th century Merovingian stone sarcophagus and a 3rd century
Roman coffin. The continuation of the same basic manner of ornament over
500+ years is here undeniable. Perhaps chests intended as furniture were
similarly carved and decorated; small boxes and caskets certainly were.


There is only one object which resembles some sort of cabinet of a large form. No details are visible on it other than that it has a cornice, a plinth base, and an opening such as would be associated with a door. (behind the left-hand figure) No further speculation of this drawing will be given at this time.

A large unidentified standing object; perhaps a cabinet?


There are five desks depicted in this manuscript, which are illustrated in four separate illuminations, The first, from the opening page of the Psalter, can be seen below. All of them indicate post-and-rail or post, rail, and panel construction.

This desk as well as the others in this manuscript are of cabinet form;
this one clearly shows post, rail, and panel construction, though the
 finer details are still ambiguous.

There are an untold number of books and "on-line" sources covering the history of furniture which continue to regurgitate the notion that post and panel construction was an "invention" or "innovation" of the, 13th, 14th or even 15th centuries, (depending on the book) yet there are scores of 9th and 10th century illustrations that clearly portray this method of construction. Some examples of this misinformation would be the following quotes from The Encyclopedia of Furniture, which states, in the context of "the Gothic Age"; "The development of furniture is marked principally by the passage from the hands of the carpenter to the specialised joiner. The former employed solid boards, the later made framed panels." Under the heading of "Germany" is found this statement, set within the context of the 15th century; "The post-and-panel method of construction was the great contribution of this age to cabinetwork, and from it developed all the drawer and cabinet forms." Lastly, under the heading of "France" comes this gem; "About the 14th century some genius invented the framed-in panel, a stout frame with thin filler panels that lightened and strengthened the whole structure." The book also mentions dozens of times how "crude" pre-Gothic and even Gothic furniture was.

This ivory detail is from the Ottonian (10th century) rather than the Carolingian
period, but shows a good example of the same basic form of desk. (note also
the elaborately carved chair - early medieval furniture was indeed very "crude"!)

Essentially the same desk as that depicted above; as with nearly all the objects
in this Psalter, there is no indication of ornament, but the above ivory relief
gives an idea of the manner in which one might have been decorated.

These two pictures have been used before in this blog, but the current contexts
warrants a reprint; The first is from the Late tenth century, and the second,
an actual wooden object, from the 12th century clearly demonstrate the
erroneous nature to the above mentioned statements  


Five lamp-stands are illustrated in the Utrecht Psalter, all of essentially the same form, having a tripod base supporting a single turned column with some sort of dish to support the lamp or candle and for catching any inadvertent drippings. 

A bird-formed lamp on a turned column
with a tripod animal-foot base; still
very much in the Roman style
A real lamp with essentially the same base (4-5th century) in the MET
(Author's photo)
Save for the fact that this lamp is intended for hanging, it is essentially the
same as the one depicted in the manuscript
(author's photo)


There are four lecterns pictured in the manuscript, two on a simple square base, one on a stepped moulded base (actually a series of three diminishing horizontal lines) and this one which has the lion-paw feet. All of them are virtually identical to the lamp-stands, save that they have a large sloping rectangular table on which to support a book.

This version of the tripod base has more pronounced curving legs;
three of the depicted lamp-stands have the same sort of  base
3rd century tripod with stylised dolphin feet; from the Beaurains Horde

Base of a ca 1020 candelabra from Hildesheim with lions feet

A pair of ca 1280 candelabra from Limoges, now in the MET; these
three objects illustrate the staying power of this form of tripod base.

Next time, Ordinary Chairs, Plinth Chairs, Throne Chairs, and Tables... Stay tuned.

Videre Scire

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