Stories from the Shrouded Furnace

Text: Marie Janssen

Translation: Adam Baltieri

room with tiled stove in Gößl at Grundlsee, around 1920


The place where fairy tales begin


„However quiet and uneventful the life of these people may appear, it is nonetheless a true and vital life. The ancient, trembling woman, who, across from the tall cupboard, sat behind the furnace, may well have been sitting there a quarter century, and her thoughts and feelings must have grown together intimately with the shape of this oven and the carvings of this cupboard.“ Heinrich Heine [1]

When a fire was still kept burning in every home and the size of a village was determined by its number of fireplaces, [2] the oven occupied a central place in human life as the vessel that at once sheltered and tamed the vital fire.

At this time the life-sustaining warmth still had a shape, a visible origin in the form of the ceramic or cast-iron stove at the heart of the home, which one richly ornamented, well aware of its mortal importance.

In the cold months of the year above all, the hearth became the center of life. [3] At the end of the workday, members of the household would gather around the oven or furnace. They settled down, reclined, and warmed themselves. There, in peace, they spoke of the happenings of the day and told stories as night descended.

These stories were told for generations, again and again, over centuries – during the cold months, always at the same place, by the oven. And there they remained, almost as if inscribed in it, forming, so to speak, the site of local memory. [4]

“The old woman, across from the tall cupboard, behind the furnace wore a floral skirt of faded fabric, her late mother’s wedding dress. Her great grandchild, a blond, wide-eyed boy in miner’s clothes, sat at her feet and counted the flowers on her skirt, and she may have already told him many stories of this skirt, many earnest, lovely stories, which the lad certainly won’t soon forget, which will often arise before him, when soon, as a grown man, he’s working in the forlorn mine shafts of the “Karolina” at night, and which he’ll perhaps tell again when his loving grandmother is long dead and he himself is sitting in the company of his grandchildren, across from the tall cupboard, behind the furnace.” Heinrich Heine [5]

But the oven is not only the site of oral tradition. It is also a place where new stories and fairy tales begin.[6]

Through the intimate connection with the familiar place by the oven… “through the deep contemplation always grounded in the same place, of always the same objects, fairytales developed, whose peculiarity consists in this, that not only animals and plants, but also completely lifeless objects speak and act.“ Heinrich Heine [7] 

The storytellers saw an inner life in objects. They endowed them with character. And the oven, too, amidst this whirl of fantastical images, was assigned the traits of a living being. Sayings and proverbs were invented, superstitions brought into association. [8]

People claimed that through the chimney it was connected with spirits both good and evil. [9] The homey familiarity of the warm glow thus alternated with the unsettling feeling that insinuated itself through the perception of the hearth as the seat of ghosts and demons, goblins and the devil – the legacy of the ancient fire cult of pagan belief and superstition. [10]

The hissing sounds of fresh branches in the fire would be perceived as souls sighing in purgatory.

On holiday nights people scattered the bench near the furnace with ashes, because they believed that deceased relatives came there to warm themselves. In the morning they hoped to find their traces. [11]

They confided in the furnace, they lamented their suffering and entrusted it with secrets, as if it could listen, as if it were a living being.

A recurring motif is the “oven confession,” a cunning trick to get around a vow of secrecy. In order to circumvent the oath, the secret – which otherwise no soul may hear – is confided in the oven. But another person remains present during the confession and thus injustices, military assaults or murderous intentions are revealed in time and prevented. [12]

People even directly asked the oven for assistance. It was a widespread custom that a woman would ask the oven to find her a husband. On Saint Andrew’s Eve girls looked into the fire to see their futures.

People counted on other predictions, too. On the eves of Christmas and New Years one gazed into the hearth to learn what the coming year would bring. Or one watched the sparks whose patterns were thought to reveal the near future; for example, whether an unheralded visitor was on the way. [13]

And people tried to win the oven’s favor.

On holy nights one wasn’t to let the coals expire, for this would ensure that one would lack nothing for the year and be blessed with a life of good fortune. [14]

„And cupboard and oven are alive, for a human has poured part of his soul into them.“ 

Heinrich Heine [15]

Saint Jacob, Cologne Cathedral, 13th century


The corporeality beneath the drapery


Enveloped in finely painted cloths, standing up above on pillars, the holy figures encircle the inner choir of Cologne Cathedral. Their bodies sway beneath the costly fabrics. The delicately patterned cloaks cascade over them, covering shoulders, arms, upper bodies, legs, and feet. Beneath the fine draperies, the limbs become a unity forming the sumptuous foundation for the heads and hands that possess the saintly emblems or


Like relics presented upon richly embroidered cushions, their worth is made clear by the richness of the fabrics. The more valuable the fabric upon which the object rests, the more precious the object. And regardless how richly colored and exquisite the fabrics are, they recede into the background, [24] their entire splendor devoted to glorifying the object.

The body imparts its form to the gown, and the gown imitates the body’s shape, [25] especially in the upper body, where the fabric rests on the shoulders and draws downward. Below, the drapery opens out, falling freely, unnoticed by the tranquil hands and serene faces.

The patterned folds intimate the approximate position of the legs, but not their form. In this way they relieve the figures of their static footing, so that they seem to aspire upwards along the swaying drapery. If the feet weren’t still visible, resting on the ground between the softly lying folds, the figures would appear to be floa-ting weightlessly.

The weight or corporeality of figures, or its vanishing and the resulting weightlessness and etherealization, has been communicated in various times primarily through different stylized representations of drapery, or the patterned folds of fabric.

Thus sometimes the limbs are revealed quite clearly, as in ancient depictions and later in the paintings of Giotto di Bondones. The corporeality is tangible, the volume visible: the figures are made to carry their weight. [26]

At other times, the movement of the folds appears to be forced into unyielding geometric forms, producing a kind of abstract linearity. [27] Examples of this are found in the Romanesque Period. Here the garment follows the rules of an ornamental abstraction, denying all organic relation to the figure’s corporeality. It forms the body into solid shapes.

Or the cloth can appear soft and yielding. This often occurs in the Gothic. Here the robes sometimes even appear empty, like the floating veils of intangible figures of another order.

The flowing, evanescent folds, which change their shape and interrelations at the slightest stirring of the body, be it merely a breath of air, are engraved in a solid material. They are held fast in stone, metal, bone, and, as with the statues in the Cologne Cathedral, in wood.

However supple and free the drapery that clothes the apostles of the Cologne Cathedral may appear, it is stark and rigid. It cannot be lifted.

From Greek antiquity we are familiar with the story of the contest between the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Each wanted to measure himself against the painterly skills of his opponent, and so Zeuxis painted grapes that were so true to reality that birds flew to the painting, attempting to peck at them. Parrhasius presented a painted veil, and when Zeuxis asked him to lift the veil so he could see the picture beneath, it became clear that Parrhasius had won the contest. Zeuxis was only capable of fooling the birds, whereas Parrhasius deceived the famous painter himself. [28]

The story also speaks of Zeuxis’ wish to see under the depicted cloth. Yet an unveiling is impossible and thus the desire to see past the visible to that which lies beneath remains unsatisfied. [29]

The veil represents a barrier behind which humans will never be able to see. [30]

In this way, the motif of the veil touches on far-reaching questions regarding the possibility – or impossibility – of seeing and, more broadly, of understanding. [31]

Another painter from antiquity, Timanthes, is said to have attempted, in “The Sacrifice of Iphigenie in Aulis,” to heighten the expression of grief from person to person. The sorrow visible in the faces of the mourning relatives reached the limits of poignancy. When he felt himself incapable of painting yet a more grief-stricken face, he decided to cover Agamemnon, Iphigenie’s inconsolable father, with a veil. [32]

Here the veil symbolizes the limit, something so ungraspable that it can no longer be portrayed. Nevertheless, the veil makes it possible to preserve the presence of that which cannot be depicted in the painting. [33]

In other stories, the veil is associated with the prohibition against beholding that which lies beneath. In Plutarch, the veil of the Goddess of Sais cannot be lifted at any cost. In Ovid, Diana transforms Actaeon into a deer and he is torn to pieces by his own dogs – the price for beholding her without her veil. [34]

Drapery always covers something and thus makes a secret of that which is concealed.

The cloth, however, as medium of concealment, always remains visible.

It is the visible cloak of the unseen.

It conceals, yet its secret remains conspicuously present. [35]

Aolipile, Sondershausen, 12th century


Fire Blower, Aeolipile – Household implement or witchcraft


Only three of its kind have come down to us. One is located in a private collection in Basel, another in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This one is located in the Schlossmuseum in Sondershausen. [16]

For us these small bronzes appear as enigmatic marvels. They’re called aeolipiles or fire blowers. Usually in the shape of a little man, these are hollow figurines that were filled with water through an opening in the back and heated in the fire’s embers until the highly-pressurized water blew out as steam through the narrow opening at the mouth. The propulsion would cause them to begin spinning on their mounts. [17] The highly flammable steam would spray out and incite the flames. [18]

They are in a kneeling position, as when stoking a fire. With one hand lifted to the forehead, they shield their faces from the heat of the embers.

The hand’s position, however, can also be interpreted as a symbol for gazing into the distance. Since antiquity, this gesture has stood for visions of the future, which is the basis for the conjecture that they may be instruments related to pagan ritual and belief. [19]

Thus the question whether they are merely beautifully formed fire blowers that counted among the usual household implements or were designed as hissing and rotating marvels to impress and inspire the observer, has not been solved to this day.

For centuries they have remained the object of research and speculation. [20]

The story goes, it was found in the ruins of Rothenburg in the hills of Kyffhäuser. [21]

It is said to be “the true image of the God Büsterich, whom the Thuringians, before their conversion, honored and worshipped in the small town of Kelbra on mount Rothenburg.“ [22]

They say it is the steam cannon of emperor Barbarossa.

It is believed to have spat fire and repelled its foes with glowing rain. [23]

thermal image, tent city in London


The invention of life –

The wondrous effect of things


“An object is dead when the living gaze that was once cast upon it has disappeared”

Chris Marker, les statues meurent aussi [36]

When one thoughtfully observes an object, a miraculous interaction takes place:The object stirs up memories, connects them, makes them overlap. It patterns our thoughts, adds something to them, or dispels them. Imperceptibly, we are shaped by the object. It influences us through its history, its inherent world of ideas. [37]

The object makes an impression on us as thinking, feeling, and malleable observers. We could say, it exercises its influence on or affects us. [38]

We are used to tracing active influence to something with a subjective character. Thus we tend to ascribe this subjective character to the things that influence and shape us.

But this subjectivity only exists because we bestow it by responding to the active influence of objects. It is we who enter into these interdependent relations. [39] It is our living gaze that makes objects efficacious, thus bringing them to “life.”

It is wonder at this fact – that between object and us, their observers, such an interaction arises – that leads humans to endow mere things with attributes that are otherwise exclusively reserved for living beings. [40]

We witness a kind of living presence in objects. [41]

„How does it happen that our seeing leaves things undisturbed in their places, that our glance seems, to us, to originate from them.“

Maurice Merlau-Ponty [42]

Art consciously creates space for the agential power of things. Here it is openly observed and reflected. [43] In his book “Art and Agency,” Alfred Gell defines art objects not as symbolic representations or visual codes in the service of communication, but rather as unique systems of action that, through their impact, exert influence on their environments, that possess, as it were, an agency. [44]

There have always been times, again and again interrupted by the ambitions of the Enlightenment, in which the dynamism, the preternatural force of image and likeness was openly embraced. There were pictures that one kissed and adored. These were treated as living beings that one could address with matters of personal importance. [45]

The meaning of certain objects, whether religious or secular, was taken more earnestly. These items were skillfully produced, decorated according to wealth, and they had a long life, for they were passed from generation to generation. The aura they gained as a consequence only increased their impact.

People would invent stories for their objects, give them character traits, a life of their own.

For their idols are wooden: they cut a tree out of the forest, / and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; / they fasten it with hammer and nails / so that it will not totter.(…) they cannot speak; they must be carried / because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; / they can do no harm / nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:3-5[46]

To distance oneself from this convoluted, animistic world was one goal of modernity. [47] This difficult to articulate agency of things was relegated to the realms of superstition, the spirit, the supernatural, mystical and holy. [48] This animistic tendency to attribute subjectivity to objects collided with a major dictate of the Enlightenment: the clear separation of subject and object. [49] With the enlightened demand for visibility and transparency, the veil of mystery and incomprehensibility that surrounded so many things became threadbare and fell away. [50]

Through a radical rationalization of thought, the power of things was put in its place and dismissed. Museums were erected, and artworks, which were previously encountered in great number in public spaces, were banished to the display cases. [51]

“Classified, labeled, preserved in the glass showcases and in collections, they enter the history of art.(…)“

Chris Marker, les statues meurent aussi [52]

Art objects were separated from their original situations, divided into genres and periods, and classified according to the categories of the modern museum.

As the artworks were displaced from their original frames of reference, they suffered the loss of a large part of their actuality, the performative power they possessed in the context of their historical origins. [53]

Their agency was ultimately neutralized. [54]

Yet a small onyx vessel tells a different story.

It is believed to have contained the salve of King Samuel, with which the German emperors were later anointed. Its origins remain somewhat uncertain. One hypothesis is that it was stolen from Mantua during the Thirty Years War and eventually made its way to Germany. It was rumored to perform miracles.

This mythical vessel was once located in the castle of Duke Anton Ulrich. During the airstrikes on Braunschweig in the last days of the Second World War, which otherwise virtually destroyed the entire city, the castle was spared. The inestimable worth of the onyx vessel was known to the Allies who abstained from shelling. The vessel thus placed a “spell of protection” around the castle. [55]

“We have never been modern”, writes Bruno Latour in his exemplary essay from 1991, [56] and the story of the onyx vessel seems to tell us the same. If in this connection the monetary value of the vessel is cited – which, however, is only so high thanks to the object’s mythical aura – it remains nevertheless certain that the vessel’s significance is what determined the outcome of the events.

Receptivity to the power of things appears to be deeply rooted in us. It appears as if our cultural memory were determining the particular effect objects have on us. And this memory reaches far back, indeed much farther than we know. The power of things is part of a long cultural history inscribed in all of us. Thus things take hold of us, then as now. “… in the aura (they) take possession of us,” as in Walter Benjamin’s well-known formulation. Their power never entirely let us go. [57]


Translation: Adam Baltieri,



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Website des Kunsthistorischen Museums, Wien[packageID]=2326&tx_bilddb_pi1[detailID]=91709&cHash=760860c20cacb28e109356d7122de157 zuletzt aufgerufen am 11.01.2016

1 Heine, Die Harzreise, S.22

2 ebenda, S.6

3 Pietsch, Der Ofen, S.261

4 ebenda, S.264

5 Heine, Die Harzreise, S.23f

6 Pietsch, Der Ofen, S.264

7 Heine, Die Harzreise, S.22

8 Pietsch, Der Ofen, S.261f

9 Franz, Der Kachelofen, S.8

10 Pietsch, Der Ofen, S.267

11 Geramb, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens IV, Ofen

12 Pietsch, Der Ofen, S.263

13 Geramb, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens IV, Ofen

14 ebenda

15 Heine, Die Harzreise, S.22

16 Beyer, For your eyes only, S.15

17 Website des Kunsthistorischen Museums, Wien

18 Jucker-Scherrer, Der Feueranbläser von Aventicum, S.49f

19 Beyer, For your eyes only, S.16

20 Website des Kunsthistorischen Museums Wien

21 Rabe, Der Püsterich zu Sondershausen, kein Götzenbild, S.31

22 ebenda, S.16

23 ebenda, S.210

24 Vgl.: Hollander, Fabric of Vision, S.9“In paintings: dresses often filling two thirds of the frame ithout seeming to be there”

25 Pape, Kunstkleider, S.173

26 Steinfeld, Die Gebärdensprache der Kunst, Süddeutsche Zeitung

27 Brucher, Geschichte der Venezianischen Malerei, S.

28 Plinius, Zeuxis-Parrhasios-Legende, in: Vite de‘ Pittori Antichi, S.27

29 Endres, Ikonologie des Zwischenraums, S.35

30 ebenda, S.3

31 ebenda, S.97

32 ebenda, S.176

33 ebenda, S.199

34 Endres, Ikonologie des Zwischenraumes, S.60

35 ebenda, S. 1f

36 Marker, Les statues meurent aussi: „Un objet est mort quand le regard vivant qui se posait sur       lui a disparu.”


37 Franke, Jenseits der Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, S.19f

38 ebenda

39 ebenda, S.25

40 Versluys, Materielle Kultur: Die Wirkung Ägyptens, S.37

41 Eck, Living Statues, S.642-660

42 Merleau-Ponty

43 Franke, Jenseits der Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, S.27

44 ebenda, S.29

45 Belting, Bild und Kult, S.11

46 Jeremiah 10 (3-5)

47 Franke, Jenseits der Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, S.21

48 ebenda, S.26

49 Franke, Jenseits der Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, S.29

50 Endres, Ikonologie des Zwischenraumes, S.3

51 Versluys, Materielle Kultur: Die Wirkung Ägyptens, S.42

52 Marker, Les statues meurent aussi,“Classes, etiquetes, conserves dans la glace des vitrines et des collections, ils entrent dans l‘histoire de l‘art (…)”

53 Franke, Jenseits der Wiederkehr des Verdrängten, S.29

54 Franke, Albers, Einleitung S.11

55 Henning Ritter, die Wiederkehr der Wunderkammer, S.23

56 Latour, Wir sind nie modern gewesen

57 Versluys, Materielle Kultur: Die Wirkung Ägyptens, S.37