This plaster cast is of a corbel displayed high up in the church of St Martin, Salisbury in Wiltshire. It shows a nun wearing rivet spectacles with long shafts reaching so high that they don't really rest on the bridge of the nose at all. An indication of the appearance of the pupil as seen through a lens has been attempted by the sculptor.The original sculpture has been dated to between 1430-1440 but could be up to a hundred years older. If so it would be the earliest figurative representation of spectacles of any type.
The Wienhausen find
The earliest surviving spectacles were found beneath the floorboards between the choir stalls at Kloster Wienhausen, a Cistercian convent on the Lueneburg Heath near Celle. Founded in 1221, about half the building had been reconstructed in 1306. When it was investigated in 1953 numerous articles were found associated with both pious practices and daily life. The finds included four black leather bow spectacles (15th-17th c), two complete wooden rivetted spectacles with plano-convex lenses and nine other rivet spectacle fragments. Precise dating of these latter items is difficult but they are generally accepted to be circa 1400. They fell into three types that are more or less contemporaneous.
Type 1 rivet spectacles - These resembled those in the Treviso fresco of 1352. They were of 2mm thick boxwood with a slit in each grooved rim to permit the insertion of the lens. The slit was then tied up with string. Straight handle-like shafts led up to the rivet. These were literally two magnifying glasses fixed together.
Impressionistic Type 1 replica in the BOA Museum
|Type 2 rivet spectacles - had a gently curving shaft permitting a tighter grip on the nose and some support from the natural bridge. This placed less strain on the rivet (the weakest part of the frame). They were generally less ornamented and have been likened to those seen in paintings from the 1450s.
Type 2 replica (but of a later decorative style) in the BOA Museum
|Type 3 rivet spectacles - had a much flatter pair of shafts that together resembled a modern bridge. The lenses were inserted between two bevelled layers of basswood that were then glued together. This technology had only recently been introduced to the cabinet-making trade. They have been likened to pair worn anachronistically by St Luke in an altar painting The Day of Pentecost from Niederwildungen by Konrad von Soest.
Almost all the finds of rivet spectacles have been in northern Europe, with very few indeed from Italy. If we went by the archaeological evidence alone we would not ascribe their origin to the Mediterranean region.
Bergen Op Zoom
In 2000 an important Type 1 find was made in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom. This was a pair made of bone with decorative shafts featuring a stylised human face. By replacing the missing areas of material with epoxyresin (during 2002) it has been possible to make these look something close to their original appearance. Stratigraphic analysis has placed this find within a fifteenth century context.
Photographs: Neil Handley
During the fifteenth century the rivet-types existed alongside the bow-type bridge. Although the corpus of surviving examples has grown with the years thanks to new discoveries, such items are still very rare. This might mean that they were scarce at the time and only used by a privileged few....or it might simply mean that because they were weak they have broken into too many pieces to be recognised when excavated centuries later.
Trig Lane and Swan Stairs examples
Two pairs of fifteenth century rivet spectacles have been found in London on the shore of the River Thames. As the English capital was a major trading centre it is impossible to conclude whether these were British-made or imported from Europe. Alternatively they may have been made by a foreigner active in England. We know for instance that one Paul van de Bessen, a Dutch spectacle-maker was active south of the river in Southwark around 1458-9.
The notched 'teeth' and holes where the shafts join the rims have been interpreted as a functional attempt to increase nasal grip. The long shafts mean that they would have been worn low on the nose, ideal for reading with head bowed and allowing the wearer to peer over the tops when holding the head upright. At the time of their discovery the small holes were even considered to be pinholes allowing for a very crude myopic correction. Leonardo da Vinci would certainly explore the nature of pinholes in the late 15th century, but the holes on the Bergen-Op Zoom pair seem to confirm that this was merely a decorative device. The BOA Museum's replica (pictured) is a very loose reconstruction using wood and string. The shafts are too short and the nasal notching and pinholes absent altogether.
Subsequently a second pair of spectacles has been found at the Swan Stairs site, but this pair was far less complete. Both the Trig Lane and the Swan Stairs spectacles are presently on display in the Medieval Gallery at the Museum of London which reopened in November 2005.
| Printed evidence for spectacles
Illustration from the British Optical Association Library