seen, and sold, a number of Gothic benches over the years but this one has
proved one of the most unusual and lovely examples we have found of Gothic
design and heraldic symbolism evoked in a 19th century creation.
Inoverall structure, it is remarkable for being so tall and broad. Taking the
chaise cathèdre design stemming from the high-backed, heavily carved bishop's
throne of medieval cathedrals, the designer of this bench created an
architectural masterpiece with a utilitarian virtue - the storage space under
the seat, derived from the original design for Gothic chests as the repository of
a household's valuables. After all,
what is a bench but a chest with a back and arms attached?
If furniture could talk, it would be helpful to those of us tasked with writing
descriptions of pieces whose creators and original owners are long dead. But through the vocabulary of Gothic design
and the language of symbolism used by medieval artists and their 19th century
adherents, it is possible to crack the code and delve into what may have
prompted the creation of a piece and why it is treasured.
Thisbench is unusually rich in decoration, leading us to think it must have been a
commission or one-off design.
Otherwise, the 19th century less costly short-cut of using
plis-de-serviette panels or simple rectangles would have been found on the
sides and below the seat. Instead,
these areas are lushly carved in the tracery or fenestrage design taken from
the windows of Gothic cathedrals. In
keeping with that design, we see arches within arches comprising the four
rectangular panels below the seat. A
formula of four tall, slim lancet arches is used to support two central
quatrefoils topped by a diamond shape filled by a flower - all within the
graceful, sloping ogive arch surrounded by the pointed arch that forms the
overall framework of the panel. A variation
on this design, but involving a formula of three lancet arches and three
quatrefoils, is found on the two lower panels on the outside of each side of
the bench. Just above them and directly
below the armrest is a rectangular panel filled with the intricately carved and
interlacing petal design so beloved in the Picardie region of northern France.
It isthe top part of the bench -- the back support -- that is the most elaborate and
intriguing aspect of this piece. Comprised
of four tall panels of tracery, the two on the outside are identical and based
on the design found in the panels below the seat - lancet arches supporting
quatrefoils grouped within an ogive arch.
This time, however, the ogive arch is tall and crowned by a stylized
fleur-de-lys or flame (flamme) characteristic of the "flamboyant"
style of Gothic design so beloved by architects and designers in the late
Middle Ages. At eye level, and intended
to attract the viewer's attention, are two heraldic shields topped by crowns
demarcated by the same stylized fleur-de-lys motif seen at the top of the ogive
arches. The shield on the left contains
three fleur-de-lys, symbol of the Kingdom of France. The right contains three ermine tails, the symbol used by Duke
Jean IV of Brittany when he created the chivalric Order of the Ermine in
1381. For more about the historic
interaction in medieval times between the Duchy of Brittany and the Kingdom of
France as commemorated in furniture, see Cabinet 3091. That the symbols of both are displayed
prominently and of equal size, would lead us to think that the person who
commissioned this piece was French but ultimately of Breton origin.
Inaddition to the panels of tracery, the base and the edges of the arms are also
beautifully carved in a manner that defies the solidity of oak and the
difficulty of accomplishing such intricacy in a wood so tough and
unforgiving. Overall, this is an
extraordinary triumph of design, symbolism, and virtuosity in a Gothic
masterpiece of 19th century devotion to creativity and genius of an earlier
Webelieve that this piece was used, at some time, as an entry piece with hooks
for hanging garments - given the small repairs where such hooks might have
resided on the stiles. Clearly, someone
thought better of it and removed the hooks so that coats and hats would no
longer obscure the beauty of the carving.
Patrice, Les Styles du Moyen Age à Louis XIV
(Baschet et Cie, Paris, 1979); Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du
Moyen Age à la Renaissance, Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot
(Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen
Age et de la Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998); Viollet-le-Duc,
Eugène, Le Mobilier Médiéval (Georges Bernage, editor) (Editions Heimdal, 2003).