Saint under Bell jar, unidentified, 1801-1900, Benelux, France, West-Germany
Dimensions: diameter 17,5 cm, height 46,5 cm
Authors of the report: Lieve Watteeuw and Roosje Baele (KU Leuven)
Report date: 21 October 2021
Research keywords: Devotion, wax, figure devozionale vestite (in cera), devotional cabinets, bell jar
Wax proved to be a popular material for the serial production of sculptures of saints during the ancien regime. Some convents (for instance Sisters of Saint-Clare and Carmelites) have made them until recently, but most conserved wax figures date from the 19th and the 20th century. In some convents in Germany, recipes for the preparation of wax were written down ( Abbey of Montorge (Freiburg), Notkersegg (Sankt Gallen) and Eschenbach (Luzerne)). These recipes were for their own use. In this way knowledge could be passed on, besides the fact that objects were exchanged, and certain individuals travelled from monastery to monastery to share their technical knowhow. Wax was bleached first with turpentine, white lead and carmine, which emphasized the sacral meaning of the devotional object. Then, the wax – melted at 80-90 °C - was cast into moulds (either in plaster, wood or ceramics). Depending on the size of the figurine, the moulds consisted of two parts: one part for the front, and another for the back of the figure. Mostly, the provenance of the moulds is difficult to trace, probably, these were not made by the nuns themselves but bought from craftsmen. By the beginning of the 20th century, moulds for separate parts (hands and heads) were produced, which could be ordered by the convents via catalogues. In France, some secular workshops were also well known for their wax figurines (or "cire habillées"), particularly the workshops in Nancy (for example the brothers Guillot), Angers and Nevers.
In our regions only hands, busts and feet were executed in wax, notably the visible parts of the body. Unlike in Germany where the sculpture was entirely cast including the clothing; the figures were dressed and decorated with silk, small beads, gold and silver metal thread. In Germany, these figurines were a part of the so-called "Klosterarbeit": devotional objects were produced in convents, especially in the women's convents, as part of their religious duties. From the 16th-17th century, richly decorated mangers in wax (ichnographically derived from the Birth of Christ) were made; via the convents and courts these objects found their way into popular piety. The devotion of the Christ Child has a long tradition, not in the least in monastic context where statuettes were made in polychrome wood, terracotta or pipe clay. For example, sisters who entered the convent in Germany (17th-19th centuries) were expected to donate a statuette of a standing Christ Child (depending on their family income), executed in wax and sometimes dressed in garments of silk and brocade. From the second part of the 19th century on, religious wax sculptures were generally protected by bell jars. According to Knippenberg (1985), the figurines under a bell jar have their roots in 18th-century devotional cabinets which proved to be popular for private devotion. The dressing (precious textiles) and decoration (dried or self-made flowers) of the saint figurines were done by beguines or nuns. In their turn, these cabinets are derived from the 16th-century Enclosed Gardens, like the ones in Mechelen. In the first instance, these figurines, whether in a cabinet or under a bell jar, were conceived as a devotion to Our Lady, decorated with flowers and beads. The glass would protect, then, the content from damage or dust.
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Glass is a combination of silicon. It consists of sand, soda or potassium and limestone. Soda and potassium act as flux, the limestone as a stabilizing agent, in this way the glass will not dissolve in water. In order to create glass, these materials need to be heated at high temperature (1400-1500 °C). As a result, the materials form a liquid, which, when it cools down at 500 °C it becomes solid.
According to Knippenberg, a (bell) jar in glass for domestic use has a long tradition. These hollow glass objects or containers have their origin in Syria or Israel, in 50-40 BC where they were blown for the first time. Hollow objects would continue to be made by hand until well in the 19th century, when the industrialization developed several mechanical techniques to produce glass bottles in large numbers and in the same shape. In the Roman Empire, glass vessels were blown freehand. Later on, molds were used in wood or clay that consisted of two or three parts. Vessels with a long neck were developed in order to store oil or beverage; for food the mouth of the container was wide.
The technique for glass blowing hardly changed in the course of history: it was shaped on the end of a blowpipe (a steel pipe of 1,5m long and with a wooden mouth piece) and by means of a pontil rod (an iron rod, with this tool the glass maker could gather small pieces of molten glass and hold the vessel during its manufacture), shaping tools and a chair (developed in the sixteenth century, it has long arms on which the glass is rolled while it is being shaped). Molten glass was taken on the end of the blowpipe, this by means of gathering. Then, it was mavered and blown to form a hollow ball or bulb and pressed into shape by the shaping-tool. Another possibility was the mold-blown technique: an amount of molten glass was mavered and blown into a small, elongated bulb. Then, it was blown into a two-piece mold.
Glass containers as "agents in the preservation of food", however, was used from the 17th-18th century onwards, which coincided with certain developments in agriculture, chemistry and nutrition. Between 1700-1800, the population in Western Europe increased, as well as the diet (i.e. for the better classes), but perishable food was difficult to preserve. Glass became popular for all sorts of household purposes and it also became more available for a wider class of people. Even the lower levels of society employed glass for decorative uses in the household, as a kind of trickle up effect. All sorts of table ware (e.g. various glasses, containers for salt and sugar, oil and vinegar), kitchen utensils (e.g. jars, bottles, containers), as well as lightning (e.g. oil lamps, hanging lamps) and pharmacist's bottles (e.g. alembics, retorts, glass because it is inert to chemical substances) were produced in glass and widely used. By the end of the 18th century, also precious objects, such as clocks or statuettes of saints were placed under glass, to protect them against dust or damage. These bell jars were usually not dated but became common in Western Europe during the 19th century.
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