These columns represent one of those wonderful surprises that occur from time to time in the antiques business. Having bought them in France without time to examine them in detail, we assumed they were 19th century copies of architectural elements used in the Renaissance. It was not until they arrived in a total of six packages (two shafts, two capitals, two bases), did we begin to suspect we had something far older and more interesting on our hands. The tip-off was the weight. These columns are hand-carved from solid oak, and we mean solid, dense, old-growth oak, almost impossible to carve in the intricacy and detail shown here.
The design of the columns is simple and straightforward — an unadorned octagonal base from which the shaft rises in a classic torsade or barley twist ornamented with vines, grape leaves and bunches of grapes, all crowned with a Corinthian capital. Yet it is the combination of the twisted column and the twisting vines that is packed with history and symbolism.
Known as "Solomonic columns," these are typical of a design combining the twisting cork-screw shape and covered by delicately carved vegetation - typically grape vines and leaves. Their name comes from an association with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, from whence it was believed that a pair of columns was brought to Rome by the Emperor Constantine and installed in the early Christian era predecessor of the today's St. Peter's Basilica. The columns were so famous that they even had names — Jachan and Boaz.
The columns at St. Peter's continued to play a role even when the new Basilica was built in the 16th century. They were incorporated into piers beneath the dome. Bernini used the same design for the four columns supporting his bronze baldachin, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII and installed in the Basilica in 1633. But Bernini substituted laurel for grapevines and added bees, which some speculated were a reference to Pope Urban VIII from the Barberini Family whose family symbol was the bee.
In France, the twisted column or torsade was a chief element in furniture design during the reign of King Louis XIII, roughly comparable to the early career of Bernini, who would later create the magnificent bust of the King's son, Louis XIV. Earlier, in the Second Renaissance, columns covered in a vine motif were used on gently curving, as opposed to twisting, columns in a cabinet attributed to François Parregod, dated 1619. For an example of the motif, see the legs of table 3304. But otherwise the twisted column covered in vines is found more often in stand-alone columns, such as these, than incorporated into furniture design.
We were surprised to learn that 19th century author Victor Hugo, a devoté of Gothic design and a friend of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, had a similar pair of columns incorporated into the Hauteville House on the island of Guernsey where he spent more than a decade in exile. For more about them, see the book about Victor Hugo by Corinne Charles in the Reference section, below.
As the detailed photos of our columns reflect, the carving is intricate and while difficult to reproduce in photos, the vines, leaves and bunches of grapes are in such high relief that, at times, there is space between them and the shaft of the column large enough through which to pass one's finger. To reach this level of representational detail when sculpting oak signals that these columns were created as works of art by a master carver with the strength of Hercules!
Due to their age, there are age splits in the columns, of a type that occur only when solid, carved wood is several hundred years old. >They do not affect the columns' structural integrity. Because the columns are stained such a dark shade, any splits are less noticeable and blend with the overall decoration of vines, leaves and bunches of grapes.
Being practical, the creator of these columns designed them in three separate pieces — base, shaft and capital — so that they could be moved more easily and less likely to suffer damage. >Solid and sturdy, they are magnificent examples of the intersection of furniture making and sculpture, resulting in masterpieces of design and execution.
Boccador, Jacqueline, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen Age à la Renaissance (Editions d'Art Monelle Hayot, Saint-Just-en-Chaussée, 1988); Charles, Corinne, Visions d'Intérieurs, du Meuble au Décor (Paris-Musées, Paris, 2003); Faton-Boyancé, Jeanne, Trésors de la Renaissance au Château d’Ecouen (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1997); Un Temps d'Exubérance, Les Arts Décoratifs sous Louis XIII et Anne d'Autriche, Paris, Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais (Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2002); Thirion, Jacques, Le Mobilier du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance en France (Editions Faton, Dijon, 1998)
There are so many uses for a matching pair of columns such as these. For example, they could be placed on either side of a bed to support a canopy or drapery in between. Or they could frame an entryway to a room, as in Victor Hugo's Hauteville House. If their height is too short for any of these uses, they could be mounted on an elevated base, as was common in earlier times when columns were made of marble, porphyry and other precious substances. Because of the prominent role of bunches of grapes in the decorative design for these columns, we believe they would be especially attractive in the home of a wine lover, at the entry to a winery or to enhance a wine cellar. In whatever venue, they would benefit from custom lighting to show the intricacy of the carving and the dramatic sweep of the vine motif.