Artefact of the Month

Gingerbread Biscuit Stamp with a Scene from the Legend of Saint Barbara

November, 2017


This gingerbread biscuit stamp, a stand-out piece from the Museum of Ethnography’s Crafts and Trades Collection, derives from the institution’s turn-of-the-century dealings with amateur archaeologist and antiquities collector/dealer József Lichtneckert, who for years supplied the institution with artefacts both for remuneration, and as donations.  As with the majority of the museum’s gingerbread stamps, the piece was collected in Transdanubia.

Part of a body of material acquired in 1905, the stamp ostensibly came from the Somogy County community of “Szill” (Somogyszil), based on information found on its museum file card.  In Hungary, however, gingerbread stamps were traditionally made and sold by itinerant craftsmen and were often passed down through generations, in some cases remaining in use for centuries.  As a result, both the stamps, and their products have turned up in a wide variety of times and locations, so that the indicated place of collection is not necessarily the place a given piece was made or used.  Further hindering identification in this case are the paucity of information collected with the object, a deficiency typical of the time, and Lichtneckert’s specific collecting habits .  In was not until later, in fact, that the image appearing on the piece was properly identified and its meaning revealed.

Gingerbread stamps of this type commonly feature negatively carved designs employing the sorts of widely recognised images, symbols, and motifs associated with major holidays and pilgrimage sites, but only rarely depict entire scenes.  Reflecting a consistent, mature woodcarving tradition incorporating a variety of influences and artistic styles, the piece shown here tells a story in the manner of the more archaic motifs associated chiefly with the age of the guilds.  The carving includes oft-used elements such as a wreath of leaves, Renaissance-style checker flooring, and a standing figure paired with one that is kneeling.  Motifs depicting stories from the Bible or the lives of the saints are known to have fallen into decline and been replaced by profane images during the mid-19th century; and indeed, according to the date readable at the bottom below the initials M.V., this piece was carved prior to that time, in 1819.  The theme in question is the Legend of Saint Barbara, whose entire life and martyrdom are condensed here into a single dimension.


Barbara, one of the early Christian martyrs (circa †300), was one of the most venerated and persistently influential female saints of the medieval and Baroque Hungarian world, whose festival day falls on the 4th of December.  According to the transcribed Érdy Codex, she was the daughter of Dioscorus, a pagan from Nicomedia, [r2]who had her locked in a tower to preserve her from Christian influences.  Finding herself in a room with two windows, she had a third one cut to remind her of the Holy Trinity.  When it was discovered that she had been baptised in secret, her father had her tortured and cast into prison, where she received a vision of Christ.  Comforted and strengthened in faith, she then denied her injuries, only to be beheaded by her father, who soon after was struck down by fire (lightning).  As a result, Barbara became the patron saint of a “good death,” as well as of numerous cities and occupations, including those of miners, masons, and stonecutters.

The image carved out over the stamp’s pear-wood surface tells Barbara’s story in all its key details, including the figures of father and daughter, the sabre that will take the girl’s life, and the saint, kneeling with her arms spread wide, as if in acceptance of her fate.  Its composition highlights the division between the conflicting worlds of the wealthy man and his martyred daughter, their Turkish costumes (turban, caftan, mantle) a reference to the setting of the story.  The haloed saint, occupying the centre, and hence the key position of the design, appears amidst the symbols of her legend:  the three-windowed tower, a palm branch, a crown, and a chalice and holy wafer.  Looming over her sabre-wielding father’s head is the bolt of lightning that will strike him in judgment for his terrible deed.

The age, quality of workmanship, and wealth of detail associated with the piece indicate that it was likely carved by a master guild craftsman (or possibly one of the jewellers from which such craftsmen sometimes ordered work), possibly in one of Hungary’s traditional mining towns.

As an experiment, museum restoration staff have taken silicon impressions of this and several other gingerbread stamps from the collection, enabling the manufacture of numerous reproductions to be applied in turn to fun, hands-on museum activities.  

Magdolna Szabó
Museum of Ethnography
Inv. no. 59294