Mennonite Household Arts

By Yoder, Barbara L. | Art Education, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Mennonite Household Arts


Yoder, Barbara L., Art Education


Introduction

In turbulent times, mundane household objects-a table, rocking chair, foot stool-may become treasured touchstones of stability. Imagine that such objects were crafted by people whose religious faith reined in their aesthetic expressiveness in the more conventional realms of painting and sculpture. One could reasonably expect to find, then, the artistic urge expressed in the creation of those ordinary household objects. This is the story of Mennonite household arts considered in this lesson.

The religious group called Mennonites has experienced a 500-year history of persecution, martyrdom, and migration. And so they find special meaning in their uniquely crafted furniture, clothing, quilts, clocks, and other functional objects. The Mennonites emerged in Switzerland in 1525 as an outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation. Known as Anabaptists, they were persecuted not only by Catholics but by their fellow Protestants. Anabaptists believed in adult baptism, the authority of the New Testament, discipleship under Jesus Christ, group discipline, simple living, the priesthood of all believers, separation of church and state, and peaceful non-resistance. For holding such convictions, many of them were burned at the stake, drowned, or beheaded. While others also suffered for their beliefs, the Anabaptists were the single largest group of 16th-century Reformation martyrs.

Objecting to flagrant abuses by the clergy, Protestant reform groups had sought to change what they perceived as the topheavy power structure of the Roman Catholic church. The Lutherans had Martin Luther, and the Reformed Church had John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, but the Anabaptists believed in a priesthood of all church members. Many individuals throughout Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and the Netherlands directed followers in study and worship, resulting in a diverse, and sometimes fragmented, movement. One such leader was Menno Simons (ca. 14961561), a former Dutch Catholic priest. From his name comes the term "Mennonite."

In the centuries that followed the Mennonite emergence, disparate groups of believers fled Europe to seek better lives in the New World. Early groups of Swiss Mennonites settled in eastern states and provinces such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Ontario beginning in the 1680s. Later groups of Dutch-- German Mennonites emigrated more gradually, first taking refuge in the Vistula Delta of northern Poland (later Prussia), and then in southern Russia before arriving in the Midwest in the late I Oth century. It is this latter body, the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska prairies, whose art and artifacts are represented here.

Among the Mennonites who crafted the domestic furnishings featured in this lesson, there was a deep consciousness of the second commandment's warning against the creation of "graven images." In the 16th century, for example, Mennonites had helped to remove visual imagery from European churches and whitewashed the walls. This history, coupled with the tendency to downplay individual talent in relation to the corporate body, resulted in a certain skepticism about the role of artmaking within the Mennonite faith community. The skepticism persists, to some extent, today.

If the visual and natural manifestations of the world aren't referenced in Mennonite household arts, another source of inspiration, Holy Scripture, certainly is. These ordinary handcrafted objects transcend the mundane by affirming the Scripture as a key element in Mennonite daily life. They also attest to the fact that Mennonites, like all peoples, possess a love of color, harmony, and beauty.

One-hand pendulum clock with scene from Hezekiah, ca. 1800

Anonymous

Vistula Delta, Poland

Sheet metal, oil paint, brass, rope replacement

Religious persecution in northern Europe brought Mennonites to the central plains of the United States in the late 19th century. In their luggage, they brought clocks, linens, furniture, and family keepsakes-things with which to establish new households. …

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