Tuesday, November 5, 2013

When Buildings Could Talk

The best thing about writing this blog is that I learn something new with every post. That was exactly what happened last week when I wrote about the colombage buildings in Alsace. After I had finished most of the text I found a video to finish the post with. In that video, Frederick, a young Alsatian, talked about restoring a colombage barn and house, and because it was in French I included a brief translation of his main points. What I didn’t tell you is that toward the end Frederick mentioned that there were symbols hidden in the timber framing of his house. He claimed that the original owner of the house was extremely  interested in having a large family, and that this message could be 'read' in the colombage.

The video showed a group of framing members arranged in an X-shape and set within a diamond. This, Frederick claimed, was the symbolic "text". Well, I watched that video several times, and when I was certain that I understood him correctly I snorted in disbelief. I thought it was probably just an old wive's tale, but I was sort of fascinated so I did some research. And I’ll be damned! Frederick wasn’t kidding.

As it turns out, that diamond-shaped form is a feminine symbol that dates to (at least) a Scandinavian runique alphabet from the early Christian era. The lozenge, known as Ingwaz or Ing, is a symbol of fertility and fecundity, and its use on a house indicated that the owner was hoping for lots of heirs. When additional framing members are arranged in the X-shape  known as the Cross of Saint Andrew, that reinforces the notion, because the X has always been a symbol of multiplication.  And, as Frederick explained, at his house the cross, or the masculine symbol for fertility was set within the diamond, or the feminine symbol, showing a doubly strong desire on the part of the owner for descendants.

The lozenge, feminine symbol of fertility
The cross of Saint Andrew, masculine symbol of multiplication
At the left the lozenge and X are artfully combined.
Note the other beautifully executed carving

The symbol Ing appears on the bottom row, third from right

Now this shouldn't have surprised me because I know that in the Middle Ages signs and symbols were everywhere. They served not only as good luck charms but to educate the populace as well. Stained glass windows were not only beautiful, they also told stories to people who couldn’t read. In fact, paintings, sculpture and stained glass windows have been described as the comic books of the Middle Ages. So why should the designs made by framing members be any different?

A little research turned up dozens of symbols incorporated into the buildings of the late Middle Ages, and the colombage houses of Alsace display some that are particularly unusual. Remember the photos in last week’s post of those beautiful curved timbers beneath the windows? As it turns out there’s some symbolism there as well. That crossed-S form is representative of a Roman magistrate’s chair, called the chaisse curule, which had S-shaped legs. Its appearance on a house in Alsace indicated to every passer-by that the owner was a person of standing in the community, perhaps a judge or magistrate.

Above: The actual chaise curule
Bottom: The same motif on a house in Alsace 
Symbols were employed to ward off evil spirits and to protect the house from the plagues and pests that were so common in the Middle Ages. Many symbols, such as the heart, the swastika and the cross, are found on buildings in other parts of France, but the colonne a vis  (spiral column) is unique to Alsace. Also known as the vis sans fin (spiral without end), it symbolized either a flame or Infinity and was thought to protect against fire.

Corner posts were reserved for the most important carvings, which included, at a minimum, the date of construction and the name of the owner, as in the image above left. But because of its size the post was also the perfect place for any additional information that the owner wanted publicized. This might include his profession (pretzels and bread are common), religious beliefs or symbolic carvings of man or beast.  The corner post below shows a very interesting assortment of symbols. Next to the pagan spiral column is a shell, the Christian symbol of pilgrimage. At the top is a lamb and flag, the symbol for Christ's triumph over death. The religious symbols indicate that this house was probably owned by someone in the Church. 

But as I said last week, the image that I saw most often was that of the Homme Sauvage. Throughout the Middle Ages this wild man, dressed in a tunic of leaves, was commonly portrayed on heraldic shields, coins and in paintings. Originally a representation of the unenlightened state of man without religion, the Homme Sauvage later came to represent the idea of the nobel savage. Because the significance changed over time and varied by region, it is difficult to determine exactly what a specific carving was meant to convey. 

Above: Engraving by Albrecht Durer
Below: Cornerpost figures

thanks to the Internet and social media, everyone can voice their thoughts, hopes and fears to the world at large. In the Middle Ages they 'Tweeted' in timber. And while we may not always understand the nuances of the messages, I'm awfully glad that these delightful carvings remain. 

Now, if I could just figure out the meaning behind those bare-breasted mermaids in Romanesque churches.....