This solid walnut cabinet is an argenterie — a tall, slim dressoir where the household silver (argent) was locked away in the central storage compartment. Above and below are areas for displaying valuables such as silver, glassware or ceramics.
Stylistically, it is a pleasing combination of Gothic architectural elements such as pointed arches and tracery or fenestrage. To these are added heraldic motifs along with a central panel based on falconry (and in need of an imaginative narrative — more about that, below). The lower display area (the pot board) resembles a hexagonal Gothic portico surrounded by a low railing and multi-faceted, pointed arches in a motif reminiscent of Venice. At the back of the pot board are linen-fold or plis de serviette patterns, the typical background decor for display areas.
The central storage compartment is also hexagonal in shape with the four smaller sides made up of panels containing tracery motifs of elongated, pointed arches and circles or semi-circles of intersecting shapes reminiscent of petals. The door panel is decorated with a shield and knight's jousting helmet surrounded by acanthus leaves and a pennant rustling in an imperceptible breeze. These give the cabinet its dominant theme of medieval chivalry, echoing such mainstays as heraldry, falconry, and armor.
In keeping with traditional Gothic forms used for the more common, wide dressoirs (see contemporary illuminated manuscripts such as Mariage de Renaud et Clarisse in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal in Paris), the top display area is open at the sides and crowned by a canopy whose shape and arches echo those of the lower display area. But unlike other Gothic argenteries we have seen, the design for the back panel is not tracery but rather an elaborate and intricately carved three-dimensional scene.
In rich detail, a falcon lands on the wrist of the lone, central figure. This young man is dressed in an elaborate costume and plumed hat. His clothing is a 19th century interpretation of medieval fashion, including prominence for what appears to be either a codpiece or a pouch filled with treats for the bird. We suspect it is the former, judging by the extent to which this feature is burnished from the attention of many curious fingers over the years. Behind the figure is a lush landscape of trees and what looks like a walled castle or town creating a richly detailed illusion of deep perspective.
Perhaps the scene is designed as homage to the 13th century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II who was renowned for his obsession with falconry - so much so that he lost a battle when his love of hunting won out over his commitment to besieging a fortress. Whoever is depicted, he must be from the highest ranks of the nobility judging by the large size of the bird which, in medieval times, was reserved for the highest stratum of society. Most likely, the source of the scene is a 19th century engraving designed to evoke the romance of earlier times but our research has not yet identified it.
Fastened to the front of the canopy is a stylized fleur-de-lis which we believe is a later addition or perhaps a replacement for a broken piece. Over seven feet tall, this cabinet has been retro-fitted with supports at the back to prevent warping and to safeguard its structural integrity when being moved.
Because of the intricacy of the carving, the darkness of the wood, and the reflectivity and distortion caused by flash photography, this piece and its intricate details have proved difficult to capture in photos, as revealed by the variations in color shown on this page.
Carroll, Shawn E., Ancient & Medieval Falconry, Ohio Chapter of the Richard III Society (1996); 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)
Ideal as a display cabinet, this piece would do well in a foyer, hallway, at the top of a staircase or in virtually any room of the house. To best appreciate the intricacy of the carved scene comprising the back panel, we recommend that a narrow source of light be focused on the top half of the argenterie.