Introduction – Door Work

In addition to the metal-work on the doors, in many of the large churches in France of the twelfth century, the large wheel windows are filled with ornamental iron grilles.  Noyeau has a noted example.  These grilles were more particularly used when there was no tracery, the ramifications of the iron-work almost supplying the want of it.  Viollet le Duc in his Dictionnaire Raissonne gives a very beautiful example of this.  The grilles referred to are not the iron frames in which the twelfth and thirteenth century stained glass is contained, as at Canterbury, Bourges and Chartres, and in innumerable other instances, but were designed especially to fill these large circular openings, and the effect is very beautiful.

The next era during which the smith’s art seems to have arrived at a culminating point is the thirteenth century.  We have an immense number of examples, nor have we to go far to find them; they are well represented in England as on the Continent.  The idea is much the same as in the preceding century, only the scrolls are easier in their curves, the foliations more general, and the wood-work almost entirely covered.  In the cloisters of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, is a nearly perfect example; the door occurs in Henry III’s work, some very beautiful wall arcading still remaining in juxtaposition.  The door itself is of more recent date, probably Edward IV’s time, but the iron-work has belonged to an earlier décor.  It can scarcely be called a hinge; it is more correctly a covering of metal-work, and although mutilated in parts, the design is exceedingly beautiful.  Each leaf of the door has three pointed ovals, known technically as the “vesical” shape; these are intersected in the center perpendicularly by a bar of iron, and from this and the visicae spring very beautiful curves, filling up the whole interstices.  The sides and arched top have an outer continuing line of iron, from which spring little buds of foliage at intervals; the lower vesicae are now imperfect, having one-third cut off, and the top continuing line on the left is wanting.  Between the first and second panels are two circular discs with rings for handles, seemingly of later date; the intersecting bar is not continuous, but terminates close to the point of each oval, with an embossed rosette, thickly studded with small nails to attach it to the wood-work, and with heads, bosses and leaves at intervals.

At York Minister there are splendid specimens of metal work on two cope chests; these chests are of the shape of a quadrant of a circle, so as to obviate folding the cope, often stiff with gold embroidery.  The lids open in the center more than once, and the hinges with their scrolls cover the whole surface; the design and execution of the work being similar to the previous example.

At Chester Cathedral there is an upright vestment press in the sacristy, opening in three divisions of one subdivision; but in this case, as at Windsor, the iron-work is more as a protection than as a hinge, for the hinges are separate, being only small straps of metal and not connected with the scrolls.  The design is irregular, the center division having a perpendicular line from which spring five scrolls on each side, with floriated ends; the left-hand division has one bold scroll in three curves, and the right-hand division opens in two subdivisions, each having a horizontal bar in the center, with scrolls springing from each side, but reversed, the lower being the boldest; the center and right have continuing lines on each side, but none at the top or bottom.  This example at Chester Cathedral is a very beautiful one, and not so much known as it should be, or deserves.

At Ripon Cathedral there is also another vestment press, but the hinges are plain strap hinges with a stiff conventional series of curves on each side, more curious, perhaps, than beautiful.  The handle is a simple circular disc, with punched holes round the outer circumference, and a drop ring handle.  Ripon Cathedral possesses also some very good hinges on the south door of the choir, which may be twelfth century, but if not, are certainly thirteenth century, and they have no back straps.

Eaton Bray Church presents, on the south door, a very fine specimen of early metal-work.  Here the door is again covered with the scrolls diverging from three strap hinges reaching quite across the door, the apex of the arched head being also filled with scroll work; portions of the bands are also ornamented with engraved work; the leaves and rosettes are punched.  The ring and plate are perfect.  This specimen is in a very good state of preservation, only some of the scrolls at the bottom being imperfect.  In the same church is another hinge of more simple character, but of a very quaint design, and possessing the peculiarity of being alike in both the inner and outer sides of the door.  In the Cathedral Close at Norwich there are the remains of a beautiful specimen of iron work covering one of the doors, but it is in a sadly mutilated condition, the upper hinge being the only one perfect; this has an outer iron band following the outline of the door, though only one portion remains, and between the two hinges is a horizontal bar starting from a central raised boss from which hangs the handle, the ends of the bar being floriated.

The examples enumerated here are only a few among many, a detailed description becoming monotonous, for they all more or less follow one general arrangement.  The French examples differ slightly in treatment, but there the strap is rather broader and does not branch out into scrolls until it reaches more than half across the door; the scrolls are shorter and the foliage richer than it the English examples, and the scrolls do not bear the same proportion to the strap.  A very good hinge is still to be seen on the north door of Rouen Cathedral, Portes de Calendriers, and at Noyon Cathedral, on the door of the staircase leading to the treasury.  But hinges were not the only things upon which the smith of the Middle Ages exerted his skill and ingenuity.  The grilles which protected the tombs in the interior of churches and the opening in screens demanded alike the exercise of both, and at Westminster Abbey there is still preserved and replaced in situ, after having been for many years thrown by on one side among useless lumber, a specimen which any age or any clime might justly be proud of.  Around the shrine of Edward the Confessor repose many of his successors, and this chapel and shrine was exceedingly rich in costly gifts; silver, gold and jewels being there in great abundance.  Originally the only entrance to the chapel was through the doors in the screen forming the reredos of the high altar, and though considerably elevated above the level of the pavement of the surrounding aisle, it was not sufficiently secure to protect its precious contents, and there must have been some screen or railing.  At the close of the thirteenth century the only royal tomb besides that of the royal founder, Henry III, was that of his daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Castile.  Henry’s tomb was of a good height, but Eleanor’s was not so lofty, and there was the dread of the robbers making free with the offerings to the shrine, as they had done only a short time previously with the treasure which the king had amassed for his Scotch wars, and which was stolen from the treasury in the cloisters hard by.

A grille of beautiful workmanship was accordingly placed on the north side of the tomb toward the aisle, the top of the grille being finished with a formidable row of spikes, or “chevaux de frise,” as we now term them, completely guarding the chapel on that side.  The framework of forged bars projects from the tomb in a curve, and on the front of these bars is riveted some exquisite scrollwork.  It is difficult to describe in detail this art treasure – a photograph only could do it justice; the wonderful energy and beauty and minute variety thrown into the little heads of animals, which hold the transverse bars in their mouths, and the beauty of the leaves and rosettes, scarcely two of which are alike, are things which must be seen to be appreciated.  On the score of anything very beautiful attributed to foreigners, this iron work, like the beautiful effigy of the queen whose tomb it guards, has been attributed to French or Italian influence; and the English Torell, who molded and cast the bronze effigy, has been Italianized into Torelli, a name which he never bore in his lifetime.  With regard to its being French, France has now nothing existing resembling it in the slightest degree; while the work in the cloister at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, before referred to, does resemble it slightly in some points.  A very beautiful grille exists at Canterbury Cathedral, screening St. Anselm’s Chapel from the south aisle and the tomb of Archbishop Meopham.  This grille does remind one of Italian or foreign work, but there is every reason to believe it to be English; its great characteristic is its extreme lightness, for it is formed of a series of double scrolls, only 1/2 inch wide by 1/8 inch in thickness, 7 1/2 in. high and 3 1/8 in. broad, place back to back and fastened together and to the continuous scrolls by small fillets or ribands of iron wound round; these being fixed into iron frames, 6 ft. 6 in. high by about 2 ft. 10 in. broad.  This extreme lightness makes it resemble the foreign examples.