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.
I have recently visited Münsterland, the area around the city of Münster in Germany, and, in particular, a triangle of prosperous villages, Havixbeck, Billerbeck and Nottuln, all associated since mediaeval times with sandstone carving, and the latter with a characteristic blue-glazed pottery. Being lovers of individual, hand-crafted products and of clayware, my husband and I tried in vain by car to find a contemporary artisan in the district, as we had seen examples locally; yet it wasn’t until, on a bike ride towards the end of our stay, we happened upon a glass display case fixed to the wall of a Nottuln hotel that we could locate the potter. The case contained some examples of the work, some photographs and, tucked away at the top, some cards with a name and an address, out in a rural hamlet called Stevern.
Good luck happened twice, as, when we found the pottery itself, Monica Stüttgen had only two hours before returned from a holiday in the Black Forest. She showed us into her house and invited us also to look around the garden, both of which are a treasure trove of beautiful examples of her handiwork. The whole of the ground floor of the house is given over to a studio and rooms displaying a remarkable range of artefacts, quite a few of them carrying her trademark, a flying bird with a fanning tail.
Monica says that she regards herself as a craftswoman, rather than an artist (coincidentally, this is also how the many generations of sandstone sculptors also viewed themselves) and feels particularly strongly that her pottery should be used, not just put on display; it is well glazed, using modern processes, and, she adds, will stand both frost and the dishwasher! Though it accords with traditional designs, it plainly reveals much of her individuality and considerable artistry.
I’ve included in this post some photographs of some of her work, from both inside the studio and out in the garden. She obviously draws some of her inspiration from Nottuln, of which she is a native, although she told me that she spent ten years making and selling pottery in France. Like many artisans – indeed many writers – that I have met, her chief problem is obtaining publicity for her work. Once people have seen it, they love it and want to come back for more, but she is struggling to find a wider public; at the moment, she does have an arrangement with the local restaurant, Gasthaus Stevertal, to display examples of her pottery (Stevertal is a fine traditional German restaurant with a menu that features the local cuisine – we ate here twice… and twice missed her display!) and the showcase in Nottuln, but these are not enough.
I found both Monica and her work fascinating and I am full of admiration for what she is trying to achieve. I suggested that she should try to extend her customer base by developing a blog for her website and new contacts via social networking; I also promised to write a blog-post myself as my own, very small, contribution to try to help. So here it is.
We bought a fruit bowl, a fish plate and two eggcups and Monica very generously also gave us a kitchen tidy in one of the traditional Nottuln designs. I’m delighted with them and doubt that I shall be taking any risk on the dishwasher front! As our daughter-in-law also comes from this area, we shall certainly visit the pottery again: there are many other pieces that we should like to buy. For example, we were particularly taken with the ceramic garden labels for herbs.
I feel very strongly that the skills of an artisan should be encouraged and supported, especially one with Monica’s obvious talent. If you happen to visit this area, you won’t be disappointed by an hour or two in her lovely studio and garden. You may like to know that she is also prepared to send items by post!