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ARMOIRE, the French name (cf. Almery) given to a tall movable cupboard, or “wardrobe,” with one or more doors. It has varied considerably in shape and size, and the decoration of its doors and sides has faithfully represented mutations of fashion and modifications of use. It was originally exceedingly massive and found its chief decoration in elaborate hinges and locks of beaten iron. The finer ecclesiastical armoires or aumbries which have come down to us—used in churches for the safe custody of vestments, eucharistic vessels, reliquaries and other precious objects—are usually painted, sometimes even upon the interior, with sacred subjects or with incidents from the lives of the saints. The cathedrals of Bayeux and Noyon contain famous examples; the most typical English one is in York minster. By the end of the 14th century, when the carpenter and the wood-carver had acquired a better mastery of their material, the taste for painted surfaces appears to have given place to the vogue of carving, and the simple rectangular panels gradually became sculptured with a simple motive, such as the linen-fold or parchment patterns. In the treasury of St Germain l’Auxerrois the ends of the 15th-century armoires are treated in this way. In that and the two following centuries the keys and the escutcheons of the locks became highly ornamental; usually in forged iron, they were occasionally made of more precious metals. By slow degrees the shape of this receptacle changed—from breadth was evolved height, and the tall form of armoire became characteristic. The Renaissance exercised a notable effect upon this, as upon so many other varieties of furniture. It became less obviously and aggressively a thing of utility; its proportions shrank from the massive to the elegant; its artistic effectiveness was vastly enhanced by its division into an upper and a lower part. Enriched with columns and pilasters, its panels carved with mythology, its canopied niches filled with sculptured statuettes, and terminating with a rich cornice and perhaps a broken pediment, it was widely removed in appearance, if not in purpose, from the uncompromising iron-mounted receptacle of earlier 578 generations. During the 16th century, when the surging impulses of the Renaissance had died away, the armoire relapsed into plainness, its proportions increased, and it was again constructed in one piece. Ere long, however, it grew more sumptuous than ever. Boulle encrusted it with marqueterie from designs by Bérain; it glowed with amorini, with the torches and arrows of Cupid, with the garlands which he weaves for his captives, and when allusiveness left a corner vacant, it was filled with arabesques in ebony or ivory, in brass or white metal. While the royal palaces and the hôtels of the great nobility were filled with those costly splendours, the ordinary cabinetmaker continued to construct his modest pieces, and by the middle of the 18th century the armoire was found in every French house, ample in width and high in proportion to the lofty rooms of the period. It is not to be supposed that so useful a piece of furniture was confined to France. It was used, more or less, throughout a considerable part of Europe, but it was distinctively Gallic nevertheless, and never became thoroughly acclimatized elsewhere until about the beginning of the 19th century, when it developed into the glass-fronted wardrobe which is now an essential detail in the plenishing of the bed-chamber, not merely in France and England, but in many other countries. The armoire à glace was known and occasionally made in France as far back as the middle of the 18th century, and almost the earliest mention of it connects it with the scandalous relations of the Maréchal de Richelieu and the beautiful fermière générale, Mme de la Popelinière, who had one made to mask a secret door. In the conventional and not very attractive wardrobe of commerce it is difficult to descry the gracious characteristics of the armoire of the Renaissance or the 17th century, and it is not altogether surprising that Théodore de Banville should have condemned one of the most solidly useful of household necessaries as a “hideous monster.”
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