Iron Votive Offerings
Hope forged from iron
Joseph Moos
HEPHAISTOS 9/10, 1996, pp. 38-9
Tr: Mike Spencer


The offering of forged iron votive objects as oblations or devotional gifts to the saints was a widespread custom in earlier times in southern Germany and Austria. Figurative representations of draught animals and other livestock common to the peasant life were offered in order to place the living animals under the protection of a particular saint. Village smith made these figures for centuries using traditional forms handed down for generations. That makes it difficult to date these pieces today but testifies to the powerful expressiveness of peasant culture preserved unwaveringly over centuries. In pursuit of the roots of European metalwork, HEPHAITOS' Josef Moos reports on the forms and history of iron votive objects.


Hope forged from iron

It was only about the beginning of this century that folklorists first began to pay attention to the iron devotional objects which were at that time still to be seen in great numbers in those churches in and around southern Germany dedicate to Saint Leonhard. The origins of the votive iron cult lie far back in the prehistorical era. In ancient times, iron was a very valuable commodity. Even more important to the life of a peasant family were the household animals, especially the draught animals -- oxen or horses. What could be more apropos when illness struck the cattle than to offer[1] the most valuable substance that one possessed -- iron? As Christianity spread across Europe and gradually subordinated native customs, the iron offerings were transformed into devotional gifts of supplication or gratitude to suitable saints, in particular St. Leonhard, formerly Abbot in Limoges about 550 AD. He became a "co-supplicant" to whom iron votive animals were offered for his intercession on behalf of the ailing real creatures.

It may have been something to do with his original status as patron for prisoners and their irons and chains that destined St. Leonhard to become the recipient of devotion embodied in iron. In the time of the Crusades, churches dedicated to Leonhard sprang up in great numbers all over southern Germany and Austria. The risk was great of being "thrown into chains" in the orient. After the Crusades the Saint needed another job and experienced a de facto "rededication", from being the patron of prisoners to the scared protector of domestic animals. Bavarian settlers spread the Leonhard cult across the Alps as far as South Tirol, Slovenia and Bohemia. As late as the 14th century, devotional gifts of gratitude to St. Leonhard for release from prisons and dungeons consisted of iron links and chains.

Later the figures in iron of animals came to predominate, seeking the blessing and intercession of the Saint for the barnyard animals on which so much depended for a peasant's wellbeing. Less often these were thank offerings, for the gratitude for healing usually went to the blacksmith who was the "physician to steeds and doctor to cattle". It was only when the smith's skills were of no more avail, when disease or infertility decimated the livestock, that one committed the animals to the grace of St. Leonhard and, for this ritual, commissioned from the village smith an iron figure fashioned in the ancient and traditional form and style.

Old churches dedicated to St. Leonhard in Lower Bavaria and Kärnten were, until only a few years ago, wrapped in chains to the height of the windowsills or at least well stocked with individual links. The wrapping in chains stood for the ancient rite of circumabulation, a form of a magical ritual performed in many districts along with the offering of the votive gift. This practice has been found in all cultures -- in pre-Christian as well as early Christian times, in Islamic and Buddhist cultures. With the votive offering, the faithful circled the holy site and thereby ensured the aid of supernatural forces.

In the early Leonhard cult, the faithful brought to the church as offering votive figures made for them by the village smith. At a later time, an acolyte would lend the supplicants votive figures from from the church's collection in exchange for a donation. They would carry the figures in procession several times around St. Leonhard's alter and then return the borrowed figures to the church to be used again. The iron figure took the place of the real animal which was too sick and typically too large to take part in the ritual. If the patient was a lame horse, then the figure must be that of a horse with powerful legs; if a cow that wouldn't "take", it should be that of a pregnant cow or, better, a whole little herd of them.

This Eisencult also made its way into the language. We speak of the eiserne Bestand [lit., iron stock] to mean the breeding stock that must be kept if the herd is to remain vigorous. And the aphorism, "Gold I gave for iron" underlines the utilitarian value of iron -- received in exchange for the offering of gold and in its turn offered up for the wellbeing of the cattle. The "iron cult" is also occurs in symbolic form: the strict Gothic C-forms seen in door hardware recapitulates the shape of the horseshoe and thus amplifies the votive offering of a horseshoe (a special form of the iron devotional now mutated into the horseshoe as talisman.) If the mass of iron offerings accumulated in the church and began to get overwhelmingly out of hand, they were buried somewhere near the church to make room for new ones. No thought was given to reprocessing the iron, for once brought as a devotional gift, it acquired a sanctified character, the bearer of intercession, a mystical and and symbolic object, and piety forbid reforging it. These buried troves, to be found in the neighborhoods of St. Leonhard churches in Ganacker and Aigen as well as in Austrian Lavanttal inter alia, are a source of great joy to archaeologists and folklorists. The folklorist Lenz Kriss-Rettenbeck gathered together the largest collection, some 500 specimens, which he catalogued, sketched and described in detail and then donated to the Bavarian National Museum in Munich. Today this collection may be seen, splendidly displayed, at the former ducal castle in Straubing.

These iron figures followed simple traditional forms and were strongly stylized. They weren't naturalistic but exaggerated the typical characters or desired features of the animals represented. Ranging from 6 to 12 centimeters high and, in proportion, up to 20 centimeters long, they fell in the category of Kleineisenkunst, small iron objects which village smiths had long produced and for which there was a long established repertoire of designs. If one examines collections, the big one in Straubing or the many smaller ones in community museums, the experienced eye will note examples of "good form" in the strict sense of the term. It isn't the decoration with ornamental elements characteristic of the period that leaves a lasting impression but the parsimonious reduction to the very essentials of the form. Not one single element more could have been left out.

The oldest forms are those that have been forged from a single piece of metal. Head and torso are minimally worked up; Details of the head are suggested with simple punch marks or chisel nicks. The legs are roughly split away from the body and bent into position. Further details aren't recognizable. In a later period, two further forms evolved.

In the second type of form, the body is usually made from rectangular stock with the legs and horns welded on or inserted. Individual variations are easily expressed in this style -- steers with projecting horns, recognizably pregnant cows or geese rendered with a lithe and mobile gesture. Later, legs, horns and ears were attached with rivets and the body forged out, sometimes, to the thickness of sheet metal.

The third form acquires breath and visual mass by working the body into a sort of hollow form over the horn of the anvil. These are typified by longer, drawn-out necks and projecting horns; The body is forged from a single piece and is often given characteristic appearance by pinching out details from the stock and by chiseled detail. Possibly the fuller form of this type symbolized healthy vigor possessed by (or sought for) the real animal.

A very late and rather degenerate form is represented by ones that are cut from sheet metal to which the legs or other members have been soldered. It is possible that they were also painted and that they served less as devotional objects in the strict sense than as souvenirs that one might bring away after a visit to a particular shrine but not suitable for a sanctified offering..

Interestingly, there are no examples of cast votive figures. Could it be that each figure was made to represent a specific animal, thereby excluding mass production of a single pattern? It's also possible that the custom of making these figures was dying away by the beginning of the 19th century when it first became possible to cast iron into such forms with satisfactory and predictable results.

A special form occurs as representations of body parts: hands, feet or even toads -- the last a holdover of an archaic symbol of fertility. Such symbols aren't connected to the Leonhard cult and can't really be included in the category of iron animal votive "sacrifices".

Eventually the tradition of iron offerings was replaced by that of wax votives. Could this be explained by the fact that was is rather easier to work with so that wax votives could be made by just about anyone? Or that people simply forgot the original meaning of the devotional gift of iron -- that one gave a valuable sacrifice in exchange for intercession for the survival of the even more valuable livestock -- iron, scarce and dear, for healthy cattle? Wax was cheap and hardly any longer truly a devotional gift but only of symbolic value.

There remain in the language a few rudimentary remnants of the Eisenopfer, in the proverbial eiserne Ration [food put away against hard times], the Eisernen Kreuz, [Iron Cross, 19th century Prussian war medal], eiserne Gesundheit [iron health] and eisenschwer versus federleicht [heavy as iron vs. light as a feather]. [2]

In our time, the custom of the iron sacrifice has completely vanished away and Kriss-Rettenbeck can only report one smith in Wasserburg who, in 1795, was forbidden to make any iron votive figures -- there were already too many!


Ger. "Opfer" also might be translated "sacrifice" and carries that overtone where it is translated here as "offering".
The translator would be grateful for any philological or etymological insight that confirm or discount these or other connections between the the word "Esien" in contemporary proverb or idiom and the "eisernen Opfern".

Copyright © 1996 HEPHAISTOS Internationale Zeitschrift fürMetallgestalter.
Permission is granted to reproduce this article for educational or other not-for-profit purposes.
Updated 13 February 1997 -- Michael Spencer