Dutch woodcarving saved by the camera

De koorbanken van Oirschot en Aarschot: gezien door de lens van Hans Sibbelee en Jan Verspaandonk is a book that caught my eye recently, with its many beautiful black and white photos. It looks in detail at the medieval carved choir stalls of two churches, one in Oirschot in the south of the Netherlands and one in Aarschot in Belgium. What makes them especially interesting is that those in Oirschot were destroyed during World War Two and we are only able to see them thanks to photographs that were fortuitously taken in 1943.

The choir stalls in both churches were created by Jan Borchmans of Eindhoven in the early 16th century and feature Gothic carving in oak. As one might expect in a church setting, much of the carving uses religious subjects such as the apostles and scenes from the Bible. But there are also many examples of more playful and sometimes slightly vulgar carvings hidden away under the ledges of the misericord seating and it is these that I particularly like. Here, for instance, we have a man being sick and a man pulling his trousers down:

And here are two more favourites of mine depicting a bagpipe player and two people doing an egg dance:

The Oirschot choir stalls were destroyed when the church was badly damaged in October 1944 during the fight to liberate the Netherlands. However, they had been well documented the previous year in photographs taken by Hans Sibbelee (1915-2003), and it is these photographs which feature in the book. Sibbelee was a Dutch communist who joined the International Brigade and fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. On his return to the Netherlands and during German occupation he was commissioned by the authorities to photograph important monuments in the country. He was also active in the resistance group De Ondergedoken Camera which illegally photographed the occupation. After the war he continued to work as a photographer, collaborating on many art and architecture publications. He remained a communist and visited Russia and China during the 1950s producing photo reports. He gave his collection of photos to Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and many are available online.

Sibbelee was not the first to photograph the choir stalls of Oirschot. In 1941 a booklet was published with photos by Martien Coppens. We do not have this (according to COPAC the only library copy in the UK is held by the British Library) but we do have a two-volume English translation of a later work by Coppens which is wider in scope: Gothic choir-stalls in the Netherlands. This contains many large and beautiful black and white photographs of more carvings and demonstrates the range of religious and worldly subjects treated.

The choir stalls in Aarschot were photographed by Jan Verspaandonk (1918-2001), probably during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Verspaandonk was a conservator and archivist in Haarlem and Utrecht but he became interested in choir stalls and travelled around taking photographs of many examples. He set up a series, Misericorde-reeks, again featuring close-up photos of carvings; the University Library has volumes dealing with churches in Haarlem, Bolsward and Breda.

The book on Oirschot and Aarschot is accompanied by a DVD which presents a virtual tour of a detailed 3D reconstruction of the Oirschot choir stalls.

There are many more photographs and detailed descriptions of Dutch and Belgian misericords in the third volume of Corpus of medieval misericords (volumes one and two were devoted to Iberia and France respectively).

Katharine Dicks

1 thought on “Dutch woodcarving saved by the camera

  1. Thank you for a great blog. I found the 1941 title De Koorbanken van Oirschot by Martien Coppens and Concordius van Goirle in the British Library. It is available for consultation at shelf mark X.421/8548.

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