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  • Place of origin:

    Europe (western, made)

  • Date:

    1350-1370 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oak, carved and painted, with metal mounts and textile/paper lining

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Furniture, Room 135, The Dr Susan Weber Gallery, case BY5, shelf CASE2

The lid of this casket shows a scene from the story of Tristan and Isolde, one of the most popular medieval romances. The adulterous lovers Tristan and Isolde meet secretly at a fountain, spied upon by Isolde's husband King Marke and a dwarf who hide in a tree. On the sides of the casket are scenes showing hunting, a lady and a Wild Man, and a couple playing chess.

What makes this casket particularly remarkable is that it retains much original paint. When it was bought by the Museum in 1855 the box had been overpainted in a dark colour and it was only during the next twenty years that this was removed to reveal the brighter colours underneath.

Decorated caskets were probably often given as gifts in the middle ages. The scenes associated with courtly love on this one suggests that it may have been a love gift, to mark a betrothal.

Physical description

Lidded oak box, carved with scenes from the story of Tristram and Isolde, with painted (mainly red) decoration, and iron mounts and lock.

The casket is a large box with hinged lid. The quartered oak boards are joined with a mitred joint (the front and back boards extending slightly over the side boards at the outside of the mitre). The internal joint is not visible, but it is presumed to be butted. The base board (a single oak panel) is held in rebates cut in the front, back and side panels, with supplementary hand-made nails. Seven nailed iron mounts originally extended under the base board, but all but one of these have broken. Plain iron bands are nailed around the front and sides of the lid. Passing over the lid and all four faces, and extending a short distance under the box are iron straps, with quatrefoil flower heads at intervals, through which nails are fixed. Where these straps pass over the lid, the quatrefoil flowers are flanked by small rectangular sections with a milled upper surface. Three of these straps incorporate hinges, the central one of which is now broken, and missing part. In the centre of the lid is a metal handle of M form, with a shaped, central knop. On the front is an external lock plate (apparently original). Below the lock plate is a fixing loop (presumably added), the hasp for which (now missing) was fixed to a band of iron nailed to the front top edge of the lid. Flanking the lockplate are two keyholes crudely cut through the front panel, which correspond to two internal locks and two barbed lock bolts fitted into the lid. Caskets of this type are usually fitted with a single lock. The interruption of the carved designs by the keyholes, and the internal evidence suggests that these were added, probably at an early date, and their fitting may have required the partial removal of the canvas lining behind the front board . On the underside of the base board at the corners are four holes cut into the mitre line, presumably for low, angled metal feet (which are missing). The keys are missing.

The lid board is lined with linen of rather crude quality (probably dating to pre-1500), and the box itself is lined with blue paper over traces of what may be metal sheet and linen.

Carved decoration
The lid is carved with two standing figures, each beside a tree, representing Tristan (right) and Isolde (left) pointing at a pool, flanking a tree in which King Mark with a sword and the dwarf hide, above a pool. Where the handle is fixed to the lid two monstrous animal mask bosses (bat/lion) are carved. The front, back and ends are carved with conventional scenes of courtly love and hunting: the front with two central lions, back to back, with a seated wild man (right) facing a seated lady and male servant (left). The back is carved with a seated lady and man playing chess beneath two trees, this scene compartment flanked by compartments containing a man (right) and woman (left). The left side of the casket is carved with two compartments containing two trees and a huntsman on horseback, blowing a horn, with a hound alongside, and left, a tree with a huntsman on foot with two hounds bringing down a deer. The right side is carved with two compartments containing two trees and a woman on horseback, with a hound alongside, and left, a man who cups one hand to his eye and reaches the other into the jaws of a bear(?) sitting on its haunches while two hounds attack it.

Place of Origin

Europe (western, made)


1350-1370 (made)



Materials and Techniques

Oak, carved and painted, with metal mounts and textile/paper lining


Height: 15 cm, Width: 29.3 cm, Depth: 25.5 cm

Object history note

This casket came from the Bernal Collection, auctioned in London in 1855. It was bought by the Museum of Ornamental Art (as the Victoria and Albert Museum was then called) for £15. 15s. The collection of ceramics, glass, metalwork and woodwork formed by Ralph Bernal MP 'was reckoned to be the only English Collection which could rival the 'private "cabinets" ' of France.' (Anthony Burton, 'Vision and Accident. The Story of the Victoria and Albert Museum' (London 1999), p.34)

LONDON, Victoria and Albert Museum: 50 Masterpieces Series. Woodwork. (London, 1955) says that "Its colours were brought to light in the course of later [post acquisition] cleaning by the Museum craftsmen."

Historical context note

Note on dress depicted:
Tristan wears a shoulder cape with dagged edge and a belt worn on the hips over a supertunic, the length of which suggests a date c.1350-75 (tunics grew shorter towards 1400). Isolde wears a long-sleeved, tight-fitting gown (probably of wool) and her square-framed hair style suggest a similar date, as hairstyles became softer towards 1400.

Descriptive line

Casket with hinged lid, of oak, carved all over with images from the story of Tristan and Isolde and painted in polychrome. Northern Europe, 1350-75

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Victoria & Albert Museum: Fifty Masterpieces of Woodwork (London, 1955), no. 3.

A Painted Oak Casket

This French carved oak casket, made in about 1400, is a rare and distinguished example of the medieval taste for brightly painted woodwork. The rich primary colours—scarlet, gold and azure hues, effectively contrasted with the elaborate ironwork, give some indication of the brightness of a medieval domestic interior, when many chairs and chests and wooden screens were decorated with similar brilliance.
The scenes of chivalrous sports and pastimes carved on the lid and the sides are not less characteristic. It is possible that the box was originally made as a small form of marriage chest or casket, and that the two elegant figures on the top represent a lord and his lady. These two figures appear again in the scenes carved on the sides of the casket, engaged in such chivalrous pursuits as hunting the wild boar and the stag, and on the front and the back seen in the gentler arts of playing chess and love-making. Though much of the detail of the carving has been effaced by time, it retains a considerable vitality and a romantic charm. In the slim elegance of its figures and its lively observation of open-air life the casket echoes the spirit of the great poetic romances of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and is one of the most remarkable existing medieval examples of its kind.
Formerly part of the Bernal Collection, it was bought in 1855 for the new Museum of Ornamental Art, the ancestor of the Victoria and Albert Museum. Its colours were brought to light in the course of later cleaning by the Museum craftsmen.

French; about 1400.
H. 5 ½ in., W. 11 ½ in.

Ott, Norbert H.: Katalog der Tristan-Bildzeugnisse, in: Hella Fruehmorgen-Voss:
Text und Illustration im Mittelalter. Aufsaetze zu den Wechselbeziehungen
zwischen Literatur und bildender Kunst, ed. by Norbert H. Ott, Munich 1975 (MTU
50), pp. 140–171, cat. no.48.
Kohlhaussen, Heinrich, Minnekästchen im Mittelalter / von Heinrich Kohlhaussen. Berlin, 1928, no. 73, plate 33.
R.S.Loomis, Vestiges of Tristram in London, Burlington Magazine XLI (1922), p.54-64, plate 1B
Doris Fouquet: Die Baumgartenszene des Tristan in der mittelalterliche Kunst und Literatur, in: Zeitschrift für deutsche Philolologie 92 (1973), pp. 360-370.
London, South Kensington Museum: Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen (London, 1874), pp. 12-13
Henrike Manuwald, and Nick Humphrey, EILHARTS "TRISTRANT" IN DEN NIEDERLANDEN? Ein polychromes Minnekästchen im Victoria and Albert Museum, London, in "Zeitschrift für deutsche Literatur" 128 (2009, pp. 267-284).
Henrike Manuwald and Nick Humphrey, A PAINTED CASKET IN THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON in The Antiquaries Journal, 2010, vol. 90, pp.235-60
Ancient and Modern Furniture & Woodwork in the South Kensington Museum, described with an introduction by John Hungerford Pollen, (London, 1874), pp. 12-13.
"Box. Carved oak, divided into compartments in which various figures carved in relief, picked out in colours. English or French. About 1350. H. 6 in., L. 11 ¼ in., W. 9 ¼ in.
Bought (Bernal Collection), 15 l. 15 s.
Divided into four panels by bold funk mouldings on the top. A demi-figure of a king occupies one, and a child, whom the king is striking, the next to it. A knight and a lady severally occupy the other two panels. The central stile or division forms itself into a tree to shade these personages. This completes the top carving. The front is also in four panels. A knight and a lady occupy one; a savage man, all over hair, another. The two centre panels are filled by two lions endorsed, that is, back to back. The lock plate borrows a corner from each of these. Two panels on each fide of this centre front panel are occupied by figures of men hunting. The back is occupied by three panels. In the middle, the hunting party are seated in an orchard at a game of chess. A male and a female attendant occupy two narrow panels on either side of this party. Triangular bars of wrought iron act as clamps, and the ends and fastening points are beaten slat into flowers, to form rosettes for the nails that fasten them down. The lock has had double hasps shutting with snaps, and each has had a separate keyhole. A loop and padlock have been placed in the centre between them. The iron work is carefully provided for in the woodwork, and it stops short of the back carvings. The mouldings have been coloured green and vermilion; the figures have been gilt. The flags have been painted “proper,” that is, in their natural colours. The heads are in the best design of the 14th century. The subject is the favourite composition of the time—adventure, love, and the chase. The king representing the abuse of power or cruelty, a type embodied in ogres, giants, and other objects worthy of knightly steel when Wars are over. In Italian, German, French, or English chivalrous episodes, the fame adventures, personages and sentiments, were universal. Thus we have the heroes of the Round Table sometimes in Italian, often in French romantic tales or representations. The tenuity of the figures appears to give a French authorship to the carving; and the ironwork so much resembles German Work as we see it in 2172-’55, 1169-’64, that it is difficult to be precise. English work, on the other hand, both in carving and ironwork, is to be found as good at this period, and walnut is the common wood in France, while this oak was the material used in England. The carefulness of the fastenings is enough to show the value of the casket, and of the contents for which it has been designed."

Labels and date

CASKET, oak and wrought iron, France or England; c.1350

Carved and painted with scenes from medieval romances. Notice the huntsman and woman (on the sides), chessplayers (on the back), a wildman (front right) and the scene of the Tryst by the Tree from the romance of Tristan and Isolde, with King Mark hiding in the tree (on the lid). Some of the iron mounts are replacements.

Museum No. 2173-1855 [07/1994]
About 1350–70

Northern Europe, possibly the Netherlands
Casket: oak, carved, painted and gilded
Mounts: iron with traces of gilding
Interior lining: linen (possibly original) and added paper lining

Museum no. 2173-1855

Despite its great age this casket retains the original paint, rediscovered under later brown layers. A deep red vermillion glaze was applied over an orangey background layer. The carved scenes were painted using azurite blue, copper green and gold leaf.

The lovers Tristan and Isolde, on the lid, and other romantic scenes suggest that the casket was a betrothal gift.

Production Note

Northern Europe




Carving; Painting


Containers; Woodwork; Medieval and renaissance


Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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