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This panel originally formed the front of a large storage chest. From the evidence of the coats of arms at either end (so far unidentified) it was probably made to celebrate a marriage between members of the two families. It is likely that they lived in or near the German city of Bremen, where this type of chest was a speciality.
The complex biblical scenes carved across the front show Adam and Eve, and Moses and the brazen serpent on the left, and on the right the annunciation to the shepherds and Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. They derive from images designed by the artist Lucas Cranach in the first half of the 16th century. These scenes elaborate the Christian theme developed by the religious reformer Martin Luther - the new covenant of salvation by grace through Christ, as opposed to the old covenant of salvation by observance of the law of Moses. This is made explicit by the inscription in the top and bottom borders DAT GESETTE IS UNS DORCH MOSEN GEGEVEN DE GNADE UNDE WARHEIT IS DORCH IHESUM GEGEVEN WORDEN NEMANDT HEFT GODT IVWERLE GESEEN DE EIN[i] GESOHN which may be translated as 'Law is given us by Moses. Grace and Truth is given us through nobody else but God's own son.'
Oak chest front with central figural panel flanked by two projecting panels carved with coats of arms, and bordered top and bottom with the text DAT GESETTE IS UNS DORCH MOSEN GEGEVEN DE GNADE UNDE WARHEIT IS DORCH IHESUM GEGEVEN WORDEN NEMANDT HEFT GODT IVWERLE GESEEN DE EIN[i] GESOHN
['Law is given us by Moses. Grace and Truth is given us through nobody else but God's own son.' John, I, 17]
The chest front is constructed with two horizontal planks (one narrow, one wide) jointed (pegged tenon and mortise) to wide lateral stiles. The chest from which it comes was originally of joined construction, with the chest ends and bottom held by a rebate on the front. The chest front retains grooves that would have held a till at each end, and is fitted with a lock (with the keyhole in the lion's mouth).
The panel is divided in the centre by a lion mask above a tree, the left branches of which are barren and the right covered with leaves. Against the trunk is a seated figure of man with the words 'Ecce Home' above and the date 1584 below on the plinth on which he sits. The seated man is flanked on the left by a standing, old bearded man (Moses) of the old dispensation, and on the right by a younger, bearded man carrying a book (John the Baptist) of the new dispensation.
The left half of the panel is carved with the following objects:
Moses and the tablets of the Law, pointing to the brazen serpent set up before the 12(?) tents and the figures of Israelites (Numbers xxi, 7-9); and below a skeleton in a tomb in the foreground Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge and the inscription below, set within a cartouche IN ADAM OMNES MORIUMTUR (sic) ITA ET IN CHRISTO OMNES VIVICASUNTER [taken from I Corinthians. XV-22].
The right half of the panel is carved with the following objects:
A cityscape with many towers and spires, and the Crucifixion in the background, witha standing, blindfolded (?) figure representing Faith to whom approaches an angel bearing a cross (needs to be checked again), and in the foreground an angel bearing a scroll with the inscription GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO appearing to the shepherds guarding their sheep. To the far right Christ with a tall cross, rising from the tomb above a sleeping solider, with the word VICTORIA on a cartouche above and the inscription below on a cartouche O MORS EROCVA [ie EROTUA MORS ET MORSUS TUUS INFERNE]
The projecting stiles at either end are carved with coats of arms. On the left per pale, three roses and two bends undy; Crest, a dagger-hilt or cross in pale, hilt in chief rising out of the helmet. On the right a fesse between three roses: Crest, a rose slipped between two horns barry.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
Marks and inscriptions
'DAT GESETTE IS UNS DORCH MOSEN GEGEVEN DE GNADE UNDE WARHEIT IS DORCH IHESUM GEGEVEN WORDEN NEMANDT HEFT GODT IVWERLE GESEEN DE EIN[i] GESOHN' ['Law is given us by Moses. Grace and Truth is given us through nobody else but God's own son.' John, I, 17]
Height: 80 cm
Object history note
At least ten other Bremen carved chest fronts with the same scenes exist or have been published:
FALKE, Otto von, Deutsche möbel des mittelalters und der renaissance, hrsg. von Otto von Falke, mit 600 abbildungen (Stuttgart, 1924), p.241 (one located in Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg and another recorded as Früher Sammlung H. Allmers).
KREISEL, Heinrich: Die Kunst des deutschen Möbels (Munich, 1970)
Vol. 1. Von den Anfagen bis zum Hochbarock, fig.284 (dated 1559)
VON STÜLPNAGEL, Karl: Quellen und Studien zur Reigionalgeschichte Niedersachsens Band 6: Die gotischen Truhen der Lüneburger Heideklöster. (Museumsdorf Cloppenburg, 2000), no.780 (present whereabouts unknown).
W.A.Thorpe 'Spruce and Danske: the origins of Baltic chests' in Country Life Annual, 1951, pp.152-162 (FWK F4781), showing fig.1 a view of the Bullock chest at Abbots Langley church, Hertfordshire - a Bremen, painted chest-front rebuilt into a later chest, reputed to have come from Faulkbourne Hall, Essex, possibly commissioned by a member of Bullock family.
The Focke Museum, Bremen has five chest fronts with the the them (correspondence with Uta Bernsmeier, Curator Furniture, Textiles and Fashion, Ceramics, Glass; October 2005)
The presence of pigments on the Abbots Langley church chest raised the interesting possibility that such chests were originally painted. No traces survive on the V&A chest.
Historical context note
Between about 1550 and 1650 the 'snitger' school of wood-carvers in Bremen produced decorated woodwork used on large chests, many of them apparently made to celebration a marriage. Favourite subjects were Old Testament stories like Esther and Ahasuerus, the Judgement of Solomon,the Prodigal Son and the Law versus Grace. Kreisl (fig.281) illustrates a Lüneberg chest dated 1545 where the narrative scene extends without structural interruption across the front legs, but on other examples dated 1559 to 1592 more closely associated with Bremen, the main narrative is confined to the front panel, with the front legs which extended 15-20cm to the floor (or panels mounted onto the front legs) bearing heraldry, suggesting that this was the distinctive Bremen product produced over several generations. Some of the arms have been identified (the groom's family on the right hand side, the bride's family on the left) and support the thesis that these chests celebrated marriages among the nobility. The arms on the V&A chest have not yet been identified.
The theme 'Der Mensch zwischen Gesetz und Gnade' (Mankind between Law and Grace) refers to the Lutheran thesis of 'Werkgerechtigkeit und Glaube' (the work of justice and belief). The iconographic origins of all these scenes probably derives from images by Lucas Cranach the Elder, but the print that was perhaps used by the carvers has not yet been identified.
For a study of this group of chests see:
Die bremischen Truhen mit reformatorischen Darstellungen und der Ursprung ihrer Motive, by Ernst Grohne (Abhandlungen und Vorträge herausgegeben von der Bremer Wissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft, Jahrgang 10. Heft 2, August 1936) [copy on FWK green catalogue]
Oak chest front, carved with biblical scenes and an inscription, Germany (Bremen), 1584
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Eric Mercer, The Social History of the Decorative Arts - Furniture 700-1700 (London, 1969), fig.138
Jesus Christ; Coats of arms; Angels; Lions; John (Saint John the Baptist); Moses; Eve; Snake; Adam; Faith; Crosses; Prophet
Furniture; Woodwork; Religion; Christianity