Bellows with relief

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North Netherlands
C. 1600
Oak with original polychromy
27 cm
34 cm

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This oak carved relief depicts the legend of Saint Christopher and was part of a bellows. Bellows were used to fuel the fire and were often hung visibly against the wall next to the fireplace. This made the bellows a decorative element: a painting depicted in wood. The bellows consist of two solid pear-shaped parts with a flexible leather bag in between. Air is sucked in through a valve at the back and blown out through an iron or bronze spout at the front, supplying the fire with enough oxygen.

Various legends and stories circulate about Saint Christopher, the story depicted here is about Christopher as the ‘Christ-bearer’, as recorded in the 13th-century book Legenda Aurea. The legend begins with Reprobus, a six-foot Canaanite giant, who one day decides that he wanted to place himself at the service of the supreme authority. He then goes into the service of the king, but soon finds out that the emperor has more power than the king. He then enters the service of the emperor, but the emperor turns out to be afraid of the devil and is therefore not the most powerful. Reprobus then offers its services to the devil. The devil, in turn, appears to be afraid of God, and Reprobus decides that he will put himself in God’s service. He meets a hermit, who he asks exactly how to serve God and the hermit answers that, because he is so big and strong, he can serve God by helping people to cross a dangerous and deep river by carrying them through the water on his back. Christopher agrees and patiently sets about his task. One day, years later, he has to carry a small child across the river on his shoulders. The child suddenly becomes heavier and heavier, and the river wilder and higher, so that Christopher can only reach the other side with great difficulty. There he says to the child: ‘You put me in great danger. I think even the whole world could not be as heavy on my shoulders as you were.’ The child reveals himself as Christ Himself and says: ‘ You had not only the whole world on your shoulders, but Him who made the world. I am Christ, your king, whom you served in this work.’ Reprobus is then baptized in the river, and receives his baptismal name Christopher, in Greek ‘Christ-bearer’.  The relief depicts the climax of this story: the giant Reprobus stands with his staff in a raging river, with the child on his shoulders and one foot on the safe shore. The child is holding a globus cruciger; a symbol for the words he speaks, from which it becomes clear that Christopher carried the burden of the whole world and Christ himself. On both sides of the river, people are watching in disbelief, and the contours of a walled city are visible.  Over time, Christopher became the patron saint of travelers and pilgrims, whom he, like the people he helped cross the dangerous river, protects from danger and misfortune while traveling. He is also one of the fourteen Roman Catholic saints called the "Helpers" or "Fourteen Holy Helpers," saints who mainly help with illness and disease. Saint Christopher, in particular, protects against the plague. It is also written in the Legenda Aurea that anyone who sees Christopher that day will not be overcome by weakness and will not die. Therefore, Christopher is one of the most depicted saints and it is not surprising that his image is on a bellows, a frequently used and visible object in the house. His image gave the residents protection and assurance that nothing would happen to them, as long as they glanced at him daily. 


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