One of the delightful things about medieval towns and villages is the way the craftsmen of old used to announce their trade – by hanging a sign over their front door. These weren’t just simple written signs: they were little works of art that symbolized the craftsman’s work through pictures, and often a bit of whimsy.
One of the stops on my current Viking cruise of the Rhine River was the medieval town of Colmar, in the Alsace region of France. And there, on a street corner, we found a handsome half-timbered building dating back to 1340. On the front hung a sign that left no doubt as to what the owner did: “Charcuterie Zimmerlin” — a butcher. But Mr. Zimmerlin must fancy himself the king of butchers, since he’s celebrated himself with a heraldic lion, carrying an axe and wearing a royal crown. He’s even got a little “Z” logo.
But some humour always helps, so the sign maker has added a little girl in local dress and wooden shoes, being pulled along by a pig she has tethered by a string. She seems to be holding on to the lattice work to keep from being pulled off into the street. It adds a bit of fun to the whole scene. And to make the picture complete, there’s a little border of sausages around the outside.
The streets of Colmar are filled with these signs, some of them done by famous artists. The butcher’s sign is by one of the most celebrated, the cartoonist Hansi. His signs are a regional treasure, depicting local characters and celebrities: the one at left depicts the two fat Fincker brothers bearing a pig’s head and ham on platters, while “Le Grand Saint Antoine” reads a book to a pig. (Apparently pigs were credited with saving the local population from an epidemic back in the day.)
These guild signs contain a whole world of symbolic meaning, and you could spend a week in even a small town parsing them for hidden clues. But as with all great art, you don’t have to know everything to appreciate them: the meaning hits you right in the eye. Too bad we don’t still use these traditional signs – they’d make a visit to the computer store a lot more fun.
I am a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own
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