A Newsletter for Lovers of Early Objects

JUNE 2019

Click on any image to enlarge it.


Meaningless Gothic

Many alms dishes made in Nuremberg in the sixteenth century have a band of Gothic script around the central boss. Our clients sometimes ask us what this means. The answer is simple: absolutely nothing. The script is totally meaningless and is for decoration only.

The band of script typically consists of four identical quarter-round segments each containing the same bunch of letters. Some dishes had little knobs between the segments to ensure that the die lined up correctly and finished in exactly the right spot to complete a perfect circle.

Gothic script was just one of the decorative elements available to the Nuremberg braziers -- sometimes they used it, sometimes they didn't.

It may have been literally meaningless, but the Gothic script did convey something about the owner: it told the recipients of the alms that the man giving them his left-over food was educated and literate -- and was thus much to be admired.

Giving alms to the poor was one of the social responsibilities of the aristocracy or landed gentry, and most great households had an almoner whose job it was to dish them out. These lords of the manor purposely cooked larger meals than were necessary so that there would be plenty of leftovers to feed the poor who gathered at the back door every evening.

The gothic script ensured that when the poor received the food, they also received a message about the man who had given it. Even when Gothic lettering was used in books to convey meaning, to the illiterate it was both decorative and symbolic.


Tudor panel, mellowed beeswax finish.

Limed oak panel, c. 1530

Limed oak panel, c. 1550

White Face

Sixteenth-century oak and 16th-century women were both worried about putting their best face forward to the public. Women were concerned to show their beauty (the word here is actually a code for class identity), and beauty depended on the whitest possible skin. The fact that lower-class women had darker or rosier skin from their exposure to the elements, the cooking fire, and so on was rarely mentioned but was really the driver of artificial whiteness.

To achieve this whiteness, upper-class women employed means that horrify us today: they plastered their faces with "ceruse," a paste made of white lead and vinegar that was known as "spirits of Saturn." Many died of lead poisoning, an early death hastened by the parallel practice of using a lipstick that contained red lead.

The joiners who paneled the walls of the new domestic (rather than fortified) houses of the Tudor period were faced with a similar problem. Carved oak in medieval churches was not stained but left to age naturally.

Early Tudor houses were often filled with smoke and other pollutants from fires and cooking, so the paneling (and furniture) could not be left raw. The most common protective finish was colorless beeswax, which today has mellowed into a beautiful honey color.

But so-called "limed" oak was also used, usually for paneling. "Limed" was a misnomer (we've been unable to find when the term was first used): lime had nothing to do with it. Raw oak was "cerused": the same paste that Queen Elizabeth applied to her face was rubbed into the grain of the oak to preserve and lighten it.

Most Tudor houses were poorly lit, and whitened paneling would have made the rooms brighter.

For an exceptional example currently in our inventory, click here.