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Fire back

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1649 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Cast iron

  • Museum number:

    M.119-1984

  • Gallery location:

    British Galleries, Room 56, The Djanogly Gallery, case WE

Object Type
This rectangular fireback dates from 1649. In order to protect the brickwork, slabs of cast iron like this one were placed on the wall at the back of the fireplace, where they also served to radiate heat into the room.

Subjects Depicted
The image of a snake rising from flames to bite an outstretched hand refers to a passage from the Bible (Acts 28: 3-6) which describes St Paul being shipwrecked on the island of Malta. On landing he lit a fire and as he did so a viper emerged from the flames and bit him. The people of Malta took this to mean that Paul was a murderer but when they saw that he was unhurt they realised that he must be holy.

Iconography
Fireback decoration often included stories involving fire, but sometimes there was also a political theme. As this example is dated 1649 the choice of subject matter may refer to the execution of Charles I. The same design appears in G. Whitney's A choice of Emblemes (Leyden, 1586) with the title 'If God be with us, who can be against us?', and with the following verse appended: 'His servauntes God preserves, thoughe they in danger fall: Even as from vipers deadlie bite, he kept th'Appostle Paule.'

Physical description

Fireback made of cast iron, it shows the New Testament story of St Paul shaking a snake from his hand into the fire. The fireback is dated 1649 and features the initials IM.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1649 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Cast iron

Dimensions

Height: 47.5 cm maximum, Width: 56 cm maximum, Depth: 4 cm maximum

Object history note

The same initials, IM, also appear on M.113-1953. Indeed, these initials appear on several other different firebacks, including 492-1901 in the museum’s collection (although they are illegible on that casting), which suggests that it is likely that they are those of the person who carved the wooden patterns from which the sand moulds were formed.

Descriptive line

Fireback depicting story of St Paul and the snake, cast iron, England, 1649

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

Lloyd, N. Domestic Ironwork. I. Firebacks. Archaeological Review. LVIII, 1925. pp.58-67.
fig. 256, pp. 177, 257
Hodgkinson, Jeremy. British Cast-Iron Firebacks of the 16th to Mid-18th Centuries. Crawley: HodgersBooks. 2010

Labels and date

British Galleries:
This iron panel protected the brickwork at the back of a fireplace. The decoration, taken from a book of emblems (see photograph), relates to the bible story of St Paul. When he was shipwrecked on Malta, he lit a fire from which a viper arose and bit him. After he survived, the people of Malta decided he was a god. [27/03/2003]
FIREBACK
Cast iron
England; dated 1649

This shows the New Testament story of St Paul shaking a snake from his hand into the fire (Acts, ch. 28, verses 3-6). St Paul was shipwrecked on the island of Malta while on the way to Rome to be put on trial. On landing he made a fire and a viper or adder came out of the flames and bit his hand. At first the Maltese thought that this meant that Paul was a murderer, but when he revealed he was unhurt they decided he must be a God. Events involving fire were appropriate subject-matter for firebacks and this story is depicted on another example on this wall (Museum No. 889-1901). The image may also refer to the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Museum No. M.119-1984 [07/1994]

Production Note

Dated 1649

Materials

Cast iron

Techniques

Casting

Categories

Architectural fittings; Interiors; Christianity; Metalwork; Ironwork

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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