Set inside a speckled white frame on the lid of this painted coffret, two lovers appear amongst fruiting vines serenaded by a fool who (though we can only see his torso) contorts his body in a playful dance. Occupying the entire right-hand half of the scene, the fool wears a vivid costume of blue, green and white, with a bird’s head growing from one shoulder and donkey ears sprouting from his hood. The couple seemingly ignore their entertainer, absorbed in each other. The man wears a bright red toque jauntily angled atop his blonde locks, and an open-fronted doublet of the same colour and material cut away in a U-shaped curve to reveal a finely pleated white shirt. His counterpart is clothed in a simple blue-grey dress with a white undergarment almost completely covering her chest. Her hair is bound up in a large turban headdress gathered at the front under a white button. Both figures’ cheeks are flushed with red, perhaps suggesting their reactions to the fool’s presence and his role in sending-up their amorous courtship. The sides of the box are loosely painted with floral sprays in a combination of green, white, and dark metallic paints over a brick-red ground.

Medieval coffrets and caskets of this type are typically known by the German descriptor minnekästchen, which, freely translated, means "gifts of love," or more literally "boxes of love." Surviving accounts from the time of their production refer to them more simply as kistlin, or ledlin for those made of leather, and the term minnekästchen was not in fact coined until the nineteenth century to describe their courtly and amorous iconography (The Secular Spirit, p. 25). Like ivory examples produced in France during the period, minnekästchen most probably functioned as keep safes for jewellery and other treasured possessions and are likely to have been given as gifts. They are generally united in their use of a reddish ground color and a bold, limited palette of blues, greens, reds and whites over the top. Alongside these the metallic element bismuth, painted in liquid form to give a lustrous tin-like sheen to certain details, is a typical component in their decoration. The custom of decorating wooden caskets in this manner may have started in imitation of imported Islamic examples (The Middle Ages, p. 114). Despite the overwhelming prevalence for secular imagery, many of these richly ornamented boxes found their way into church treasuries, where they were repurposed to function as lockable reliquaries.

Of the early minnekästchen that have survived, only a small handful have painted decoration, and the present iconography with lovers serenaded by a fool is apparently unique to the present example. It may have been taken from contemporary secular and moralising texts, such as Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools, published in Basel in 1494. Fools and their prey – the vain, proud and rakish court member, or the amorous couple hopelessly lost in love, feature prominently in Brant’s compendium of tales, and the many woodblock prints that accompany his text in early printed editions depict figures of a type compellingly close in style to those decorating the lid of our minnekästchen (figure 1). The details of the lovers’ costumes also find parallels among Brant’s woodcuts, as well as contemporary paintings and engravings from the 1490s that all help to date our coffret (figure 2, and see also the work of engravers such as the Master of the Housebook; Scott 1980, p. 222ff).

Comparable minnekästchen are far harder to find, but examples in the Museum für angewandte Kunst Cologne and the Historisches Museum Basel offer compelling parallels for the treatment of the present coffret’s decorative scheme (figures 3-4) and may even have originated in the same workshop. As to who may have been responsible for the decoration of our casket, one possibility is that it was produced by one of the many skilled painters of medieval playing cards, since its pared back, bold and graphic qualities compare well with the best surviving card sets (as well as other ephemeral objects of their type) from the second half of the fifteenth century (figure 5). A localisation to the Rhineland, and perhaps to Basel or a nearby satellite town along the Upper Rhine Valley is entirely appropriate considering the numerousness of comparisons and parallels that can be drawn to the pictorial arts of this region (cf. Spätmittelalter am Oberrhein, 2001). Moreover, the precise appearance of the fool on our casket strongly recalls the bird- and dragon-like costumes used in Basel’s annual Fasnacht celebrations (some of the medieval and early-modern costumes for which still survive in the city’s museums) and may even have been intended in part to evoke these characters.


Private collection, Germany


For comparisons see:

Gold, R. "Reconstruction and Analysis of Bismuth Painting," in Painted Wood: History and Conservation, ed. V. Dorge and F. Carey Howlett, Los Angeles, 1998, pp. 166-178.

The Middle Ages: Treasures from The Cloisters and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Los Angeles and Chicago, 1970, p. 114 [exhibition catalogue].

Scott, M. The History of Dress Series: Late Gothic Europe, 1400-1500, London, 1980, p. 222 

The Secular Spirit: Life and Art at the End of the Middle Ages, New York, 1975, p. 25 [exhibition catalogue].

Spätmittelalter am Oberrhein: Alltag, Handwerk und Handel 1350-1525, Karlsruhe, 2001 [exhibition catalogue].

Reference number: 50324

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