(Not) Fade Away: Banc à tournis, Strycsitten and Vändbänken

The Playfair Hours, MSL/1918/475 fol 1r, French, 1480s. Copyright the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Medieval homes were sparsely furnished, and each piece usually would have more than one function. One of the intriguing bench styles that can be found in many manuscript images is the bench with a flip-able back rest. The form seems to have become popular in the early part of the 15th century.

The manuscript and the real thing. Top: February from the Hours of Henry VIII, Tours, MS H.8 fol 1v, France, ca. 1500. Morgan Library, New York. Bottom: Bank mit Faltwerk, Gothic, Kunstgewerbesammlungen, Berlin.

To make the bench even more useful, the base could be a storage chest. In manuscripts, the bench is normally seen in front of a fireplace. Warm up facing the fire, and when you were warm enough and it was time to dine, flip the backrest and face the table.

Décaméron de Boccace, MS 5070 réserve fol 314r, 15th c. Bibliothèque de Arsenal, Gallica BnF.

Banc à Tournis
The France banc à tournis (or banc-tournis) typically has a thin backrest that turns inside the side panels. Although they are found in manuscripts, I did not find any French versions with the lower storage chest.

16th c. Northern France, probably Normandy, oak. Sotheby’s.

The side panels serve as the legs of the bench and often bear the only decorative element, in this case, linenfold carving.

16th c. Northern France, oak, from Chateau de Cornillon, Loire. Sotheby’s.

The pair above with carved panels on the side are a bit longer and a central support is added.

Here you can get a better look at two versions of the turning arm. The center dowel in the pivot does not pierce the side panel. In the (sharper) photo on the left it is easy to see how the side panel is constructed to include a vertical stop for the turning arm of the backrest.

Saint Barbara, 1438, by Robert Campin, Flemish. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Flemish artists were notoriously good at fine details. In this painting which is the left side of the Werl Altarpiece, Saint Barbara sits on another French-style banc à tournis. In this case the backrest is an six-sided bar with a metal turning arm and mounted on the outside of the side panel.

Banc à tournis, early 15th century from Tour sans peur, Paris.

The open sides of this bench preclude mounting the turning arm on the inside. Another feature of these benches is a footrest. They can be hard to see in paintings due to the voluminous clothing worn by the bench occupants. The footrest is also one of those pieces that gets broken off  – or intentionally taken off – as these benches moved through the centuries.

A comparison of the metal turning arm in the painted version and the real thing.

In the Sotheby’s notes about the two benches from Northern France it gave the 1589 inventory of a banc à tournis owned by Catherine de Medici: ‘un banc à dossier mobile e pouvant faire face à la chiminée ou tourner le dos.’ At the time (2007) this was the last known record of one of these benches.

Styrcsitten
The German version of these benches are the strycsitten, identified by the turning mechanism mounted atop the side panel.

Detail from Biblia Pauperum, ÖNB 3085, fol 39r, 1475, Österr. Nationalbibl., Vienna.

As with the French benches, there are variations in the side panels, decorative elements and whether there is a storage chest.

Pilgrimage to Santiago Compostella, part of an altarpiece, 1460 by Friedrich Herlin. Archive Gerstenberg-ullsteinbild.

The pilgrims are sitting on a plain styrcsitten with a narrow backrest and we can definitely see the hinges of the chest.

Two paintings by Gabriel Mälesskircher from Munich. Left: Saint John the Evangelist, 1478, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Right: Mary Magdalene washes Christ’s feet, 1476, German National Museum, Nürnberg.

Based on his painting style, Mälesskircher was probably trained by Flemish masters. He shows us two strycsitten without chests, but with great decorative work on the side panels.

Tirol Landesmuseum, Innsbruck, Austria. Photo from St. Thomas Guild blog.

A plain bench with storage chest. The backrest is wider than what is usually seen in manuscripts and paintings and would likely be more comfortable.

Photo from St. Thomas Guild blog.

This second bench from the 15th century has a beautifully-carved backrest and, as you can see, a storage chest. There are color photos floating around that may or may not be the same bench. I have seen notes that the pictured bench may have been destroyed in WWII.

Mälesskircher’s painting vs. an actual bench (photo from St. Thomas Guild blog).

The turning mechanism of the strycsitten sits on the central point of the side panel. The two outside points serve as the rests. Variations will be the depth of the curves and height of the three points, and carvings or piercings on the side panels.

If you are shopping around for a flip-able bench to make and so far you aren’t wowed by the banc à tournis or strycsitten, let’s go north.

Vändbänken

From Hälsingland/Dalarna, 1800s. Photo Stadsauktion Sundsvall.

The vändbänk is a Swedish bench with some interesting details. No side panels to worry about, as much turning detail as one might want and a very cool turning mechanism.

These benches were painted in the folk tradition and the seat might have an apron. In the bench above you can still see remnants of paint. The apron is carved with a leaf pattern.

And here is how it turns. I don’t know the Swedish term for the turning arm so I am naming it Thor’s Hammer. Many examples have the same staked legs in what looks like the start of a ballet second position demi-plié. These benches have personality and turnings, lots of turnings.

1800s, collection of the Nordiska Museet. Photo by Skansen Digitalt Museum.

Another variation is a fence-like apron attached to one side.

When the backrest is turned to the other side the apron is left behind. Here you also get an idea of the heft of the burly turning arm.

Kalmer läns museum.

This bench appears to be older than the previous two and is from Norra Bäckbo. In the local dialect it is known as a rall. No turnings but a nicely figured backrest.

Dated 1680 from Junkboda Bygdea. Collection of Nordiska museet.

In the Junkboda Bygdea dialect this bench is a brudsärla and has a heavier build. The legs extend above the level of the seat and act as the stops for the backrest. The backrest is more solid than previous examples and has wonderful quatrefoil piercings while the apron has simple beading. The turning mechanism is the same but without any apparent decoration.

Two more non-Swedish benches with a similar turning arm are from Hungary and Russia.

Dated late 19th century.

The Hungarian bench variation has staked stick legs instead of the more substantial Swedish bench legs. The seat is also less substantial but has a nice frilly apron. The backrest has deeply carved and pierced panels. This may have had some repainting, however, it still gives us a good idea of the folk painting found in Eastern Europe.

This beefy Russian bench almost looks like a church pew, except for the legs. The back rest has a carved and pierced design that can also be found in textiles.

The bench shows another variation of how to turn the backrest.

With some similarity to the German styrcsitten the backrest turns atop the side panel and together they give a solid side to the bench end.

The St. Thomas Guild has been exploring the strycsitten for several years and they have a ton of photos of the benches (and other furniture) they have found. You can take a trip over to their blog here. If you get lost they have an alphabetic directory that will help you get redirected on their blog.

As with many folk crafts this bench is disappearing. Whatever your preference in style or decoration I urge you to consider making one of these versatile benches.

There are a few more examples of these flip-able benches in the gallery.

— Suzanne Ellison

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32 Responses to (Not) Fade Away: Banc à tournis, Strycsitten and Vändbänken

  1. Maurice says:

    Travail remarquable ! Merci Suzanne.

  2. SSteve says:

    They sure look more comfortable as we go North or East. Poor Saint Barbara just gets a stick across her backbone.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Yes, the ‘roll bar’ looks supremely uncomfortable. But at least she was able to warm up before being locked in the tower by her father.

  3. Jonathan Schneider says:

    Thanks so much for this massive data and inspiration!

  4. Fancy Lad Woodworking says:

    Really interesting! I didn’t even know that this style of furniture existed. Doesn’t look particularly comfortable but obviously was a popular form for hundreds of years.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Add some fancy cushions and these benches would be a bit more comfortable. Also, consider our ideas of comfort are different from what was acceptable, or even luxurious comfort, in medieval life.

  5. matrushka12 says:

    On Fri, Mar 30, 2018 at 10:11 AM, Lost Art Press wrote:

    > saucyindexer posted: ” Medieval homes were sparsely furnished, and each > piece usually would have more than one function. One of the intriguing > bench styles that can be found in many manuscript images is the bench with > a flip-able back rest. The form seems to have become popul” >

  6. Mälesskircher’s painting do you have a date. While helping with the research on Henry VII first state bed /vimeo.com/213097913?ref=em-share we came across two painting off dovetails some 100+ years before they became commonly used.

  7. Bob Easton says:

    New nickname awarded: saucyresearcher

    Excellently done!

  8. momist says:

    I can appreciate the footrest, for those on earthen and stone floors, but I would have expected those to be more popular as you travelled north? It seems not so. Also, studying the details of these, they all have a flat seat (expected) and where there is a flat back, it is always vertical, why? It would seem to be an easy modification to put a slight rake on the back, in both orientations. Also, why are so many of them just a bar for the backrest, when a more supportive back could have been included? Questions, questions.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Yes, they do look very uncomfortable but medieval homes were cold and minimizing the back rest allowed more exposure to the heat from the fire place. Settles are also ramrod straight. Perhaps it was ease of construction?

  9. nrhiller says:

    Spectacular research. My mind is reeling.

    • saucyindexer says:

      With some redesign for comfort imagine sipping a glass of Spätlese while sitting on a strycsitten.

  10. fitz says:

    Those are uber cool!

  11. jenohdit says:

    I’m ready to pre-order your book.

  12. Simon Stucki says:

    nice! if I ever make a bench with a back rest this is going to be it (if it at all makes sense for the situation), I really like the one from Junkboda Bygdea, also it shouldn’t be to hard to make it a bit more comfortable (even without cushions) if it is at all necessary.

  13. tsstahl says:

    The vändbänk has too much toxic masculinity. Shame on your for not warning me. What’s next, graphic images of sharpened chisels?

    It’s been a weird day. On the serious side, the staked bench with sparse back rail has a great economy of wood. However, I suspect it is more adept at keeping you from falling in the fire than holding you upright. Still, I’m going to put it on the list.

    I’d love to see what mssr. Follansbee would do carving on all that linear space in the beefier benches.

    • saucyindexer says:

      I would never post images of sharpened chisels! I do hope you make one of these benches as there are so many design interpretations.

  14. Klaus N. Skrudland says:

    Very interesting read. If I’m not mistaken, this bench is similar to what we call Vendebenk in Norway, which is an old, traditional bench: https://digitaltmuseum.no/011023135115/benk/media?slide=0

  15. Rusty says:

    the title of the top picture explains where the word “bank” comes from – the money was stored in the the bench. Great article!

  16. Jeremy says:

    I recently had the idea of making such a bench to suit an area of my home that would benefit from dual axis seating, Once again there is nothing new under the sun. So many excellent ideas and forms to work with here, perhaps even some where te movement can be locked halfway mode creating an ad hock table.

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