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.