Thursday 2 March 2017

Medieval iron ornamented chests from France

Last year, on our trip to Paris we visited the Musee des Arts Decoratif. This museum hosts a number of medieval furniture, one of which is a trestle table - discussed in a previous post -, another is a chest that is held together by ornamented bands of forged iron. The front of this chest features in many books on medieval furniture and its iron decoration is well commented and praised. Other features do not appear in these books but are nonetheless interesting as well. From the search for more information on this chest, I encountered similar medieval iron decorated chests of French origin, which are presented here as well.

Musee des Arts Decoratif, Inv. No. PE 982

The chest is dated from the early 13th  century. It is a hutch-type chest made from oak where the mortises are secured by wooden dowels. The iron bands add to the strength of the construction; they also go underneath the trunk, securing the bottom of the chest. The spiral ends in a flattened flower-bud. Square nails attach the iron bands to the chest. The chest is large and has a height of 89 cm height, 165 cm length and 79 cm width. The lid of the chest is of later date and consists of two parts over the length of the chest held together with a hinge.

The front of the chest. There are two-and-a half horizontal bands of iron and three vertical bands going underneath the chest.

It is easy to see that the lid is a later addition (but no clue for the date): the oak is not as deteriorated and worm-eaten as the decorated oaken parts of the chest. A hinge can be seen half-way the lid of the chest.

There is quite a variety of nails used to attach the iron to the oak - also not all nails have survived the ages. The oak shows a severe amount of wear, including the ubiquitous woodworm holes. Sadly a lot of the medieval furniture in this museum is in this worn state.

The lock-plate and lock are gone. A piece of wood had replaced it. Only the holes for the nails of the lock-plate can be seen.

A complete view of the chest, including the lid.

All spirals are slightly different from each other.

A view of both ends of the lid of the chest.

The side of the chest is as decorated as the front and similar in construction. Unfortunately, I could not see the backside (due to the chair of the museum guard).

The trunk of Saint Denis, Inv. Nr. MB 113

This hutch type chest dating from 1220 is also found in a museum in Paris, the Museum Carnavalet, which we did not visit. This oak trunk is similarly decorated with wrought iron spiral bands ending in a flower-bud, which could hint on the involvement of the same 'huchier' (chest-maker) or smith for the construction. The lock and original lid are still present. Different from the chest in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs is that the lid is in one piece and the use of extra decorative nails unconnected to any iron band. Height: 79 cm, length: 169 cm, depth: 67 cm.

The hutch from the Abbey of Saint Denis, the spiral and flower motif is similar to the other chest. Image from the collection website of the Musee Carnevalet, Paris, France.

This photo also shows the side and lid construction of the chest. The iron bands continue from the front to the back of the chest. Image scanned from the book 'Mobilier domestique, volume 1, vocabulaire / typologie' by Nicole de Reyniès.

The Noyon cathedral chests

Three large wooden chests with iron hinges exist which date from the twelfth and thirteenth century and originate from the Cathedral of Noyon. They can now be seen in the Le Musee du Noyonnais. All three chest are made of oak.

One of the three chests from the Cathedral of Noyon, dating from the late 12th early 13th century. Each side of the chest consists of a single oaken board, that connect to the other by rabbets and are secured by about 1mm thick iron bands. The chest has three locks of which two are of later addition. The fittings are made of flat iron about 1 mm thick. The decoration by the bands consists of circles, squares and split and curled ends. Both sides form a cross of Saint Andrew interrupted by a circle at its centre. The lid is made up of three layers of oak assembled with a flat-joint kept together by three hinges and two flat end irons. The chest has no feet. It has a length of 194 cm, a height of 5 cm.

A late 12th century oak chest with similar type of decoration as the chests from the Carnevalet museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts, but more sparsely added. The chest rests on four high feet between which horizontal boards are fitted. The sides of the chest are fastened by flat-joints and dowels. Only the bottom of the trunk, made up of three planks, is constructed with nuts and grooves.Three sets of horizontal ribbed hinges surround the four sides. The lid consists of three boards, fitted to the chest by different types of hinges. The central iron band is made up of volute stalks spread out widely. The trunk closes with three locks.The central lock, likely original, has two secret mechanisms that hide the keyhole. Two of the nails are push buttons; the first slides about 5 mm, and releases a part of the lid that clogs the entrance of the lock; The second push button then releases the keyhole in a similar way making it possible to insert the key. The two other locks with hasps, fastened on the outside of the chest, have no such noticeable peculiarities. Width 124 cm,  height 87 cm, and depth 74 cm.

This two-lidded chest dates between 1227 and 1254. The chest has a rectangular shape flaring towards the ground on low feet. The panels are thinned in the middle on the inside to lighten the trunk. The upper and lower ends act as crossbars and are two to three times thicker (45 mm on average). The panels assembled with flat joints and dowels. The feet hold the chest together with deep mortises secured by pins. The chest is divided into two equal volumes by a panel that fits in a vertical, slightly dovetailed groove made in the interior of the back and front panels. Each lid consists of two flat boards stiffened by two transverse bars. These bars are traversed by a metal pin functioning as a hinge. The lids stay open with the help of a bar that pivots in the thickness of the front foot. A locker originally existed on the left side; evidenced by two grooves and the axle holes of its lid. The base of the feet are decorated with two rows of chip carving. Two ribbed iron fittings develop in symmetrical curls below the locks. Width 187 cm, height 61 cm 61, and depth 57 cm.

Musee de Cluny Inv. No. CL 9323

The Musee de Cluny in Paris has a heavy oak chest that is completely covered (also the underside) in iron plates and fortified with iron bands. Most bands end with a flower motif. Also many of the nails have a decorative flower-head. On the sides of the chest are rings that help carrying the chest. Such a chest is reminiscent of the later war-chests that contained the money to pay the soldiers. The chest dates from the 14th century.

Front view of the iron chest. Height 90.5 cm, width 155 cm, depth 67.8 cm.

  Front and side view of the iron chest. 
Photo from the French museum photo collection website.

There is a double hasp for the lock. Most bands end in some flower motif, as well as some of the nails.

 The rings for carrying (or securing) the chest are visible from the side.

Finally, this manuscript shows how such an iron-bound chest (the ark) was transported and placed upon a pedestal (if it did not have legs of its own). Hs 2505 Speculum humanae salvationis, folio 20v. Universitats und landesmuseum Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany, early 14th century.


  1. Nice picture of this chest. Now imagine the metal gold or silver plated, or even tinned, and fabric, dyed leather, or paint on this, what a strikingly different look it would give, but most likely, that is how it was originally made.

    1. If you think of this, the reproductions of medieval furniture we make are actually incorrect reproductions - or they are reproductions of medieval furniture but at the state they were in at a later age. However, (almost) no-one notices/knows this.

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