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The Collation

Christian baking molds from Early Modern Europe

Many of my childhood memories of religious festivals center on special sweets—decorated sugar cookies and gingerbread at Christmas, colored eggs and filled maamoul at Easter, and the vast array of Ramadan sweets sold before twilight by the incredible sweet-makers of Beirut. Wherever you grew up, whatever your heritage, you probably also have memories of once-a-year foods linked to a religious festivals.

I’m currently working on a book about how affordable paper changed European Christianity in which I aim to reconstruct tangible aspects of religious experience that are absent from textual sources. One source I am using documents festival culture: surviving molds and models depicting Christian iconography thought to be used for baking festival cakes and cookies. Though most are anonymous and from uncertain origins, they all date to between the 13th and 17th centuries.

It absolutely astonishing to me how many baking molds from this period are now owned by museums. They were made of a range of materials—tin, ceramics, slate, copper—and in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Though some may possibly have been used for shaping papier mâché devotional objects or to make metal badges or amulets, most were likely used to make feastday foods. Some have been in ovens and have signs of scorch marks on them, while others were intended to be used to roll out dough or stamp cookies or breads. It is even possible that some were used to make cheeses and mold butter. Dozens have been digitized and many dozens more have not been. Last month I was able to work with the substantial collections of premodern molds at the Museum of Applied Arts [Museum für angewandte Kunst] in Vienna. Christian devotional images were carved onto them with exceptional skill by talented artists and then filled with dough by professional bakers. Each image is an inverted multi-dimensional negative of the impression it was intended to make, and the talent of the artists is apparent in surviving designs. Unmolding dough from such intricate molds must have been challenging.

Though we can no longer taste or touch feast day sweets made centuries ago, preparing and enjoying these edible treats was an important part of festival culture. Visual depictions of baking usually show male bakers, while surviving prayers and meditations on baking practices, most originating from women’s monastic communities, describe how bakers sacralized through their prayer practices while mixing up batches of batter. Several depictions of bakers and lebkuchen-makers from early modern Nuremberg incorporate representations of these baking molds. One of the most detailed representations of a devotional image on a lebkuchen mold is in the portrait of Hanns Stüber, a lebkuchen-maker who died in 1624 at the age of 66. Stüber’s lebkuchen mold is significantly larger than most that survive.

The page of a book showing a few lines of handwritten text, too small to read here, under which is a portrait of a man holding a large loaf of bread.
Hans Stüber, Amb. 317b.2° folio 99 recto

One of my favorite examples is a clay mold depicting the Trinity now in Vienna at the Museum of Applied Arts.

A carved clay tablet showing a man in a radiant papal crown spreading his arms over Jesus in the pose of the crucifiction, below which is a bird surrounded by light
Heilige Dreifaltigkeit, clay, MAK ME 773. MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna. Photo: © MAK/Georg Mayer.

Though anonymous and undated, I think it probably dates to the late 15th or early 16th century. This somewhat smoke-blackened example depicts the Trinity with delicate and striking details. God the Father holds Christ on the Cross with the holy spirit in the form of a dove hovering in the foreground. The strong radiant lines of light coming from Dove, Christ, and God would be raised ridges on the finished bake good; a little browner than the rest of the sweet and the crispest of all. Though almost impossible to appreciate from a photograph, the artist has managed to capture the details of each face with such precision that at every single angle they appear to be looking directly at the viewer. What did these molds mean to the people who owned them? What would it have been like to eat the Trinity or to bake the Trinity, not as altar bread but as a sweet cake?

Carved baking molds clearly were valued as family heirlooms in patrician families and also an essential tool for leading local bakers. A 1521 will from Frankfurt merchant Claus Stalburg describes dozens of baking molds depicting Christian iconography, Classical mythology, and courtly romance. Though most of Stalburg’s molds have been lost, other surviving baking forms survive, including a small collection of c. 1500 boxwood lebkuchen molds once owned by a Glockengiesser (Bell-maker), one of which depicts Jesus with the Arma Christi (a heraldic design in which scourge, crown, dice, spear, rooster and other elements of the Passion narrative are presented framing the Cross), the Virgin Mary, and St Michael fighting with a dragon. The mold is also inscribed with the alphabet and various Latin prayers.

A thin wooden strip with elaborate carvings on it.
Formmodel eines Glöckengießers, c. 1500, boxwood, 33.1 x 4.8 x 1.7 cm MAK F463. MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna © MAK/Nathan Murrell
The same strip of wood tilted so you can see the side, on which are carved words.

Secular and sexual molds also survive from the period, including an explicit c. 1500 depiction of lovers on a small glazed terracotta pan now on display at the Walters Art Museum and even a depiction of a group of humans and a dog gathered around a basket filled with phalluses.

An ivory-colored disk showing a group of people looking at a box opened by a man.
Modelabdruck mit erotischer Darstellung, 13.4 cm diameter, MAK F 578. MAK – Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna © MAK/Georg Mayer

Many recipes for using these molds also survive. The Folger Library’s collection preserves several recipes for making molded cookies. One I find particularly interesting comes from the Rosicrucian Thomas Sheppey. This manuscript recipe for gingerbread from the Folger’s collection gives a sense of how these molds were used. Shippey’s recipe calls for mixing together ingredients including crumbs, fat, sugar, and rosewater. The recipe starts with a boiled syrup poured over the crumbs, into which spices and nuts are kneaded until a fragrant dough forms and then “when it is printed, lay it on papers and fill it in a oven whose fyre is 2 or 3 days.” Sheppey’s recipe was not only written down on paper but instructs the baker to place paper beneath the cookies before baking just as we do today. These cookies give a different meaning to “printed… on paper!”

A page of handwritten text showing three recipes
“Gingerbread to make” Folger V.a. 452 f 409 r ca. 1675

Many recipes for molded cookies and cakes survive, as well as instructions for making other festival foods. An interesting group of such recipes centers on donuts made before the start of the Lenten fasting season. In addition to straightforward recipes for the baker like those for donuts and cakes a 15th century manuscript of the Kuchenmeisterei, others incorporate prayer practices into the baking process.

A page of handwritten text
Solothurn, Zentralbibliothek, Cod. S 490 f 13r- v “Von Krapfen [on donuts]”
A page of handwritten text

For instance, a short text in British Library Ms Additional 25089, fol. 93r, instructs that someone who wants to bake and eat a carnival donut should gather up necessary ingredients (flour water eggs, salt, leavening, a pan, and fire) to mix and bake a dough, fill it, and cook it. Several other variants of this text survive, including some calling for raisins or flavored fillings. In each version, the ingredients are given symbolic meanings that remind the baker of key moments from Jesus’s torture and execution, and even the baking and eating are given special significance. This suggests that making and eating festival cakes was experienced by some Christian bakers as a prayer practice centered on Christ’s death and resurrection.

These iconographic pans produced edible objects with religious images imprinted upon them that made possible intimate physical interactions with sacred images—kneading, pressing, touching, tasting, swallowing—that would have been transgressive with an image painted onto an altarpiece, church wall, or even printed onto a sheet of paper. I am still locating more molds and researching how these molds were made and who used them, but I plan to use them alongside other archival sources as an important witness to early modern Christian culture.