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Silver Mining Miniature
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About the item

Silver mining in Bohemia, colossal panoramic frontispiece from an illuminated manuscript choirbook on vellum, Two joined sheets of vellum, together 645mm. by 443mm., miniature with numerous scenes arranged around three groups of buildings and the mountain of Kuttenberg (Kutná Hora), some fading, discolouration and small flaking of paint throughout, edges trimmed by a few millimetres, some very small repaired holes, else good condition, both laid down together on nineteenth-century paper, with the watermark, I. WHATMAN, in fitted card gate-fold mount
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notes

This breathtaking miniature is a product of the copious wealth accumulated in Kuttenberg in the fifteenth century. Abundant quantities of silver were discovered there at the end of the thirteenth century. Within two years the entire area was in the possession of King Wenceslas II of Bohemia (d. 1305), and its output would bolster the authority of the crown until the late Middle Ages. All seventeen mints of the kingdom were centralised at Kuttenberg, and a royal monopoly imposed over the trade in silver. Documentary sources show that the amounts mined were enormous, and in the fourteenth century approximately 20 tons of silver (refined from more than one hundred times that much in raw ore) passed out of Kuttenberg each year.

The town, and in particular the miners' guild, spent its wealth in a number of ways, including the commissioning of a series of large choirbooks depicting them and their working practices. Probably no other town in Europe possessed liturgical manuscripts with secular illustrations on this scale. The earliest of the Kuttenberg choirbooks appears to have been the Lobkowitz Antiphoner, painted by the artist Valentine Noh in 1471 (now National Library Czech Republic, Prague). This includes a frontispiece (now quite damaged) showing miners within the mountain beneath a single wooden building, surrounded on three sides by paintings of the mine officials and more miners working within swirls of foliage. The present manuscript and the Kuttenberg Kanzionale take this manuscript as their starting point, and by greatly increasing the size and the level of detail manage to provide a pictorial narrative of the entire process of silver production from mining the ore to organising its sale. The entire industry is shown in a single picture as vast and as complex as a painting by Breughel.

This is not only a secular scene of exceeding scarcity, but also that rarest of things in medieval art – composition from life. Some of the scenes of the miners underground could have been elaborated from the Lobkowitz Antiphoner, but there are so many details individual to the present manuscript that the artist(s) must have travelled from Prague to Kuttenberg (and perhaps even down into the depths of the mine itself) to observe the workers, and make studies and sketches. Thus, the painting here, unlike almost all that produced by the medieval world, is unique – art at the moment of creation. The portrayal of the officials and dignitaries of the mine may well be portraits of individuals who commissioned and paid for the volume; the richly dressed figure riding on horseback inspecting the mine is perhaps the Hofmeister Nicholas, named in the Lobkowitz Antiphoner.

The scenes in the pictorial narrative are as follows:

1. The mine

The mountain of Kuttenberg, here in dark blue stone, stretches down the right hand of the miniature and encloses ten scenes of miners at work, each with a small Roman lamp. Those with flat burgundy hats work with a pick and a hammer at the rock face, and another wearing only the standard uniform of a white shift with a pointed hood smashes larger rocks with a hammer. Another miner in a white hood shores up a tunnel with wood. At the base of the mountain a miner sits with his legs around a full wickerwork barrel holding up a taper from it to light it with his candle. If this is the use of gunpowder for blasting, then this will be the first attestation of such practices before the publication of Agricola's De Re Metallica in 1556 (Historical Metallurgy Soc. Special Publications: Mining before Powder, 1994, p. 82). The ore is loaded onto flat wooden sleds and is pulled by a worker who disappears up a tunnel on his hands and knees to the top of the mountain where two other workers lift leather sacks with a winch. A miner emerges from the ground via a ladder with his lamp in the peak of his hat, as another holding some form of tally stick (perhaps as a record of the number of men who went down into the mine with him) gives his lamp to a seated official with a beard, and a third in the background is handed a small pouch (presumably containing money) by a woman at a table. The three tall wooden structures in the background cover airshafts and suggest the extent of the mine.

2. The ore processing

On the left of the miniature, a richly dressed man with a feather in his hat and a whip (perhaps the overseer of the mine) rides past in inspection. As he does, the leather sack is tipped into a large industrial gin-wheel powered by several teams of horses. This appears to crush the ore further, as well as pump the water needed to wash the ore. Two specialised buildings sit on top of the stream coming from the gin-wheel, containing men who check that the pieces are of an even size, and others who pan the ore to remove any dirt. Besides these two further men wash baskets of ore by hand in the stream. The ore is then carried by wheelbarrow to two furnaces in a structure to the left for smelting. To the left of this other workers work large counterweighted bellows to heat a wide pan in which the silver is kept molten by burning logs on top of it. One worker with a long spear-like instrument tips the pan to pour the silver into a mould pressed out on the ground.

3. Surface collection

In the top left of the miniature workers not dressed in white shifts smash rocks with hammers at the surface, load the ore onto carts and carry it to a building where it is checked before being crushed further by another horse-powered gin-wheel.

4. Coin production

The refined silver is turned into coins in the bottom of the picture in stone buildings. In those on the right the silver is heated and quenched and cut into flans by highly-skilled workers who wear turban-like hats. On the left these flans are weighed by women wearing the same hats, before the flans are struck with an insignia by men seated on thin benches loosely covered in rawhide skins. In the centre, richly dressed officials weigh the silver and take records, as a steward with keys and two guards stand before them. In the courtyard outside workers count coins, a man moves two barrels and two dogs fight.

5. The 'auction house'

In the upper part of the miniature is a large building on which flies two red banners each with crowned 'W' in liquid gold (the royal insignia of King Ladislaus Jagiellon, 1456-1516, the successor of Mattius Corvinus as king of Hungary). A number or men sit around a circular table dressed in a variety of ways, and are being shown silver dust and the newly minted coins by mine workers in their white uniforms. A man with long blond hair and a brown hat stands behind a raised rostrum in the back of the room, an open book before him and a stick in his hand; either a recording official or perhaps an auctioneer (and if so, this is apparently the earliest depiction of an auction in medieval art). In the foreground one of the buyers pours a tray of samples into a sack held out by his servant, perhaps stealing them.

6. Food and Love

Among the portrayals of the process of silver production are a few incidental visual details which tell us a little about the daily lives of those in the miniature. The first of these is sustenance for the workers. At the corner of the 'auction house' and next to the surface-collectors building are two tables each with a woman seated at them, holding in one hand a knife cutting or spreading something on large pancake-like breads. In the upper scene a worker reaches out for one of these. Water would appear to be available throughout the entire area (even in the mine) in small wooden barrels with rope handles.

In the corner of the auction house, behind an open door and out of sight of the buyers, a man in a blue tunic passionately clasps a woman in a green dress, whilst keeping his gaze into the room in case they are caught.

medium

Vellum

dimensions

Two joined sheets of vellum, together 645mm. by 443mm., miniature with numerous scenes arranged around three groups of buildings and the mountain of Kuttenberg (Kutná Hora), some fading, discolouration and small flaking of paint throughout, edges trimmed by a few millimetres, some very small repaired holes, else good condition, both laid down together on nineteenth-century paper, with the watermark, I. WHATMAN, in fitted card gate-fold mount

literature

E. Treptow, 'Deutsche Meisterwerke bergmännischer Kunst', Abhandlungen und Berichte des Deutschen Museums I (1929), Heft 3, Abb.17, p. 18.

H. Winkelmann, Kunst und Kultur im Bergbau (1953), p. 10.

K.E. Fritzch, 'Der Bergmann in den Kuttenberger Miniaturen des ausgehenden Mittelalters', Der Anschnitt 19:6 (1967), pp. 6-10

J. Krása, Pozdne gotické umení v Čechách, 1471-1526 (1978), pp. 424-5

provenance

This is the long-lost sister miniature of the Kuttenberg Kanzionale (Vienna, ÖNB. Cod. 15,502), showing the entire process of silver mining and the production of bullion in Kuttenberg, Bohemia. It is one of the largest and most important northern European secular illuminated miniatures in existence. It has hitherto been known only from a black-and-white photograph in a publication of 1929, and has almost certainly not been exhibited in public since the Middle Ages

provenance

(1) Most probably produced in the Prague workshop of 'Mattheus Illuminator' (d. January 1496) for the church of St. James, Kuttenberg. The artist is known from an inscription and initials in the related Smíšek Gradual (ÖNB. Musiksammlung, Suppl. Mus. 15,492), and some scholars have identified him in a painter and illuminator documented in Prague in the last years of the fifteenth century.

(2) Perhaps given in 1590 along with the Smíšek Gradual  by Petr Vok of Rozumberk to Duke Ferdinand of Tyrol, the latter manuscript passing from the duke's descendants to the Austrian National Library.

(3) Private collection, Vienna, by the 1920s.


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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