Spotlight On …

14th & 15th Century Caskets!

Written by Graham Lampard

The museum houses some wonderful caskets, mostly made of wood and covered with skived leather and incised with patterns of the period. There are about thirty caskets, ranging from a 12th Century love token with two figures facing each other (possibly representing Adam and Eve), through to early 19th century caskets. Two are particularly interesting and fantastically decorated; one from the late 1400s and another from the early 1500s.

The first casket is made of wood and leather. The arched top is covered with calf leather, while the base is covered with tawed sheep or goatskin, stained brown. The surface features different designs, all of which have been incised with a blunt (and perhaps heated) tool with certain parts of the ground punched. Some of the ornamentation is coloured with stains and others, for example the flowers, were painted with tempera, of which fragments remain. The designs are typically late gothic, with the base bearing an incised diaper pattern. There are various designs on the casket: the front of the lid shows the annunciation, and Adam and Eve. On the back is an image of a unicorn and a dog, while above them on the back of the lid are two monsters with human bodies and heads wearing hats styled of the late 15th Century. There is an iron “dog’s head” hasp and handle. The inside is lined with paper of a later date than the casket. There is also scroll work, floral and abstract motifs covering the remainder of the casket. The casket was probably made in the Low Countries, a little before 1500.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

495: 15th Century leather casket

 © National Leather Collection 2018

495: 15th Century leather casket

The second casket is also made of wood and covered with vellum, stained brown. It is overlaid with gold leaf and then ornamented with incised designs. Portions of the background are filled in with red, blue and green tempera. On the front left St Michael is combating the devil, while on the right is St Francis and the miracle of the stigmata. Mid-left, in a medallion of foliage, is a representation of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, with the date 1532. To the right is a woman’s head, which is probably meant to represent Isabella of Portugal. Various others heads feature, all with protruding chins and beards, and each wearing different head gear. On the back are the Habsburg Coat of Arms and the same again, impaled with those of Portugal. In this case the wood is probably cypress, which has been lined with red basil. The ironwork (now rusted) was originally gilded. Again, this casket was probably made in the Low Countries in the 16th Century.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

357: 16th Century leather casket

 © National Leather Collection 2018

357: 16th Century leather casket

Associated with the casket is a book. Found in the National Leather Collection’s library, it is entitled ‘Drawing of a Casket in Cuir Bouilli belonging to Charles Warne’. The book, which is undated, contains an extract of an article printed in ‘Collectanea Antiqua’, a pamphlet for subscribers only, by Charles Roach Smith in 1857. The extensive description of the casket adds to the listing in the museum’s catalogue: the ‘incised lines, [are] so beautifully executed that the shadowings are effected by a series of fine lines as delicate as those on a copper engraving.’ Sadly, the detail has been lost over years of handling, but the box is still quite astonishing. Roach Smith concludes with the hand written note that ‘these coffers formed part of the wedding trousseau and were indispensable to a bride in the middle ages. They appear to have been used by ladies for holding their jewels and articles for the toilet.’ In France, particularly, the coffer was of the furniture brought by the bride to the house of her husband.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

357: decorative imagery on a 16th Century leather casket; St. Michael combating the devil.

 © National Leather Collection 2018

357: decorative imagery on a 16th Century leather casket; St.Francis and the miracle of stigmata.

Charles Roach Smith was a collector of antiquities, whose collection rivalled that of Lord Pitt Rivers: his collection can be found in the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford. Most of Roach Smith’s collection of antiquities was bought by the British Museum in 1856 for £2000, and forms the nucleus of their display of the Antiquities of Roman Britain.

Charles Warne (1802 – 11 April 1887) was an English antiquarian and archaeologist who specialised in the prehistoric and ancient monuments of Dorset, and he bought the casket in Salisbury. How it arrived in the country is un-documented.