When I wrote about the potter of Nottuln a few days ago, I said that I would also shortly be describing the sandstone museum at Havixbeck, near the German city of Münster. It is a fascinating modern complex, aimed at tourists, though there is no charge for it and it is not situated in an area particularly noted for tourism. It is a place designed to celebrate and record an ancient craft: part museum, part atelier. Some of the exhibits have been displayed in reconstructed rooms as they might have existed in the past.
The museum celebrates more than five hundred years of sandstone carving (illustrated in the photographs here) by the three linked communities of Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln. Men from these communities worked together from the late middle ages onwards, forming themselves into a kind of guild. They did not regard themselves as artists, rather as craftsmen, and therefore most of the pieces that they made were created anonymously. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that a few individuals began to be named on the pieces, and these with no especial reverence. Until 1950, the workshops were often situated in the quarries where the sandstone was hewn.
The industry enjoyed a brief late flowering in the middle of the last century, when the sandstone workers were commissioned to undertake post-war repair work to the churches of the Münsterland. Thereafter, the industry went into decline (possibly linked to the simultaneously declining influence of the Catholic church in the area), though there are still a few artisans practising today. Many of the examples of the mediaeval sand carvings held by the museum were salvaged from bomb-damaged churches. There is an especially poignant photograph of Münster Cathedral, taken after a bombing raid, in which one of the twin towers has almost collapsed; the other is miraculously unscathed. This church has now been beautifully restored.
The men who worked the sandstone doubled up as farmers when their masonry skills were not needed. For this reason, members from the three communities were quite wealthy. Perhaps it was partly because they also worked the land that they lived to be a much higher than average age for stoneworkers. In the nineteenth century the average life expectancy for a man from these villages was sixty-one, as opposed to a (shocking!) thirty-seven for stoneworkers elsewhere in Germany at the time. Modern science suggests that another reason was that, uniquely, the sandstone from this area contains lime, which cut down the dust emitted when it was being cut and carved, meaning that the workers inhaled less into their lungs. The workers themselves attributed their longevity to schnapps, of which each would drink up to a litre a day! (Apparently it was less potent then than it is now.)
The elaborate patterns for the windows, tombs, shrines and altars that the masons carved were designed by an architect, or sometimes by a master mason. In mediaeval times, the templates of the patterns were made of wood; later, of thin metal. The workers had a dour but well-developed sense of humour: quarrying the stone required a huge expenditure of skill and energy, so if anyone spoilt a piece of it by making a mistake they were fined. Even more humiliatingly, the piece of damaged stone was given a mock-ceremonial burial. Money collected from the fines contributed to a kind of early benevolent fund. There are indications that the masons were quite hard-nosed businessmen: for example, almost every farm in the area has its own sandstone shrine – no doubt the eighteenth or nineteenth century equivalent of a nice water feature (if that doesn’t sound too profane).
Dating from the nineteenth century onwards are photographs of the boys and men who worked the quarries. They don’t have happy faces: all seem quite solemn and few are smiling, but perhaps this was because it took such a long time to take a group photograph then, perhaps because they were told to look serious. They certainly appear well-dressed and well-fed, though it is curious that their clothes hardly seemed to change in the century between 1850 and 1950.
I wonder what it must have been like to have been born into one of these three villages and – male or female – to know that during your life you would be assured of reasonable prosperity, but also that your future had been mapped out for you from birth.