This walnut state-chest is composed of elements dovetailed on the back. The exceptionnally rich facade is made of an only plank 4 centimeters thick and the latteral side’s planks are 3 centimeters thick.
The very rich composition illustrates a german-influenced gothic pattern. Its rythm does not come from buttresses or gothic colonettes anymore –and not yet from italian classical elements- but from highly graphics ribbed columns. Its grooves unfold irregularly around the shaft bringing a certain dynamism and depth-effect.
Five panels depict a group of characters belonging to the religious tradition with the exception of the central one where we can see an angel holding in his hands a levelled coat of arms. Two tiers are separated by pointed doubly-curved-sides arches. This structure follows the use of dead arcades tracery in architecture. High quality details and ornamentations accompanied by architectural elements and gothic naturalistic motives are combined with a fine composition and precise sculpture in a manner typical of the Louis XII period.
Lower tier, from left to right :
The first scene comes from the Genesis, first book of the Old Testament, and depicts the Original Sin. The first man and first woman are placed each on one side of the Tree of the Knowledge following the traditionnal iconography. Coiled around the trunk we can see the serpent with a human face. Whereas in the Scriptures the serpent is an instrument of the devil the iconography usually mixes the animal with the demon into one character as it is here the case. This is him who convinced Eve to disobey God’s command and to eat one of the fruits of the knowledge. She is represented with one of these fruits in her left hand while she offers with her right hand another fruit she picked for Adam.
The second scene expands upon the three central panels of the chest. Indeed the angel depicted on the right side of the second panel meets the Virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit represented as a dove on the left side of the fourth panel. Between those two panels appears a vase of lilies. This is the scene of the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin she will give birth to the son of God. The angel holds the scroll on which we can read his adress to Mary ; MARIA GRACIA PLENA (Luke 1, 26-38). Since the 14th century the artists add the lily in the composition, a flower standing for the woman’s virginity. Usually held by Gabriel it is here depicted in a vase on the floor following the iconographical tradition from the north of the Alps and particularly in Germany where the lily is no longer single.
Framing the scene of the Annunciation feature two anachronics saints. The one on the right is easily identifiable thanks to his usual attributes. It is Saint Anthony the Great (Egypt 251-356) holding the bell used by the hermits to cast away the demons in the desert and a large-beads rosary. He carries the tau cross, emblem of the later life, stitched on the hooded cloack worn by the monks belonging to his order. Indeed during the 11th century is founded the Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony under his patronage, whose purpose was to cure those suffering from contagious deseases. Saint Anthony is at the peak of his veneration during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The bishop saint facing St Anthony on the second panel however is harder to identify because of his lack of attributes. Nevertheless we could draw a link with the hermits considering this saint as Athanasius bishop of Alexandria (298-372) the one who enabled his veneration by writing down Saint Anthony’s life and legend.
The third scene carved on the fifth panel represents Christ apearing to Mary Magdalene, the first appearance Jesus made after His death and resurrection. Kneeling before her master she just recognised, Mary Magdalene is pushed aside by Jesus who says Noli me tangere ; « Touch me not; but go to my brethren, and say to them, I ascend to my Father ». Here the word ‘touch’ must be undertsood as ‘cling’, « do not hold me back », He asks Mary Magdalene to accept He has not returned to stay physically by her sides. Supposedly taking place near the tomb of Christ the artist expresses the outdoor with a tree erected behind the two characters and with the wind waving the banner of the resurrection.
Upper tier, from left to right :
Alternatively are pictured representatives of the Old Dispensation inserted between each arch, standing on a globe upon the columns. They are represented dressed with contemporary costumes and hats associated with the Jewish community. King, prophet and Patriarch express themselves through their scrolls. Recognizable by his crown and his lyre the first of them is David. He holds the beginning of the Psalm 110, of which he is considered the author ; DIXIT DOMINUS DOMINO MEO (The Lord said unto my Lord).
The second character is the prophet Isaiah, his scrolls says EGREDITUR VIRGA DE RADICE JESSE (A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse). First verse of the chapter 11 of the book of Isaiah it refers to the genealogy of the Virgin, Jesse being her ancestor.
The third character remains unknown because of his damaged scroll.
Once more the fourth character is Isaiah with « ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET » (The virgin will conceive) on the scroll, verse 14 of his chapter 7.
The scroll of the fifth character bears the inscription « ECCE VENIET DOMINUS PRINCEPS » (Here comes our Lord and master). It comes from a Gregorian chant in use since the 10th century and sung throughout the liturgy of the hours during the Advent time.
Finally the sixth character is with no doubt the patriarch Moses presenting himself with the horns on his head and with the tablets of stone in his left hand. We can read on his scroll « RUBUM QUEM VIDERAT MOYSES » (In the bush which Moses saw). This verse is also coming from a liturgical chant and speaks about the chapter 3 of the Exodus, the episode of the burning bush not consumed by the flames.
With the study of the elements composing the facade of this state-chest appears clearly a typological reading wanted by the patron. All the elements taken as a whole emphasize a discourse on the human redemption dogma. It begins with the fall of Adam and Eve who commit the original sin by disobeying God and bringing death upon earth. An event condeming humanity, their progeny until the coming of a new Eve. This new Eve is the Virgin Mary, immaculate, who allows God to incarnate himself for the atonement of sins. Finally the scene of the Appearance to Mary Magdalene acts as a proof of the resurrection, confirms its reality and support the promise of eternal life. The association with the Old Testament is played through the scrolls foretelling the coming of the messiah and announcing the future fulfillment of the redemption, pictured on the lower tier. « A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit », « The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. »
Likewise through the characters holding the scrolls themselves is underlined the person of Christ. Indeed, David son of Jesse is also the ancestor of the Virgin and therefore belongs to the earthly lineage of Jesus. As for Moses, still following the typological tradition, he prefigures Christ by the succession of episodes he goes through.
Lastly we should notice that all of the three passages from the Scriptures inscribed on the scrolls are also used in medieval liturgical cantics sung exclusively during the Advent, the four weeks before Christmas celebration. The two other inscriptions are also derived from Gregorian hymns sung throughout the Advent time. The scroll held by Moses refers to a 13th century’s chant which is then modernized by Josquin des Prez (1450-1521), french composer considered as one of the great masters of the Renaissance polyphonic vocal music, perfectly contemporaneous with our chest.
Thus this superb walnut state-chest let us imagined a true scholar as patron, devoted to the Redemption dogma and to the typological discourse, a modern man, a liturgical chants enthusiast and a man closely linked to the hospital world (There is then two Hospital Brothers of Saint Anthony’s headquarters in eastern France ; Strasbourg and Issenheim). The remnants of polychromy brings out the modelling of the carvings and at the same time support its pictorial dimension. A historical piece with its technical quality, its intellectual nature and its aesthetic value.
Louis Réau, Iconographie de l’Art Chrétien, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958
Jacqueline Boccador, Le Mobilier Français du Moyen-Age à la Renaissance, Ed. d’Art Monelle Hayot, 1988