The Nativity, in Coffer

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Workshop of the Master of the Very Small Hours of Anne of Brittany (French, active Paris, 1480-1510)
Coffer by an unknown maker (French, 15th century)

The Nativity, in Coffer, c. 1490

Woodcut hand-colored with brush, stencil and watercolor on ivory laid paper mounted on the inside cover of a coffer, constructed of wood, iron, leather, horsehair and linen
231 x 164 mm (woodcut, image); 220 x 330 x 150 mm (box)
The Art Institute of Chicago, George F. Harding Deaccessions Fund; Restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Vance; The Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Fund, 2009.49

Field 8; Bartsch v161, pp93-95, .063-1-3

This woodcut and coffer demonstrate the very unusual survival of a print in its original context. Incredibly, ten other impressions of this stencil-colored, mass-produced Nativity survive, all also in boxes, and approximately one hundred other French coffers ornamented with similar prints exist. Their original purpose, however, remains uncertain. Despite their metal reinforcements and standardized lock, they were not sturdy enough to be strapped to pack animals. They may instead have been worn as backpacks, with the cushion on the bottom allowing the container to sit on the traveler’s knees for use as a movable shrine. A shallow secret compartment in the lid of this example is equally mysterious. It may have held contact relics, such as fabric or hair, or even consecrated Communion wafers, an unseen presence that would have reinforced the devotional value of the entire object.