I bought this unusual and rare set of realistic hand carved buttons ten years ago. They measure 32mm in diameter, date from around the 1830s to 1840s, and are possibly Black Forest in origin. The buttons are very light-weight and have been stained with a darker finish than the wood itself, which I think is from a Linden tree. The shanks are part of the button and the thread groove is ‘V’ shaped – I have posted a picture of the backs under “Button Banter”. The monks have a medieval hair style called a “tonsure”, rather than a shaved head, which makes them European and Catholic. It makes sense that the buttons were likely to have been made some time during the Gothic Revival period (late 18th Century and throughout the 19th Century).
The Black Forest is in southwest Germany and its name stems from the proliferation of dark pine trees that grow there. However, it has been established that many “Black Forest” carvings were actually not made in Germany but in Brienz, Switzerland. Wood carving began in Brienz as a cottage industry in the early 1800s and by the turn of the 20th Century had become the major employment of an entire skilled community. No doubt there have been talented German carvers who created similar works, but the bulk of what are called “Black Forest” carvings are Swiss in origin, usually crafted out of linden, maple or walnut trees. Black Forest carvings are often humorous and whimsical. The name is a misnomer but has stuck.
Four types of trees used by Black Forest carvers
Linden -Tiliae lignum
Linden trees are plentiful throughout Switzerland. Linden is also known as the “lime tree” in Europe (Basswood in America), though it bears no relation to the lime fruit. Linden wood has been a popular wood for carving since the Middle Ages because it is considered a soft wood, has very little grain, and a nice density.
Pear - Pyrus communis
A small slow growing tree known as the European pear, native to central and eastern Europe. It is prized by carvers for its density and lack of grain. The timber was expensive, and was highly sought after for small carvings. This wood is able to be carved very finely without splitting or fracturing.
Maple - Acer pseudoplantus
Wood of the Maple tree gave the Swiss carver a blank canvas in many different ways, allowing for extra creativity and customization. During the staining process, the light colour of the wood created great contrast to the stains and finishes the carvers added. The texture of the maple enhanced certain chisel strokes and techniques employed by the carvers, allowing for carvers to create the illusion of realistic fur and movement in a solid and stationary piece.
Walnut- Juglans regia
Walnut is easily identifiable by black dots in the golden brown wood grain and was reserved for the most expensive and detailed Swiss “Black Forest” commissions. It is believed to have been introduced to various regions of the world in the fourth century BC by Alexander the Great. (Wood information from danielsantiques.com).
Tonsure is the practice of cutting or shaving some or all of the hair on the scalp as a sign of religious devotion or humility. The term originates from the Latin word tōnsūra (meaning "clipping" or "shearing" and referred to a specific practice in medieval Catholicism, abandoned by papal order in 1972. Tonsure is still a traditional practice in Catholicism by specific religious orders (with papal permission). It is also commonly used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for newly baptised members and is frequently used for Buddhist novices and monks. The complete shaving of one's head bald, or just shortening the hair, exists as a traditional practice in Islam after completion of the Hajj (the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca by Muslims) and is also practised by a number of Hindu religious orders.
The tonsure style was not widely known in antiquity. Tradition states that it originated with the disciples of Jesus, who observed the Torah command not to shave the hair around the sides of one's head (Leviticus 19:27). There were three styles of tonsure known in the 7th and 8th centuries: The Oriental, the Celtic and the Roman. My monks have the Roman. (There is quite an extensive amount of information on Wikipedia if you want to know more).
I did wonder why medieval monks, in particular, are often portrayed laughing and drinking, so of course I Googled that.
Religious orders and wine-making
Wine was invented 6,000 years before the birth of Christ, but it was monks who largely preserved viniculture in Europe. Religious orders such as the Benedictines and Jesuits became expert winemakers. They stopped only because their lands were confiscated in the 18th and 19th centuries by anti-Catholic governments such as the French Revolution's Constituent Assembly and Germany's Second Reich.
In order to celebrate the Eucharist, which requires the use of bread and wine, Catholic missionaries brought their knowledge of vine-growing with them to the New World. Wine grapes were first introduced to Alta California in 1779 by Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren, laying the foundation for the California wine industry. A similar pattern emerged in Argentina, Chile, and Australia.
There appear to be two underlying reasons for an impressive record of alcoholic creativity among religious groups.
First, the conditions were right for it. Monastic communities and similar religious orders possessed all of the qualities necessary for producing fine alcoholic beverages. They had vast tracts of land for planting grapes or barley, a long institutional memory through which special knowledge could be handed down and perfected, a facility for teamwork, and a commitment to excellence in even the smallest of chores as a means of glorifying God.
Second, it is easy to forget in our current age that for much of human history, alcohol was instrumental in promoting health. Water sources often carried dangerous pathogens, and so small amounts of alcohol would be mixed with water to kill the germs therein. (A History of Pious Drinking by Michael Foley – www.theweek.com/articles)
CLUB JOURNALS - Update 21/10/2020
The August and November 2020 Journals will be combined with the February 2021 Journal. The May Journal was the last one sent out to members this year and the April meeting was cancelled, making March our last meeting, and that topic was reported in the May Journal. Starting with April, the proposed topics for 2020 (back page of Journals) will be transferred to 2021. Hopefully by Christmas we should know when we can have meetings again, and the Committee will contact all members.
However, we are very happy to announce that in the meantime a ‘Special Edition’ Journal containing our Monthly Button Challenges, plus all the additional Virtual Activities, will be sent out to members in November. Unlike the Button Banter section of the website, which is a permanent record, the Home page Challenge button disappeared as a new day dawned, so this Journal will provide a paper record of the last six months for all members to keep.
BUTTON BANTER is now up and running for members only. It has its own heading at the top of the Home page which you can see once you log in. Click on this heading to view contributions. If you want to add an item use 'Add Button Banter' under the Member Menu on the right of that screen or the Home page.
Button Banter is for you to share your button interests with other Club members, ask advice or give feedback. You can also see other members buttons or Button Challenge Cards or join in and show your own. It is preferable to post your photo in portrait format.