This 19th century cast iron fireback depicts a French coat of arms. Firebacks first appeared in the 1400’s when they were placed on the rear walls of fireplaces. They served the dual purpose of keeping soot off the back of the fireplace and also reflecting heat back into the common area, making fires more efficient and keeping the cold and damp Chateaux more comfortable during the long winters.
Our fireback has the Latin phrase MORS AVTVITA DECORA written on a banner across the top. This is written in old Latin, where the letter “V” was only used if at the beginning of a word. If the letter appeared in the middle or end of the word, it is effectively a “U”. Thus the phrase is actually MORS AUT VITA DECORA, which means “Death or Life of Honor”. The phrase has been used by many families in their coat of arms as a motto, implying that they would rather die than to not have an honorable life.
Beneath the banner is a closed crown that sits on top of an escutcheon, or shield, bearing the coat of arms. The shield is said to be “quarterly three boars heads couped and escarbuncle”. Quarterly is the way the field is divided, having four segments. Couped is a style of representing animals or people where the neck is not shown (you might notice that the couped boars heads are also repeated in the banner at the top). Escarbuncle, or carbuncle, is a heraldic charge consisting of eight spokes, radiating from a central node, that form one common cross and one Saint Andrews saltire (or diagonal cross). The escabuncle is one of the few inanimate heraldic items that has a deeper meaning, as it signifies the iron bands that were used to strengthen round shields.
The shield is being held up by a pair of lioness supporters with a rampant guardant attitude. Rampant means an animal’s forepaws are raised while standing in an erect position. Guardant implies that the animal’s head is facing toward the viewer, as opposed to looking in towards the shield. Flanking the outside of each lioness is a curled acanthus leaf motif.
This fireback has nicely shaped sides, which slightly bow out, and it has an oxidized surface, which gives it a nice color and character. You may still use this piece as originally intended, or hang it above a stove as a kitchen backsplash.
CONDITION: Sturdy piece despite a crack on right side of the fireback. Faded elements at the bottom. Wear commensurate to age and use.