Saturday, 22 February 2020

The romanesque chests in Sion, Switzerland

The medieval chests room at Musée d'histoire du Valais , Sion
A few things make the collection of chests at the Musèe d'histoire du Valais, in Sion, Switzerland, quite exceptional. Very old and very well preserved, these  "coffres" were made in XII-XIII centuries (the age has been determined mainly by dendrochronology and radiocarbon methods) and, since the construction of the Valère Basilica (XIV-XVth), they have been used as church furnishing.
The six chests on display are part of a much larger group (about twenty, including a few dug out from logs), most of which built for the same purpose: storage of liturgical objects, cloths, books, documents, valuables. Their history is well described in the book "Coffres et coffrets du moyen age", by Claude Veuillet and Corinne Charles,2012 (two volumes), published by Musées cantonaux du Valais, Sion, ISBN 978-2-88426-070-1.

We are going to examine here some details showing how these chests are made, how the parts are joined together,  and take a look to the ironware.

First, the so called "Coffre Ave Maria", shown in foreground at the top of this page, and in detail below.

A rich architectural ornamentation and high-relief carving are distinctive of this chest.

The four sides and the lid are made of single walnut boards.
Measurements : cm 102(H)x206(W)x67(D).
The 25mm thick front (horizontal) board is pinned into the legs by a tenon/tongue (single rabbet) and mortise/groove (in the leg). This is possible because the leg is much thicker than the front board, as the drawing below shows :

The front-left corner viewn in section from above. Outside, the leg and the panels are flush each other. Note that the big nails are just "covers".

The bottom is housed in a groove, all around the perimeter :

Bottom. View from below. Looks like a one-piece board. The groove runs all around the perimeter; legs are also grooved. The iron strap is a later addition. Two reinforcement straps were also added in the front, and removed during the restoration in recent years. 

The beautifully carved legs are left unfinished in the back side.

View from the back. Two hinges are present.
The lid and the locking system.

A frame is nailed all around the lid.
"AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA" - The purpose of the other letters (AB-CD-O(?)E) is unknown.

Chisels, knives and gouges. These toolmarks (after 800 years !) help figure out how the chip carving has been made.

The second chest is totally different :

This is made from softwood. Very long, 331 cm x 104(H) x 89,5(D), it'a double chest, with two separate lids and six legs. The ornamentation is similar in style to the "coffre Ave Maria" (arches and columns), but it is obtained by a second layer superimposed on the one below. The joinery is similar to all the other chests: tongue and groove.

The bottom is nailed to the sides. Only the end grain sides (short sides of the bottom) are housed in grooves .

One of the four hinges and, below, a view of the back.

Third: the "Coffre aux gueules de félin". Cat's (or feline's) heads are sculpded in the columns at the base of the legs, hence the name. Unfortunately this picture suffers from bad lighting (and other defects), but gives you the idea:

This chest is taller than the others: 121(H) x 212(L) x 99(D).

Made of larch (legs)  and spruce (the rest). All the four legs are sculpted in this case, and carved decorations can be seen in the four sides. No side is left rough. The lid is a totally different type, compared to the previous two:

Two strong side-battens (carved) hold together the planks of the lid...

... and provide hinging by two wooden pins. Note that the back, pictured here, is also carved, and colored.

The four perimetral panels are joined to the legs, but this time in recessed position, not flush.

Fourth: "Coffre aux graffiti":
A mixture of experimental/imaginative carving has been carried out here. The wood is swiss pine (Pinus cembra), a favourite of sculptors of all ages for its fine texture and its nice natural shine.

Some more photos and mixed details:

A few small boxes (coffrets) are also on display (Through a glass). Above : XV century, northern France .

A different type of strap hinges, and a broad walnut board used for the back (no cheap second-choice wood).
Coffre Saint Sébastien.
Taking a close look to all the artifacts in exibition, what is surprising is the state of conservation of most of them. Aside from some worm holes and some worn or burnt parts, they look impressively "clean". No sign of improper treatment though, like sanding or similar.
All the chests have been restored by Claude Veuillet not many years ago. Unfortunately in his book, full of informations as it is (and really worth having), no description is given about the process of restoration. It would have been very interesting to see them taken apart, and compare these almost millenial pieces of wood before and after.
Sion is a small town in the middle of a valley. Surrouned by mountains it's not as easy to reach as Zurich or Bern, but, for those who are fascinated by romanesque style, and medieval woodwork in general, the content of this small museum is a treasure.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Medieval workbench book

Christopher Schwartz is a famous editor of one of the woodworking and furniture making magazines, a historical woodworker who featured in the Woodwright show of Roy Underhill. He has his own publishing house 'Lost Art Press' which produces books that are most interesting for those into historic woodworking. In 2017 he published a book on Roman workbenches (no ISBN). I bought this book and planned to do a review on it, but never took the time to do it. Then I found out that the book had become unavailable; however, it was superseded by an expanded version of it, called  Ingenious Mechanicks - Early Workbenches & Workholding (ISBN: 978-0-9978702-7-5), which actually also resolved some of the critical comments I had in mind.

The 2017 original book and its 2018 successor with a different title.

If one takes a closer look at the contents of the books, most of the content actually applies to medieval workbenches as well, which makes it a very interesting for us. The book describes the origin and re-construction of three workbenches, including construction plans. First, two low workbenches are discussed: an eight-legged workbench from a fresco in Herculaneum, Italy dating from 79 AD and an archaeological example from Saalburg, Germany dating from 179 AD. The third workbench is a high workbench with a tail and end vise designed by Martin Loffelholz in 1505 AD (see this blogpost).

The original Saalburg low workbench, a bit warped after drying out for several centuries (left) and the reconstructed one by Christopher Schwartz (right). Photos from the book 'Ingenious mechanicks - Early workbenches & workholding' by Christopher Schwartz.

Christopher also describes how you work with these low workbenches - discovered by trying out (i.e. experimental archaeology) - which is actually how we have been working with our medieval workbench for years. Furthermore, he describes all kinds of the handy appliances (the ingenious mechanicks) that can be used with them, such as the holdfast, screw vises, crochets, side stops, doe's feet, bitey bits, palms, pegs, side stops and notches and wedges.

The story is being told in the usual anecdotal Christopher Schwarz style also found in the Woodwright television series, but despite that is highly informational. The updated book is profusely illustrated with colour photos and drawings (which were lacking in the first instalment of the book). the book is available in two versions: as a 160 page hardback book - which is expensive to be shipped abroad; and a cheap downloadable pdf version (19.50 USD). It is worth every penny. 

Sitting on a workpiece on a low workbench at castle Hernen.

The 8-legged Herculaneum and the Loffelhoz workbench also feature in one of Roy Underhills woodwright shows (season 36 episode 10).