Varaždin Blacksmith Guild's Box

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Written with the kind assistance of Fran Jurga, Walt Taylor and especially Curator Miroslav Klemm. Their keen observations are included in the text below. Mursad Murguz is also acknowledged for his skill as translator of the key 1954 article written in Croatian.
 

(Move your mouse over any of the pictures below to see a larger image.)

A very rare and quite interesting object, which may be unique, is now on display in the Guild’s Room of the Varaždin Museum in Varaždin, Croatia. Measuring 53 cm long x 33 cm wide x 33 cm high, this dark brown oak wood box has now become the subject of our analysis. Professor Krešimir Filić, who was a founder of that important museum back in 1925, also served as their first Director/Manager from 1925 to 1957. As a Professor of History, he became an active lecturer who helped initiate numerous cultural activities in that city throughout the 1920’s. He thought the box might be from the second half of the 17th century but he was not totally certain of its full significance. An article was then written by Josip Stajduhar in 1954 about this very special box and this is the only substantial report known to exist. The author was first assistant in the clinic and he published his four page description in the Croatian Medical Journal. We are fortunate that this journal has now been translated so that we can all better understand the information that is presented.

You are invited to study closely the slideshow with various photos depicting all four sides and also on the top of this box. What really grabs one's attention is the carved relief, especially the detail work. It is historic because the major scene on the top reveals a blacksmith's shop where several men are preparing shoes for a horse. In the right lower section a larger bearded man (likely representing an aged blacksmith) wears eyeglasses on his face. They have a fairly wide and almost completely round frame. The shape of the nose bridge is hard to determine but certainly it is not a C bridge. Instead it appears to be nearly straight, resting in a position across the upper portion of the nose. Although the material represented is unknown it could be cloth as seen in most protective eyewear. It appears also there may be a strap above the ear, which was meant to wrap around this man's head. These glasses could have been worn because of his poor (uncorrected) vision, or they could have been a gift from a higher-class customer, or maybe they were just „safety“ glasses. It was believed at the time that people in the „lower class“ did not normally own eyeglasses because they were not generally affordable. This however has not been confirmed in Croatia and in fact nose spectacles were used by nearly all classes in many other European countries by the 17th and even more so in the 18th century.

The blacksmith's right hand is swinging a hammer on an anvil while his left hand is holding the horseshoe with the aid of a pair of pliars. Blacksmith’s tools apparently haven't changed much over the centuries. The carvings may not have been made by the same person at the same time. The top, in particular, could have been salvaged from a guild hall that was burned or was even damaged during a war. Perhaps then it was made into a box because that was a fairly common occurrence. The finesse of the leaf work on the front suggests that the primitive-looking carving may have been done later. It is also quite possible that the top was originally done as a plate for making prints. Then later it quite possibly was made into a box for ceremonial use by the Guild. It is difficult to be 100% certain what the farrier is beating on the anvil. Such a scene is evidently very common in French and British art, recreating the legends of St. Eloi and St. Dunstan, both of which involved the devil visiting a forge in the guise of a horse that was nervous and would not stand to have a loose shoe replaced. The saint would saw off the horse's leg, take it to the anvil and reshod it. Many old scenes show a three-legged horse with the farrier working at the anvil on a horse's leg. When the farrier/saint challenges the horse to show his true self, he sears the devil's rear with a hot shoe and he runs away.

To further explain the scene and from further research we learn that it is thought to be one of the origins of the good-luck horseshoe; the devil fears farriers' forges and a shoe nailed over a doorway is a warning for the devil to go elsewhere. The fact that carvings of horseshoes feature calkins (traction or to prevent wear in the heels) and a toe piece (for traction or to prevent wear) would suggest the box may be from the early 19th century, when iron was smelt in good enough quality to allow forge welding.

Regarding the spectacles or goggles that the farrier is wearing, there were traditional ceremonies and rituals in those old guilds, and some of them have even continued up to modern times. Many of these involved the wearing of masks and the blindfolding of apprentices who could only then imagine the actual festivities occurring around them. The observer, however, can see the farrier's eyes through the goggles, so they may more likely represent some sort of protective or magnifying eye wear. Blacksmiths of that time realized the need to protect themselves from flying slag, chips, sparks, etc. But there is no hard evidence to confirm or deny this observation. It is highly unlikely that an artist carver would have insinuated such eye cover or protection without having actually seen it in use. Goggles are known to have been in use as far back as the Regensburg Regulations, late 16th century. However it is really doubtful that this object is that old.

It is also now understood that this was likely made for a union of members. In Northern Croatia the earliest guilds were forming during that time. Those guilds were organizations founded for the skilled artisans who would feel better-protected in their individual trades by joining the guild. It is acknowledged that the Blacksmith's Guild in Varaždin was organized and then established in 1624. Their original Rules have never been located but a transcript does exist from 1625 and this still is protected in the archives in Varaždin. The carver of the box itself also remains anonymous. The who, the when, and even from what possible carving school in that area of the world still remains an unknown. But this wonderful object remains as a very important symbol of the Guild, one of the four most valuable things in the life of that tradesmen's society (Charter of Foundation, Rules, Box, and the Seal). Because of all this, it is now concluded that the box was created sometime shortly after 1624. The round shape of the glasses is perhaps another key feature which helps to date this hand-crafted art treasure. Were the glasses for his protection and for the safety of his eyes during this type of work? This has now been confirmed because there is general consensus. So for all the reasons noted above we seem fairly certain that the box must have been made during the first half of 17th century.

In conclusion, this is a fantastic object, a primitive piece of folk art, existing at the Verazdin Museum in Croatia. No original documents regarding the box has ever been recovered. Therefore not a great amount of definitive information is known about it and it is especially hard to determine the absolute exact year of origin. Could it perhaps be even 19th century because especially in the countryside the old forms of art were continued for a long time? Maybe it is a very "naive" piece - "provincial" art. We do not know really for sure but everything seems to point to it being from the earlier part of the 17th century and it is apparently associated with a Blacksmith’s Guild.

Do we have all of the answers? No and perhaps we never will. But several interested people have now evaluated the photos and their opinions are weaved into all the paragraphs above. The protective glasses remain a wonderful aspect of the carving and add special meaning to this treasure. The research work of this website has not yet located another box like this. If you have knowledge in this specific field of study and would like to share your observations or opinions after studying the selected images on the slideshow above kindly write into this website (drdavid@antiquespectacles.com) and we will be happy to add your comments to the information above. If there is another box with a similar appearance anywhere else in the world we would love to learn about its existence. Otherwise we believe the one described here is unique. We hope you will now agree….what a wonderful NEAT discovery!


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