100920 | GREAT BRITAIN. York Minster wood & silver Reliquary Snuff Box.
100920 | GREAT BRITAIN. York Minster wood & silver Reliquary Snuff Box. Issued 1829. Condemning the arsonist, Jonathan Martin (133mm, 166.80 g). By P. Fossett in York.
Circular wood box with tapered rims and patterned top and bottom panels, the top panel containing a silver central medallion hand engraved as follows: "Made from the Ruins of / YORK MINSTER / Burnt AD 626 • 1137 • 1829 / Jonathan Martin." Crossed keys above; in the middle, three images of Martin, the arsonist—standing and preaching the Gospel: "What I was"—sitting imprisoned with a ball and chains: "What I am"—hanging from the gallows: "What I ought to be."
Choice Very Fine. Wood still features most of its intricate design; medallion once polished, now starting to re-tone; a few scattered marks; inner lip on base panel mostly broken, though some remains. Incredibly rare and interesting relic from the wood recovered in the aftermath of Martin's arson. Compared to other pieces of "hanging man" iconography, such as various trade tokens from the late 18th century, a bargain and a singular opportunity for such a tremendous and historic item.
Snuff tobacco originated in the Americas, an alternative to that which was smoked and as somewhat of an analog to that which was chewed. The tobacco was ground and, during each administration, a pinch was placed on the finger or hand and then sniffed by the user. In Europe, the practice became a status symbol associated with the elite and also created the need for containers in which the snuff could be easily carried by the user. Snuff boxes, therefore, became an indispensable form of accouterment, and offered designs ranging from the more mundane to the rather elaborate.
This particular snuff box was created from wood recovered from the parts of York Minster which were destroyed during a fire in 1829. Jonathan Martin had a history of extreme religious devotion and susceptibility to unpredictable outbursts. In between experiencing the deaths of his parents and wife, he served time in insane asylums and preached—first as a member of the Wesleyans, then unaffiliated as no denomination would support him. A year after remarrying in 1828, he suffered another mental breakdown, leading him to set a fire in the choir at York Minster, destroying a portion of the old cathedral. Owing to threatening notes which he left at the minster—containing his initials and address—it was rather easy to identify and apprehend him. During his subsequent trial, he was found guilty by a jury of a capital crime, though the judge countered this ruling, declaring him not guilty on account of insanity. Martin would then spend another stint in an asylum, this time for the remainder of his life until his death in 1838.
Numerous reliquary snuff boxes from the ruins of York Minster were created right after this act—an event which captivated the attention of England. Though many share a similarity in size and overall design of the wood, this particular box stands as rather extraordinary in the placement of the central medallion, engraved and illustrative of the contemporary sentiments of Martin the arsonist. While a few others simply feature text and a mentioning of the event, this incredible piece portrays the three phases of Martin—first in the past, as a preacher wandering the streets; second in the present, as a criminal clad in shackles; third in the future, as a lifeless body hanging from the gallows. Though quite gruesome (and inaccurate, even if it were the desired outcome by those angry of his crime), it portrays how despised he was by his fellow countrymen. Incredibly rare and quite possibly the only of its type.
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