Advent Calendar – Door 17: St. John’s Gate in Clerkenwell

St. John’s Gate in Clerkenwell
from: William Hickman Smith Aubrey, The National and Domestic History of England, London 1867; The British Library, London (Public Domain)

St. John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, London, was built in 1504 as one of the entrances to the Priory of the Knights of St. John, better known as the Knights Hospitaller. Not long after the gate’s completion, however, the priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, and over the course of the following centuries, almost all of its buildings were demolished. Today, all that survives is the former priory church – now the Parish Church of St. John, entirely rebuilt in the 19th century, though still retaining its original Early English crypt – and the gate. The latter, too, was heavily restored in the Victorian period and, as a consequence, it now looks more “Tudor” than when it was first built. Nonetheless, it is a remarkable survival and one of the few pieces of non-religious* architecture in London to predate the Great Fire of 1666. An engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar, produced only a few years before the fire, shows the gate in its still rather suburban, almost rural surroundings:

Wenceslaus Hollar, St. John’s Gate in Clerkenwell, 1661
The Wellcome Collection, London (CC BY)

Today, the gate hosts the Museum of the Order of St. John, which showcases a wide range of artworks and artefacts relating to the history of the order from the medieval period to the 20th century. The gatehouse’s Victorian interiors, designed by John Oldrid Scott – son of the more famous George Gilbert Scott – are quite remarkable, too. I must admit, I know someone who works there, so I might be biased, but I believe it’s definitely worth a visit.


*) As mentioned, the gate was part of a priory, i.e. a religious institution, but unlike the priory church, the gatehouse did not have a religious function (in the narrow sense of the term) itself.


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Advent Calendar – Door 16: The Gate of Ste. Clotilde in Paris

Charles Marville, The Church of Ste. Clotilde in Paris, c. 1860
Musée Carnavalet, Paris, via Parisienne de Photographie (Public Domain)

The photo shows the main portal of Ste. Clotilde, one of Paris’ finest Gothic Revival churches, built in 1846-1856 after designs by François-Chrétien Gaud and Théodore Ballu. Strictly speaking, though, the picture’s main subject is not so much the gate as the lamppost in front of it. This is, in fact, part of a series of photos taken around 1860 by Charles Marville (1816-1878) to show off the city’s then-new ‘mobilier urbain’ (street furniture).

Charles Marville, The Halles covered market in Paris, c. 1860
Musée Carnavalet, Paris, via Parisienne de Photographie (Public Domain)

My favourite from the series is probably the one showing a streetlamp before the Halles covered market (pictured above). But there are hundreds of photos by Marville of 19th-century Paris – both with and without ‘mobilier urbaine’ – in the Europeana Collections, so why not pop over there and browse those images yourself to find your own favourite?

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Advent Calendar – Door 15: The entrance of the Rüdenhof in Vienna

Carl L. Wiesböck, The Entrance of the Rüdenhof in Erdberg, 1849
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

This is practically around the corner from my apartment in Vienna. Well, at least it would have been if my apartment had already existed in the mid-19th century. The watercolour by local artist Carl L. Wiesböck (1811-1874) shows the entrance to the so-called Rüdenhof in Erdberg. Today, Erdberg is a part of Vienna, dominated by tall Belle Époque and 20th-century buildings. Back in Wiesböck’s day, however, it was still a suburb with a small-town, even village-like character. The Rüdenhof was a low, long-stretched series of houses inhabited mostly by launderers and washerwomen. In another painting by Wiesböck, showing the rear of the building, one can still see the wooden poles they used to hang up the laundry:

Carl L. Wiesböck, The Rear of the Rüdenhof in Erdberg, 1849
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)

Wiesböck was specialized in depictions of the streets and buildings of Vienna. Many of his watercolours show picturesque old houses that were already doomed to be eaten up by the city’s rapid expansion and aggrandisement. Thus, his work documents an aspect of Vienna’s past that was rapidly vanishing even during his own lifetime. Sure enough, the Rüdenhof was demolished in 1872, two years before the painter’s death.

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Advent Calendar – Door 14: The sacristy door in Vorau

Unknown photographer, The Church in Vorau (early 20th century?)
Architekturmuseum der TU Berlin in der Universitätsbibliothek (CC BY-NC-SA)

I was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon this old photo in the Europeana Collections. It shows the 15th-century sacristy door in the Parish Church at Vorau, Austria. This door is, so to speak, an old friend – I only visited Vorau last year and happened to take a rather similar photo:

I find it quite remarkable how little the place has changed in what must be a hundred years or so. But then again, presumably that door has been looking pretty much the same for the past 500 years, so I really shouldn’t be surprised… It even still has its original metal fittings, including an amazing, decorated 15th-century lock (which I already posted last year over at my photo blog).

There is one major difference, though: When I visited the church, the door was, as you’d expect, firmly locked. By contrast, in the old photo, it is half open, offering a glimpse of the sacristy that lies behind it. This also allows for the light to stream in through the door, creating an altogether more lively, even picturesque lighting effect.


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Advent Calendar – Door 13: Candlelight Gate

The South Gate of Visby Cathedral, 1909
Swedish National Heritage Board (Public Domain)

Long-time readers who know my medievalist background won’t be surprised to see yet another Gothic church portal appear in my Advent Calendar. I must admit, when I first had the idea for this calendar, I was even tempted to simply pick 24 gates from the Gothic period – but that might have turned out a bit repetitive, so in the end, I decided against it and went for a more hodgepodge varied selection… Anyway, I still couldn’t resist including this beauty, the south portal of Visby Cathedral in Gotland, Sweden. More precisely, the gate belongs to a large 14th-century chapel attached to the south side of the Cathedral. With its pointed arch framed by a high gable, the stepped portal is a fine example of the High Gothic style, and said to be the first of its kind in Gotland. The gable is topped by seven pinnacles, and somehow they remind me of candlesticks or candles, giving the gate the appearance of a monumental candelabrum.

Moses is ordered by God to make a golden seven-branched candlestick
from a Bible Historiale, France, c. 1320-1340; KB, 71 A 23, fol. 64va
National Library of the Netherlands, The Hague
(Public Domain)

Therefore, this old photo of Visby Cathedral seemed the perfect image for today: After all, Hanukkah, the festival of lights, has just begun, while in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, people are celebrating the feast day of St. Lucy – and they do so mostly by dressing girls in white gowns and putting crowns of candles on their heads:

Karlsborgs Lucia – Anita Ekstedt
Karlsborgs Festningsmuseum
(Public Domain)

So, happy holidays to those of you who celebrate either of them!

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Advent Calendar – Door 12: The Frari

Fratelli Alinari, The Main Gate of the Frari Church in Venice
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (CC0)

The main gate of one of my favourite buildings, the Frari church in Venice, or, to give its full name, the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. It was built, mostly, in the 14th century for the local Franciscan convent, and is one of the most important Gothic edifices in town, rivalled only by its Dominican counterpart, Santi Giovanni e Paolo (better known as Zanipolo). Inside the Frari church, one finds works by almost every major Venetian artist of the late medieval and Renaissance period: Paolo Veneziano, Alise and Bartolomeo Vivarini, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Jacopo Sansovino, and others.

Fratelli Alinari, The  Frari Church in Venice
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (CC0)

On the outside though, while imposing in size, the building doesn’t offer too much in terms of decoration. As with many other grand Italian churches of the era, its appearance is dominated by bare brick walls. Only the gates stand out as being adorned with architectural, sculptural and painted decorations.

Fratelli Alinari, The Gate of the Cappella Corner at the Frari Church in Venice
Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg (CC0)

The photos of the church I have included here, are themselves of historical interest. They are pre-1900 images by the Fratelli Alinari. Founded in Florence in 1852 by brothers Leopoldo, Giuseppe and Romualdo Alinari, this photographic company is considered the oldest in the world. Specialising in pictures of Italy’s architectural and artistic heritage, the Fratelli Alinari provided many art historians and institutions with visual material during art history’s etablishment as an academic discipline in the second half of the 19th century. But they didn’t just cater to specialists, rather, they made most of their money from selling photographs to tourists. – Many of you will probably remember the scene in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View where Lucy goes to the Alinari shop in Florence to buy photos of works by Botticelli, Giotto, Fra Angelico and others. In the novel, Lucy’s picture’s end up stained with blood, drowning in the river Arno. Thakfully, these photos of the Frari church didn’t share that tragic fate…

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Advent Calendar – Door 11: Welcome to the Jamboree

Holger Damgaard, A Gate at the Second World Scout Jamboree in Ermelunden, 1924
National Library of Denmark, Copenhagen (CC BY-NC-ND)

Let’s stay in Denmark for now, more precisely in Ermelunden, just outside of Copenhagen. It was here that in August 1924 the Second World Scout Jamboree took place. And it was here, and on that occasion that the above photo was taken: Two boy scouts – one of them holding what appears to be the Finnish flag – are standing before a rough-hewn wooden gate before a camp of tents set up in a meadow. It is one of many photos of the event taken by Holger Damgaard (1870-1945) who is considered Denmark’s first press photographer.

Holger Damgaard, The Second World Scout Jamboree in Ermelunden, 1924
National Library of Denmark, Copenhagen (CC BY-NC-ND)

And there was indeed plenty to photograph. Thousands of boy scouts from all over the world had gathered in Ermelunden for over a week, engaging in sports, folk dancing, campfire singing and other activities. But the scouts were far outnumbered by curious spectators from Copenhagen and the surrounding area: On the opening day, August 10, alone, 35.000 people are said to have visited the site of the Jamboree!

Holger Damgaard, Dutch Boy Scouts Peforming before Visitors at Ermelunden, 1924
National Library of Denmark, Copenhagen (CC BY-NC-ND)

But what of the gate in the first picture? To be honest, I have no idea what its purpose was or may have been. Erected in the middle of a meadow and not leading anywhere it doesn’t seem to have any practical function. But who knows, maybe it was used during some of the activities, or perhaps it was just there for decoration. Or perhaps it was even intended to provide a photography backdrop. But what sparked my interest wasn’t so much its potential function anyway, but its outline: With its central gable and its flanking towers topped by spires, it immediately recalls a medieval church facade. I would even go one step further and suggest that it imitates the front of Denmark’s most important medieval building, Roskilde Cathedral:

Roskilde Cathedral
from: Illustreret Norges Historie, Kristiania 1885, p. 207.

The British Library, London (Public Domain)

So whatever that wooden gate may have been made for, I believe that one of its functions was to represent Denmark’s architectural heritage to the host of scouts from abroad. – And now if you’ll excuse me, with all this talk of boy scouts, I feel the sudden urge to go and rewatch Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom


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