The Secrets of Silesian Guild Chests
They are beautifully decorated, hand-painted, with intricate wood carvings. But Silesian Guild chests are far more than meets the eye. These historic objects are full of curious traditions, which have been passed along for generations. An exhibition at the National Museum in Wrocław presents these unusual and useful guild chests from centuries past.
Firm & secure
The Soap and Candle Makers Guild’s chest from the second half of the 17th century, elegant in its black and gold hues, rests on the backs of lion-shaped supports. On one side, a painting of allegories of two virtues: justice and hope. Lady Justice holds a scale and sword, attributes with which she can weigh someone’s righteousness and, if needed, inflict punishment. This presentation is rooted in ancient Roman culture and is based on the goddess of justice Iustitia. Hope is also a depicted as a woman, but with an anchor in one hand and a bird (most likely a raven) perched on the other. The anchor is an early Christian symbol of hope derived from the Epistle to the Hebrews: ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.’ The raven dates back to ancient Rome where the bird’s caw, due to its similarity to the sound of the Roman word cras standing for tomorrow, was considered hopeful. These two virtues must have been especially favoured by the Soap and Candle Makers Guild, as they chose them to adorn since their official guild chest.
The chest described above is among the 50 on display at the For Prestige and Commemoration. Silesian Guild Chests exhibition, currently on at the National Museum in Wrocław. The exhibition presents chests historically used in Poland’s Silesia region by guilds of craftsmen, from the 16th to the 20th century, as well as explains their significance. For centuries, these trunks provided a safe place for important documents, guild seals, money, jewels and other treasures. Since they served as safes, they were usually crafted with special anti-theft features. If you take a closer look at the Soap and Candle Makers Guild’s chest, you find that apart from being deeply symbolic, the ornamentation helps conceal a sort of extension on its lid. This part is there to hide the lock. This was clearly a common practice as it can be observed in other Silesian guild chests as well. Often these extensions even had a special sliding lid, which made it even harder to find the lock. Some artisans’ chests required two keys to unlock them. These would be in the possession of two different guild members, to ensure higher security.
Pride & privilege
But the chests were important not only because of their valuable contents. They also played a prominent symbolic and representative role in the life of guilds. That is why the various associations including the Glove Makers, Cloth Makers, Butchers and many others, would have their chests lavishly decorated. The proceedings at a guild meeting would officially begin when the chest was opened and end when it was closed. While during the craftsmen’s holidays, guilds would parade the chests through the streets of Wrocław and show them off to the public and other guilds. The chests were the pride of these associations, but even more so of their funders. It was a privilege to donate the money for a chest, a privilege you had to be chosen for by the guild itself. Along with receiving the coveted status of a funder, you also gained the possibility of having your name or initials engraved in the chest, an option readily taken up by most benefactors.
The exhibition’s title points to the prestige and commemoration linked to the act of covering the costs of a guild chest. However, even though the containers often bear the names of their funders, the dates of their creation and even in some cases the dates of their renovations, the identities of their creators were never disclosed. To these days, to a large extent, the artisans behind the creation of these chests remain anonymous. An exception is the chest of the Butchers’ association in Chojnów, made in 1930. Thanks to comparative analysis, the exhibition’s curator Małgorzata Korżel-Kraśna was able to determine that the trunk, decorated with depictions of slaughter animals (pigs, cattle), was manufactured by the woodcarving school in Cieplice. Woodcarving and painting were techniques widely used to decorate Silesian guild chests. Another such technique was inlay. Many of the chests have magnificent intarsias – wooden surfaces inlaid with decorations from other kinds of wood. For example, the oldest chest on display in Wrocław, which was manufactured in 1567 and once belonged to the Barber-Surgeons, boasts splendid intarsia guild emblems and the initials of master barber-surgeons on the bottom of its lid.
Today, many of the guilds are gone, as is the practical use of the chests. They have become historical objects and the National Museum in Wrocław has the largest collection of them in Poland (over 90 items). The For Prestige and Commemoration: Silesian Guild Chests exhibition which started on 4th April will be on until 25th June 2017. There is still plenty of time to go and see what the chests have in store for you.
Author: Marek Kępa, April 2017