From the April/May 2015 Issue:

Treasured Boxes

    By: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

When talking about antiques, the word “casket” might not mean what you think it does

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enlarge | Decorated with carved images of Jesus and the apostles, this bone casket was made in Flanders circa 1430-1460. It measures about 4 by 10 by 6 inches and was offered for sale at TEFAF by Blumka Gallery, New York. Courtesy of Blumka Gallery
If you’re familiar with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, you’ve heard of “the casket letters,” eight letters that, in 1567, implicated the queen in a plot to kill her husband so she could marry someone else. Scholars still debate their authenticity; although Mary was accused of writing them, it’s never been proved that she did. Nevertheless, they served as evidence to convict her of murder. She was subsequently put to death.

Based on this history, you might assume the casket referred to has something to do with death and burial. But that’s not the case.

In Mary’s day, and indeed long before and long after, a casket was a small box that held precious items such as jewelry, important documents or cherished love letters. The one that reputedly held Mary’s letters, along with a group of handwritten sonnets and other personal papers, is a 16th century French silver gilt box that’s now on display at Lennoxlove House, a stately home in Scotland.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the word casket became a gentle euphemism for coffin, mainly in the United States. Even now, mortuaries distinguish between coffins and caskets; the former being the six-sided box resembling a human form in repose and the latter a fancier four-sided box.

But let’s brush aside the gloomy connotations and focus on the beauty of antique caskets.

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enlarge | Made to hold a lady’s fine ornaments, this mid-18th century Italian tortoiseshell casket is decorated with gold and mother-of-pearl cherubs (or putti), flowers and butterflies. It measures 2½ by 5½ by 4 inches and is offered for sale by Italian antiques dealer Piva&C. Courtesy of Piva&C.
Exquisite Examples
At this year’s TEFAF (the European Fine Art and Antique Fair) in Maastricht, the Netherlands, several dealers had antique caskets on offer. Each one is a unique example of art and workmanship.

The tortoiseshell casket offered by Piva&C, a dealer from Milan, Italy, is inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl garlands, butterflies and cherubs. Made in Naples, Italy, around 1740, it has a tortoiseshell tray insert inside and was almost certainly used to hold jewelry or ornaments.

The casket offered by Blumka Gallery of New York City was made in Flanders in the 15th century. Carved from bone, it depicts Jesus and the apostles in individual panels. “This casket is unique and highly valuable because it’s quintessentially medieval and extremely rare,” Anthony Blumka explains. “We acquired it from a private collection, and we have provenance tracing it back to several previous private collectors.”

The religious decoration would indicate this probably wasn’t a casket intended to hold jewels or trinkets. More likely it held a manuscript or religious text.
Which brings us to the missal box offered by Alessandro Cesati, another dealer from Milan. Finely crafted yet sturdy, it’s made from wrought iron inlaid with gold and silver in a style of decoration known as damascening. (The word damascening comes from Damascus and the elaborate decorative patterns characteristic of that medieval Silk Road trading city.)

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enlarge | Stunningly inlaid with gold and silver dama­scene decoration, this 17th century French wrought iron missal box was offered for sale at The European Fine Art and Antiques Fair this year by Italian antiques dealer Alessandro Cesati. It measures about 4½ by 7 by 5 inches. Courtesy of Alessandro Cesati
Protecting Prayer Books
Missal boxes were made to hold missals, the prayer books that contained the entire text of the Catholic Mass. Pre-15th century missals were written and illuminated by hand on individual pages that were bound into books, highly prized and often fragile. Originally, they would have been made by monks and used by members of religious orders or the nobility, the only people who could afford them. These missals were unique, both in decoration and in the text they contained, based on where and for whom they were made.

Once the printing press with movable type was introduced in 1440 it became easier to produce books, and by 1474 a comprehensive missal—known as the Missale Romanum—was printed under the auspices of Pope Sixtus IV. After the Council of Trent, in 1570, Pope Pius V decreed that the Missale Romanum would be the universally used, standard text for Latin Mass.

Because Mass was celebrated daily, missals were well-used. If their owners traveled, the missals traveled with them. A missal now in the collection of the Library of Congress was printed in France sometime between 1564 and 1575, but it didn’t stay there. Handwritten notes in its margins show it also spent some time in Catalonia in the north of Spain.

Because these fragile missals traveled, they required strong protection. Thus, the missal box. Though small, these boxes were made to endure, and you’ll find many of them fitted with loops and straps to make them easy to transport on a saddle or even a belt.

These three boxes offered at TEFAF are a sampling of the caskets and missal boxes that come up for sale regularly at auction and by fine antiques dealers. They still might be used to hold precious objects or simply displayed as precious objects in their own right.

Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous and Totally Off the Wall Facts. She writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.