Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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