Friday 8 December 2017

Christ as a 16th century woodworker by Hieronymous Wierix

Many woodworkers know the cover of the book 'The History of Woodworking Tools' by W.L. Goodman which displays a woodworking bench surrounded by all the possible tools that can be used with the woodworking trade. The engraving was the frontispiece of an early 16th century book by Hieronymus Wierix containing engravings of the Youth of Christ. Hieronymus Wierix (1553–1619) was a Flemish engraver born in Antwerp as the son of Anton Wierix, a painter, but also known as a cabinet maker. Both Hieronymous, as well as his brothers Johannes (1520-1572) and Anton II are knon as engravers. It is thought that Hieronymus and Johannes were trained as artist by a goldsmith, while the younger Anton II received his training by his  older brother. The Wierix brothers started their career making engravings after works of known artist like Albrecht Dürer (e.g. an engraving of Dürers Melancholica by one of the Wierix brothers exists). The Wierix brothers became employed by the Antwerp publisher Christopher Plantin. However, they had a notorious reputation for disorderly conduct. Plantin complained in 1587 that whoever wanted to employ the Wierix brothers had to look for them in the taverns, pay their debts and fines and recover their tools, since they would have pawned them. Plantin also wrote that after having worked for a few days the brothers would return to the tavern; the publisher regularly had to repay their debts. 

The frontispiece of the book 'The youth of Christ' by Hieronymous Wierix with a workbench and many woodworking tools. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1898-A-19903.


The youth of Christ

Despite their disorderly behaviour, they produced a large number of engravings of which the book 'The youth of Christ' (published around 1563, perhaps ordered by Joachim de Buschere) is of particular interest to us. As mentioned in the bible, Jesus grew up with Maria and Joseph, the last one being a carpenter. Not surprising that a lot of medieval 'holy family' images involve Joseph as a carpenter, Jesus as a young apprentice (sweeping shavings) and Maria doing some spinning or sewing.  Would a book on the early years of Christ perhaps also involve some carpentry? This is indeed the case. The book contains at least nine plates of Jesus with woodworking activities, excluding the frontispiece. As Hieronymous did know the woodworking trade from his father, all the tools and scenes are very - correctly - detailed. 

Thanks to the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) where the originals are kept, and the online versions can be found for free in the Rijksstudio. Here some smaller versions of the engravings are presented. As my knowledge of Latin is zero, I am unfortunately not be able to translate the the text below each engraving.

Starting with a felled tree, it is cut into shorter pieces by a two-handed belly saw by Joseph and Jesus. An angel holds a rule and an axe is found on the ground. The tree is resting on an X-frame. Maria is sitting at a spinning wheel. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-792. 

The tree is being squared by Joseph with an axe. Jesus collect the wood chips and almost gets his head chopped of if not for the protection of the angle. Maria is winding the spinned thread on a wheel. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-790.


Next, boards have to be sawn from the squared tree. Jesus and Joseph are sawing together using a large frame saw (the pit saw). Christ also keeps a large rule next to him. One the ground a variety of tools can be found: a mallet, a square, an axe, a chisel and a compass; and near Joseph a hammer and wedge. The angels check if the wood is straight, while Maria is spinning by hand. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-793

Now the house can be built. Joseph is hammering trenails into the frame of the house with a mallet (as does one angel). Jesus drill holes in the frame with an auger, wile another angel produces the trenails with a chisel. On the right a workbench can be seen with more tools: two planes, an axe, a rule and brace. Note between the plane and the brace is some almost undefinable tool. The form suggest this is a holdfast. Furthermore, the workbench has one leg set at an angle. Maria is winding thread spools. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1898-A-19907.


The house being built, it now needs a roof. Joseph is kneeling on a scaffold and hammering nails using a metal hammer. Jesus is bringing some lattice rails to him. On the bottom right, the same workbench as before with a frame saw, plane, axe, mallet and chisel. Note that the workbench has a hole (next to the axe handle) where a holdfast would perfectly fit. Under the handle of the mallet likely a bench dog or a holdfast can be seen. Maria is breaking flax. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1898-A-19908.


The house is ready, now the garden wall has to be erected. Joseph drives in the stakes with a mallet, while Jesus nails the horizontal rails with a hammer with help of two angels. One the left bottom, the workbench is seen with a frame saw, a chisel and a holdfast. One the ground a brace (piercer) is seen. Maria makes a flower crown. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1898-A-19909.



Inside the house, we now get a view of the workshop op Joseph. The top shelf contains numerous block and moulding planes and a box with some tools (pincer). The rail below holds a compass, and a set of gouges and chisels. On a pin beneath hang two different types of squares. On another pin on the right are two frame saws. Against the pile of wood, also the blade of a two-handed saw is seen. Joseph is working with a foreplane on the workbench. Also on the workbench, a holdfast and a gauge are seen. Meanwhile Jesus enjoys himself blowing soap bubbles and Maria and Anna are preparing cloth with a scissor. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1898-A-19905.


Another scene of the inside of house with Maria cooking and Jesus sweeping the floor. An angel is gathering the wood that Joseph is splitting outside with a maul and wedge. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-791.

 Finally, to be able to do some fishing a boat is made. Joseph is hamming nails into the board planks, while Jesus and the angles do some caulking. On the ground a two-handed saw and an spoon auger, while on the boat itself a brace and an adze are found. Maria seems to be knitting. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-66.866.





Other engravings with woodworking tools

The making of the cross also needs some woodworking tools and they are frequently depicted in crucifixion scenes. The engravings of Hieronymous Wierix on this theme are no exception. Usually the tools are present or carried in a wicker basket/toolbox.

In these two engravings the child Jesus is already carrying the cross together with the tool basket.
 In it are a hammer, brace and pincer.
Images by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-OB-66.883 and RP-P-1926-686.

Three scenes from the crucifixion. The carpenter has a two-handed saw, brace, pincer, chisel, claw-hammer. The scene where the cross is prepared has two carpenters working with a brace. They use their breast to give pressure on the drill. Images by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-110, RP-P-OB-66.824 and RP-P-1911-492.

Other Saints

Hieronymous Wierix are made a series of engravings of Saints and Apostles, one of which is Saint Thomas. Unfortunately, Thomas does not carry a square or compass here, but only the spear. Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1984-26.

Johannis Wierix

Johannis, the brother of Hieronymous has a different style of engraving. Also he has made an engraving with woodworking tools.

The flight to Egypt. Joseph carries the tools of his trade with him in a wicker basket on a large two-handed saw resting on his shoulder. The basket contains a brace, chisel, square, compass and a mallet. 
Image by Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1904-1221.


  1. Thanks for sharing these, they are terrific prints. The Latin are rhyming verses which couple the activities we see in the picture with allusions to incidence from Christ's life or deeds. Example, the last scene with the boat says that in vain the father prepares the boat and wears the boots because the weaving mother's son can walk on the water whenever he wants to.