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Ornamental Iron And Blacksmith Gods

The day before the Irish battle of Moy Muckroo against the rebels and mercenaries from Great Britain and Gaul, King Art, walking near a woods, heard the blatant uproar of clashing metals. Hidden in the trees he found a mighty building with seven great doorways and many chimneys - a spear factory. Hammers thundered through the ring of anvils. Tough blades screeched under their grinding stones and sharpening steels. Swords shrieked at their tempering baths. Mighty forges sprayed showers of sparks as armorers worked in clouds of smoke. This was in the second century A. D.-says an old Architectural Record.

But thousands of years before this the Danube was trickling iron ore into the pebbles of its banks for Europe's cave-men to drag out and smelt in 'their green wood and charcoal fires and clay crucibles, for later hammering into ornaments and tools. The Sumerians, who lived before Babylon's great bronze gates shut that city in, used iron tools. So did the Hebrews. The tomb of Thothmes III of Egypt shows slaves working bellows in a hole-in-the ground furnace smelting iron ore some 14 centuries B. C. The ancient Greeks cast statues of iron.


Centuries before Christ, India smelted iron ore with green wood in clay crucibles and made tough weapons, beautiful in shape and decorated with engraving, carving, enamels, inlaying and encrusting. For inlaying she grooved out the metal and pounded in gold and silver wires to make her ornamental pattern. For encrusting she cut grooves with overhanging edges. Then she cut silver and gold plates to fit and forced them in with their edges under the overhang, which she hammered down to hold them in place. In enameling she laid her paste of ground colored glass in her graved out pattern and fused it onto the metal.

Ancients prized India's fine "watered steel." Artistotle wrote of her "fritted iron." Alexander the Great was enamored with his steel sword, gift of a Punjab chief. Our Metropolitan Museum in New York has an Indian sword and scabbard decorated with enamel and an Indian shield of "watered steel" decorated with inlay work (damascening).

Mesopotamia imported India's iron and steel; and her metal workers made weapons, armor and household utensils using India's decorations. Centuries later Damascus bought India's iron and used her ancient inlaying work for Saracen weapons which the Crusaders called "damascened work" and went wild about. The Moors too blended this metal art of Damascus with their own ancient metal craft and in time welded it to Spain's iron art.

The Chinese may have used iron before India. Probably they developed the smelting system used by the Romans at Noricum. Certainly Chinese weapons, chariot parts, temple furniture, braziers, cauldrons, bowls, and vases of iron have a long history. But today's Chinese iron work is best known in the framed iron flowers and landscapes made in the 17th century by artist-smiths to perpetuate the ink brushed landscapes of favorite artists. For wall plaques they were backed with paper or silk. They were used too for lantern sides.


Europe deified the ironsmith. The Romans had Vulcan; the Gauls, Taranis ; North Europe its Thor, and Finland her Itmarinen. French iron, decorating Gothic cathedrals, flowered into Renaissance curves. The great door hinges in Notre Dame Cathedral show off-curving spirals "collared" (bound together) at intervals to the central strap like a sheaf of wheat, and ending in flowers amid birds and serpents. Piercings and embossings add their elaborations.

Britain was using iron cauldrons, tools and weapons before the Romans began carrying British iron around the ancient world. The Saxon's cast iron fire backs saved many a later English castle from flames. Ingleside fixtures, like carpenters' and masons' tools, came from England's myriad smithies.

Italy's Roman and semi-Oriental culture comes down to us in cast and hammered urns, S-curves and crescents. Her smiths filled in the spaces with flowers, tre-foil, quatre-foil, and other figures, tying them fancily together with bands so the whole looks a little like dark and gigantic needlepoint lace.


Spain's iron reached noble beauty in her Gothic key escutcheons, hinges, gates, fences, torcheres, and nail-head ornaments. These were later elaborated to Renaissance scrolled figures and flowered spirals, made lavish with gilt and paint.

Spain's rejas or chapel gates were developed to let the people see, but shielded the altar valuables, it is said. The Cabildo doors in New Orleans show some of the wonderful Spanish iron work. So do the iron railings in the cast iron "lace work" balconies of the Vieux Carre. The grilled windows of Spanish America, and the spurs of the cowboy are an inheritance from Spanish iron work.

In Eastern United States, Betty lamps and three-legged pots, trivets, boot jacks, fire sets, weather vanes, and toy banks, name a few iron objects from our British, French, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian past. Pennsylvania's cast iron fire backs, the jamb stoves with their molded biblical scenes, the fancy school desks of the Victorian era, and the lace-work benches for lawn and cemetery, are some of our cast iron inheritance. Blacksmiths under the spreading chestnut tree forged hinges, handles and knockers, trammels and cranes, foot scrapers, gates, fences and tools worth more today than they cost grandpa.

Cast iron, due to its carbon content, is brittle and will break, but will not bend or hammer into shape. Forged iron, however, can be welded, spun, stamped, incised and punched. It can be hammered, bent, twisted, curved, shaped and chiseled. It must be worked while hot. A forge, bellows, tongs, chisels, hammers and anvil have long been the ironsmith's main tools.


Thin iron sheets are hammered into repousse (raised) design by pounding up from underneath, then modeled by hammers and tools over a lead block to make an above-the-surface pattern of high-curved leaf, flower, or figure. Too, thin iron sheets can be cut or pierced. Tool marks are prized for the texture and complexion (patina) they give to iron.

The rich yet delicate coloring a smith gets from his firework is much valued. Iron can be painted and gilded - the ancients laid gold foil over their iron, drew their design on with an acid-resistant "lacquer," dipped the whole in aqua regia, which dissolved the uncovered gold and left the gold pattern under the lacquer to ornament the iron.

Alloying with other metals changed the colors of iron. The Japanese are masters of this iron art. (Their weapons, especially their sword guards, tsubas, are much collected).

By alloying iron with copper, then treating it with a pickling solution, iron artists secure that greenish color so much desired in outdoor iron. This prized outdoor iron is painted, gilded, alloyed, pickled, and colored by fire and forge work.

But indoor iron is finished with a high polish, then oiled or waxed. This protects its gleaming beauty and helps produce that soft rich patina which time and use gives.

Jean Lamonr hammered the gates of Nancy to the delight of Louis XV. Quentin Matsys left his flower-adorned Gothic well top at Antwerp. Today's Hans Panzer filled his window grille for the Church of the Passion at Obermenzing with humans, animals, birds, flower wreaths, and winged angels.

Edgar Brandt's wrought iron humans in oak leaves and garlands decorates a New York restaurant. He uses the pine branch extensively in his designs. Georges Sabo has enriched many a French building with his grilles, stair rails, gates and lighting fixtures.

Today's American smiths, including Samuel Yellin, Oscar Bach and Hunt Deidrich, have put their hammer marks on this dark and valuable metal for our own and for future collections.

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