Westphalia chest

Westphalia, Germany Late XVI Century

Wrought iron and Oak 

107 x 206 x 71 cm

Private Collection. Spain

This type of large rectangular standing chest in oak, elaborately mounted with long ironwork straps, is known as a ’stollentruhe’ (from its construction using thick boards ’stollen’) and was made from at least 1170 (dated by dendrochronology), and continued to be made into the 17th century. Distinctive features include: the vertical ends (as opposed to slanted ends held by rails); the ’clamp-front’ method of construction, by which a large front board is jointed into full-height stiles using a single, long tenon; a lid with small or no overhang held on two hinges. Some make prominent use of metal bands; others incorporate carved decoration on the front legs.

The type has become closely associated with northern Westphalia (in central, western Germany ). Although certain examples are fitted with carrying handles (and although all chests are portable to some extent), the great weight of this type of chest (approx. 100kg empty), the plain backs and decorative carving and ironwork indicative that they were essentially static pieces of furniture - combining large storage capacity and a reasonable measure of security with conspicuous display. In addition to their impressive proportions and height off the ground (keeping the contents away from damp or dirty floors), their most showy aspect was the wrought and cut ironwork mounts. The multiple iron straps fulfil a dual role: principally decorative but also reinforcing the structural wood joints. Evidently such chests were intended to be secure: the timbers and hinges (a notorious weakpoint of chests) are notably robust and some examples are fitted with additional hasps.

Chests (of all shapes and sizes) were the most common form of furniture in late medieval households. Even poor households are likely to have had at least one, while the inventories of great households can list hundreds. They were used to hold all manner of goods: coin, plate and personal jewels, clothes and textiles, vestments and chapel ornaments, muniments, books, arms and armour, lights, grain and bread. A practical disadvantage of large chests was accessing contents especially smaller objects at the bottom. Most chests of any quality have a built-in, lidded compartment or ’till’ across one or both ends. These must have been convenient for smaller valuables (and perhaps candles), and some were fitted with their own lock.