MCNY Blog: New York Stories

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Traditions and Tastes: Seven Dutch Bible Tile Fragments Recovered from the South Ferry Terminal Site

By guest blogger Leslie Gerhauser

We are pleased to welcome Leslie Gerhauser as guest blogger to discuss fascinating Dutch Bible tiles that were uncovered by archaeologists in lower Manhattan. The Museum of the City of New York is preparing these and thousands of other artifacts for public access and long term care at the Landmarks Preservation Commission Archaeological Repository. Leslie is a Project Registrar at the New-York Historical Society.  Her expertise includes 17th- to 19th-century English and Dutch fine and decorative arts, 20th-century American collectibles, and urban archaeology.


Tile showing the Crucifixion. The curled, wire-like foliage dates the tile to the period 1675-1725. Currently on view in the City Museum’s Activist New York gallery.

From the 18th to early 19th century, the shoreline at New York City’s Battery Wall and Whitehall Slip was in an almost constant state of construction, demolition, and repair. Walls and other retaining structures were built, then filled beneath, around, and above with stone, soil, and trash. In 2005, South Ferry Terminal site excavations unearthed tens of thousands of artifacts from this fill, including a number of Dutch Bible tile fragments. As secondary refuse, meaning materials moved and redeposited, possibly more than once, from their original places of disposal, these tiles cannot be tied to a specific household or business. Their presence in the ground only roughly points to when they were deemed no longer necessary or desirable to the community. Painted in blue and black pigments, all show only partial images, which at first glance seem to defy identification.


A tile showing Moses (with horns) and the Ten Commandments displays tile thickness, density of pigment, and style of painted decoration consistent with blue double roundel oxhead tiles from the early 18th century. Currently on view in the City Museum’s Activist New York gallery.

What can these small, broken pieces contribute to our understanding of the young City’s visual traditions and evolving tastes? In the 17th and 18th century, religious instruction was a significant part of life. More than just a decorative convention, biblical imagery served as a teaching tool in the home. Dutch prints of Old and New Testament scenes were inserted into large family bibles, or bound as small illustrated Bible story books known as histories. In prints, Dutch tin-glazed earthenware tile manufacturers found ready design templates. Histories became the industry term for tiles painted with Bible scenes. By the second quarter of the 18th century, histories were the main types produced and exported, and a repertory of about 600 different Old and New Testament subjects existed.


Tile showing the head of a figure with a halo. In Dutch iconography this indicates a representation of Jesus. The corner shows a mid-17th century oxhead.

How culturally important were Bible tiles here? The New York Dutch retained the practice of their native land by lining hearths, walls, floors, and adjoining surfaces with decorative tin-glazed tiles.  Landscapes, animals, children at play, soldiers, and even bawdy scenes were all common, however, Bible stories, or histories, were by far the most popular. This custom was adopted by English colonials, who referred to them as Scripture tiles. Panels composed of hundreds of both Old and New Testament scenes were assembled in no particular narrative order. Although compositions were often simplified and slapdash in execution, the stories painted were instantly recognizable to a population well-versed in its visual and textual traditions.



Tile showing the Baptism of Jesus. Its oxhead with barred and dotted stem is suggests it was produced in the last quarter of the 17th century.

How can we date these fragments? Certain characteristics help.  17th century tiles are thicker and wider than their 18th century counterparts. Distinctive regional corner motifs and conventions like double concentric circles (called roundels), grassy mounds, or twisting trees indicate date ranges and probable production centers. Only four of the seven tiles shown here have intact corner motifs, however, all were produced between 1650 and 1750. Three of these fragments show the ‘oxhead’ corner motif, or a stem terminating in scrolls and short, curved horns with an open ‘crown’ or trefoil.


Tile showing the Annunciation. The surviving decoration shows the feet of the approaching angel on a tiled floor. This example is notable for its blue and purple-black pigments, and four-leafed, boldly dotted, and exuberantly scrolled ‘spiderhead’ corner motif typical of the mid- to late 17th century.

How can we tell it’s a Bible scene? Because Dutch factories used the same design sources and repeated the identical compositions decade after decade, it takes only a very small portion of painted design to recognize it is likely Biblical. Minute pieces showing only a tantalizing bit of a dashed halo, a gesticulating hand, or hem of a long robe are almost certainly depictions of Jesus and other New Testament figures. Comparing these sorts of fragments to better-identified, stylistically ‘like’ types recovered nearby can also provide a satisfying piece of the puzzle.


Tile showing what probably represents the Infant Moses in the Bulrushes. The brushy, dilute pigment is similar to that seen in the tile showing the Crucifixion shown above.

How available were these tiles? We know New York’s importers preserved connections with manufacturers in the Dutch Republic. The invoice book of merchants Barent, Robert, and John Sanders records on October 10, 1739, the cargo of the ship Elizabeth from Amsterdam included “one small case hearth tiles, 500 blue and white tiles with histories with texts….” While retailers sold what they could readily get a hold of, consumers based their choices not merely on availability and affordability, but upon aspiration and change. Hand-painted Bible tile importation seems to have fallen off after about 1760, replaced by tiles decorated in fashionable rococo and Chinese-influenced styles, or English transfer-printed tiles in the neoclassical style.


Tile showing a lion attacking a man on a donkey, probably an episode from the life of Saint Jerome. The ‘bow-eyed’ Harlingen oxhead with dotted stem dates the tile to the first half of the 18th century. Currently on view in the City Museum’s Activist New York gallery.

Most surviving fireplace installations at historic properties show some degree of tile replacement or fanciful recreation. Archaeological tile fragments like those found at the South Ferry Terminal deposits, despite being recovered from riverfront landfill, offer the most reliable evidence of the Bible tile types actually utilized, desired, and ultimately discarded by the city’s population.

Research inquiries may be directed to


5 comments on “Traditions and Tastes: Seven Dutch Bible Tile Fragments Recovered from the South Ferry Terminal Site

  1. wack60585
    January 13, 2016

    Reblogged this on wack60585.

  2. Pingback: Wonderful Things from the South Ferry Terminal Collection at New York City’s Archaeological Repository | MCNY Blog: New York Stories

  3. Anna Ferrara
    May 28, 2016

    The last fragment is more likely a depiction of the account of 1 Kings 13, where one prophet of the Lord is tricked into disobedience with grave results:

    “And [old prophet] said to [the man of God], ‘I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘”Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.'” But he lied to him. So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.

    “And as they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back. And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, ‘Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’”’ And after he had eaten bread and drunk, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back. And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body. And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived.”

    • Leslie Gerhauser
      August 14, 2016

      Ms. Ferrara – I think you are absolutely correct in identifying the scene depicted as 1 Kings 13. The subject was unfamiliar to me and my ‘probable’ identification was based on older catalogue documentation. Thank you for bringing this to light!

      – Leslie Gerhauser

    • Leslie Gerhauser
      August 14, 2016

      Thank you, Ms. Ferrara. I think you are absolutely correct in your identification of the tile scene as 1 Kings 13. I was unfamiliar with the subject, and so my ‘probable’ identification was based on older catalogue documentation. Thanks again for bringing this to light!

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