Sunday 21 January 2024

The medieval turned bench at Alpirsbach

Three turned benches (with footrest) are visible on this old photo of the Alpirsbach monastery, where there is now only one.

Turned wooden furniture was relatively common during the early medieval period (500-1300): quite some examples of beds, chairs and benches have been archaeologically excavated or have survived in situ (see e.g. Appuhn, 1978/1979; Doppelfeld, 1960; Karlson, 1928; Kortekaas and Blom, 2011; Proos, 2018; Theune-Groβkopf and Nedoma, 2008). One often mentioned example is (are) the choir-bench (es) of the Alpirsbach monastery in Alpirsbach, southern Germany. There is now only one bench left in the former cloister, the ones that moved to the Schlossmuseum in Stuttgart were lost during the second world war. Also the footrests have not survived, both in the cloister and the museum.

Alpirsbach monastery, now a small museum.

The large turned choir bench in Romanesque style of Alpirsbach, 6.7 metres long.

Lately, we visited Alpirsbach to have a look at the Romanescque bench. The surviving example can be found in the cloister church and is massive; 6.70 meters long, 1.26 cm high, with a depth of 67 cm. Seating height is about 46 cm. The turned vertical posts are made from oak and are around 13-14 cm thick. The top of each post has a turned knob. The posts themselves contain many decorative turned lines. The connecting slats and horizontal turned armrest (arond 7 cm thick) at the sides are also from oak. (I assume that the seating supports underneath the bench are also from oak.) The seating is made from a single fir wood board (on one side restored) of around 4 cm thickness; the long boards of the backrest and front are also made from fir. 

The seating consists of one board, the part on the left side of the bench is restored. 

The middle post of the bench. You can see the decorative lines on the vertical posts. The backrest is fixed with 2 large dark-coloured pins to the vertical post. More pins can be spotted: along the rail on top of the backrest board. The middle turned stile of the beackrest is fixed with pins to the top and bottom boards. The front oak post is fixed with a round pin to the bottom boards. One of the bottom front stiles (second right from the post) is fixed with square pins on top and below, and finally the seating board is fixed to the front board with a square pin (left of the post).

Depending on the angle you look at the bench, the turned decoration of  the backrest shows its X-pattern. Along the seating board, you see pins at intervals that nail the bottom front board to the seating board. Also visible in the front board are the 2 mortise and tenon joints of the supports for the seating board.

The square patterns of the backrest. The two outer stiles of each square fit into a hole in the boards. Sometimes an extra vertical stile is added between the squares which is fixed with pins on the boards. You can see the extra one between the first and second square; there is no extra one between the second and third square.

The turned patterns of this square are partly different. The turner made rows of hollows or rows of rounds, instead of rounds interspaced with thin lines (compare photo above).

Looking underneath is always interesting. There is a large block under the seating. This could be a support  that raises the bench from the floor (you can see the vertical posts are not on the stone floor) or as support for the restored seatingboard (On this side the support shows two boards, the left one is the board from the restoration).  

More supports for the seating can be seen underneath.

A closer look at the front boards and stiles, and a mortise and tenon joint for the support of the seating. On the right is an insert, showing a small restoration of the front board. 

The turned decoration of the backrest, armrest and on the front below the seating are made from a third wood type: ash. The turned stiles of the backrest are around 3.3 cm thick, in a square of  around 33 cm (i.e. 10 stiles per square). In total the Alpirsbach bench has 16 of these squares, sometimes separated by an extra vertical turned stile that is fixed by a pin in the boards above and below.  However, if you look at the old image of the destroyed bench, only 15 squares are counted, meaning the benches did not have an exactly same size. That there are some discrepancies is even visible within the surviving bench. Patterns of some stiles between the squares can be suddenly different. 

Top: Front of the bench in the Stuttgart museum with 15 'squares' (image scanned from Von Falke, 1924). Bottom: Front of the bench in Alpirsbach with 16 squares (image from wikimedia).

The turned stiles in the armrest are in two squares of around 20 x 20 cm. On top of the backrest is another turned stile, which is fixed to the board by pins. 

The side of the Alpirsbach bench. The decorative lines can clearly be seen on the posts. Only the top turned armrest and the bottom oak support are fixed by pins. Also visible is that the seating board consists of one plank. The turned decorative stiles have differnt patterns depending on their place in the 'square'. The height of the armrest is around 77 cm.

The side from the lost bench from the Stuttgart museum. It could be a 'badly' taken photo, but the turned side  looks more like a carved board here - no open spaces are visible. (image scanned from Von Falke, 1924).

The benches were thought to date from the 13th century (von Falke, 1924), however more recent dendrological dating proved the oak to be from 1344 (so the bench must have been made after this date). The size and weigth of the benches make it likely that they were locally contructed. The surviving bench is lifted slightly from the ground (some anchors in the wall?) - which I noticed when I looked more carefully at the photos - likely as a measure to prevent moisture damage to the posts.  


  • Appuhn, H., 1978/1979. Beitrage zur geschichte des herrschersitzer im Mittelalter. I teil. Gedrechselte Sitze. Aachener Kunstblatter 48, pages 25-52. 
  • Doppelfeld, Otto. 1960. Das fränkische Frauengrab unter dem Chor des Kölner Domes. Germania 38: pages 89-113.
  • Karlson, W., 1928. Studier i Sveriges medeltida mobelkonst. N.M. Mandelgren, Atlas till Sveriges odlinghistorica. Tillagshafte V. A.H. Ph. Lindtstedts Universitetsbokhandel, Lund, Sweden. 
  • Kortekaas, Gert and Blom, Marcella met medewerking van Rogier Kruisman. 2011. Over stoelen en banken. Een middeleeuwse meubelvondst uit Groningen. Archeobrief 2: 15-17. 
  • Proos, Rene. 2018. De stoel van Overschie. Holland – historisch tijdschrift 50: 254-263.
  • Theune-Groβkopf, Barbara and Nedoma, Robert. 2008. Stuhlbeigabe in völkerwanderungs- und merowingerzeitlichen Gräbern im Spiegel eines neuen Befundes mit Runeninschrift aus Trossingen, Lkr. Tuttlingen. Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt 38 (Nr. 3), pages 423-436.
  • Von Falke, O. 1924. Deutsche möbel des Mittelalters und der renaissance. Verlag von Julius Hoffmann, Stuttgart, Germany.

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