Medieval Coffer and Its Apostles Returns Home

From North Yorkshire to a 15th Century Chateau in France - A Medieval Coffer and Its Apostles Returns Home

By Louise Phillips of Elaine Phillips Antiques.


The main advantage of my accident and subsequent convalescence this year, was that I finally completed my article on the early and ‘rare’ (not keen on the word, but it is) French coffer which I bought and then sold into a private collection in France.


I have been researching this for two years plus and I’m sure there will be additions as I fall down future rabbit holes reading reference books and visiting museums.
The coffer in its ‘new’ 15th Century home, South West France


When I am asked ‘how do you decide what to buy?’ – my answer is always the same.


Once I have established the piece’s credentials, I buy with my ‘gut’ and I buy what I like. Then I just hope that a collector/buyer feels the same way.


Medieval Coffer CarvingsThis was the case when I saw the French coffer, the subject of this article. Like all of us it came with a few problems, but these were overcome.


The top had been altered at some point and also the feet, understandable in a piece from circa 1500.


When examining the comparable coffers in the Musée de Cluny, Paris, The Louvre and other museums, and taking into consideration these faultsMedieval Coffer Apostle Carvings, I’m proud to say that ‘my’ coffer is as fine an example.

Images 1 and 2 show the coffer in its ‘new’ 15th Century home, South West France.

So how to establish that this coffer is in fact French. I have spent many hours in museums looking at early furniture and I remembered seeing a similar coffer in Cluny (if you haven’t been – go – it has just been revamped and is a must for lovers of early furniture and tapestries).

The Cluny Coffer


This coffer is the closest in style both in the use of the Apostles (filling the tracery arches) as the main subject for the heavily carved front. The lock plate is unmistakably French (more on this later).


Carving is usually classified as low/bas and high/haut relief. The coffer is the latter where the figures are almost three dimensional with more than 50% of the depth shown.


Detail of The Cluny CofferImages 3 and 4 illustrate the Medieval coffers detailed Apostle carvings.


Images 5 and 6 illustrate the similar use of Apostle motifs in the Cluny Museum's coffer.


The Apostles inspired many early works in French painting, tapestry, sculpture and architecture executed around the same time as the coffer was carved and constructed.
Brussels tapestries depicting apostles

An example of this are the nine panels of Brussels tapestries depicting scenes from the Acts of the Apostles, woven in the workshop of Jan Raes and Jacob Geubels after cartoons by Raphael (1483-1520). See image 7.


The tapestries depict several of the Apostles including St. Peter, St Paul and St John. These can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Altarpiece from the Chartreuse de Champmol


In sculpture, Image 8, the altarpiece from Chartreuse de Champmol, carved by Jacques de Baerze  shows this influence on later works to wonderful effect and can be seen in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon.


Relief carving of the ApostlesImage 9 is an example of the high/haut relief carving of six of the Apostles – this is a 15/16th century continental example.


The Cloisters Collection of The Metropolitan, New York contains one of the most comprehensive collections of Medieval and Byzantine art in the world.


Tomb from the Cloisters Collection, Met Museum New YorkThis tomb from the collection (Image 10) illustrates a perfect example of carvings of the Apostles in a very similar layout to the coffer.


The carved architectural elements of the coffer are seen very often in the architecture of the late 15th and early 16th century.


For example carved pinnacles are part of the South Porch of Notre Dame (circa 1510), Amiens Cathedral, Beauvais (circa 1500) and Toul (1460-1496).
Amiens Cathedral South Transept


Amiens Cathedral is considered to be one of the most important buildings of French High Gothic also has the most wonderful carvings depicting the Apostles.


These can be found above the doorway of the South Transept of St Honoratus (a former Bishop of Amiens) See Image 11.


Lock PlateLock Plate


Returning to the subject of the lock plate. The flower heads in the corners are very similar (maybe slightly more ornate in Image 12) to a lock on a coffer in the V and A (Image 13) date late 15th century, which has also lost its hasp.


The tracery element almost like carving is a common theme in French locks and several can be found in the Louvre (Image 14) V & A Lock Plate examplewho date these to the last quarter of the 15th century.


There is an architectural element in the design on the French lock plates where they use the almost lace type pinnacles found on the churches and cathedrals. Amiens for example.


Whilst writing this it is interesting to note that English carved coffers of this date are quite distinct in their design, in both subject matter and style of carving.


The coffer below can be found in The Crypt of York Minster.


Lock Plate in the LouvreAccording to Fred Roe who researched this subject around 1900/1905 - ‘there remains a small class of chests in which secular motives and figure-carving take the place of the arcades and tracery of church architecture.


On these, as on some chests of the third class, are to be found remains of painting which must originally have made them as gorgeous as those of Italy.


York Minster is the home of one of these scarce relics, of which the main panel of the front chiefly represents St. George slaying the dragon.


The carving is very bold and free and in high relief.  It may be compared with a panel in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is undoubtedly by the same carver and displays the same subject with slight differences.

Coffer from the Crypt at York Minster


From the evidence of the shape of St. George's bassinet, Mr. Fred Roe assigns this panel, which was doubtless part of a once-existing chest, to the reign of Richard II.


He discusses very fully the likelihood of these chests and the other remaining ones of the same kind at Harty Church, Isle of Sheppey, Southwold Church, Suffolk, and another in the Victoria and Albert Museum said to be French, being really English work.’



Click here to read Louise's Short History of Bullseye Decoration.


Click here to view a selection of stock currently available from Elaine Phillips Antiques.