By Peter Ingle

A large part of Charleston’s charm is its endless array of vignettes, each unique, yet each nestled in a harmony of textures, colors and styles which offer more beauty in close proximity than perhaps any American city. In historic downtown you can stand almost anywhere, turn in a circle and see something exquisite at every point of the compass; a church, a gate, a wall, a window sash, a terrace, a porch, a balcony, a door — and more.

But it’s getting harder to appreciate this. The pace of life, the web of traffic and the pull of cell phones keep us so anxious, agitated and distracted that we not only fail to notice but start to ignore the beauty around us. If you want to renew your eyesight, revive your senses and restore your state of mind, a good way to do so is by taking fresh note of the peninsula’s multitude of ironwork.

Countless garden gates, handrails and bannisters comprise a significant cross-section of this ironwork, but they can be small, out of the way and less obvious. More visible and majestic are the stunning gates surrounding our churches where no two designs are alike, each has a story and all display a reason for being aligned the way they are with their properties — which is evident when you imagine the gates taken away from their churches. It’s like stripping the frame off a painting and realizing that, until then, you had barely noticed the frame.

Two gates that are fascinating to compare are at St. Michael’s Anglican Church (80 Meeting St.) and B’rith Sholom Beth Synagogue (182 Rutledge Ave.). The first was created circa 1848 by journeyman artisans; the second almost 100 years later in 1947 by Sabel Iron Works. One reason they are interesting to compare is that the latter seems to draw directly from the former for its concept, motifs and mood of consecration. To be sure, other churches have splendid gates, but these two stand out by the fact that, as intricately detailed as they are, they never spin or busy or confuse your eye. Their combinations of design balance, perfect proportions and serene equipoise make them unique.

Look closely at both gates — at their coarse, crude material — and you start to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship that went into them. It’s not easy to make iron look delicate, to make dense matter seem transparent, or to let light slip through barriers with such ease. In all three ways, these gates share a lot in common with fine draftsmanship and stained glass.

The Gates at St. Michael’s Church

            It is recorded that much of the older wrought ironwork in Charleston, including this gate at St. Michael’s (along with its duplicate on the Broad Street side of the cemetery) was crafted in the mid-19th century by two German-immigrant blacksmiths, Iusti and Werner and that the former’s name is inscribed on the transom bar. It is also known that a third excellent blacksmith by the name of Ortmann was working in the city at the same time. Is it possible that all three men could have contributed to this double set of masterpieces at St. Michael’s?

One reason for thinking so is that different parts of the gate display three different qualities, if not signatures, of expression. For example, the two lower panels convey a force of mass and energy that contrasts distinctly with the diaphanous urns and floating S-scrolls in the upper panels. Although there are S-scrolls in the lower panels, they are tighter, longer and more bunched. They are also tied together in the middle by a solid (beautiful) button that contributes to a sense of severity and strength that is designed to “keep you out.”

Meanwhile, the looser, almost luxurious S-scrolls in the upper panels gently caress the floating urns — with marvelous tips that resemble flames — in a quiet atmosphere of dignity and grace. Clearly, the upper panels are meant to “let you in.” They almost invite you in.

Of course, this is not an ordinary gate. It marks the entrance to a cemetery, to sacred ground, to sanctuary. When the gates are closed, you can see people standing in silence, peering through the gossamer frames and looking not just for historic tombstones, but into the solitude and mystery of death.

A third part of the gates is visible in the border sections that run around all the sides of the gates, through their middle and down the center. Like the main panels, these borders contain S-scrolls and buttons, but they are smaller, simpler, less ornamental and look like they could have been “wrought” by different, slightly less accomplished hands. Notice, too, that the gate on the right contains two side borders to give the closed gates a solid, symmetrical centerpiece. The whole design is so eloquently composed, however, that you hardly notice one gate being wider than the other.

As for the heavy bar and large top-piece above the gate, it has been thought and said that this was added later by other craftsmen, which seems likely the longer you study it in relation to the sophisticated work of the gates themselves.

The Gates at B’rith Sholom Beth Synagogue

Compared to the gates at St. Michael’s, the ones at B’rith Sholom Beth look like pure lacework. An air of refined delicacy runs throughout all four panels — which are proportioned differently than St. Michael’s — and flows naturally into the crown that spans the top, making it obvious that it was one entire conception. Beautifully balancing this quilt of nimble steel are the sturdy, square stanchions on either side, from which the gates effortlessly hang and seem to float. Adding further contrast and a sense of lightness are the fixtures (for candles?) on top of the stanchions, each of which is topped off by an impeccably proportioned Star of David — the perfect accent for this synagogue.

Another testament to their artistic quality is how these gates are simultaneously rich with movement and full of repose. In the lower panels, wheels appear to spin in opposite directions (both turning inward), much like the synchronized, repetitive “wheels” of earthly life that seem to go somewhere as they turn endlessly into themselves. Meanwhile, in the upper panels, dancing flames ascend in a perpetual transformation of beautiful forms.

Though this gate seems clearly to have been inspired by the design and motifs at St. Michael’s, it breathes with its own character, is representative of a different era and has a unique purpose of its own. Even though it marks the entrance to a courtyard rather than a cemetery, it too suggests that something significant is intended to change as you cross over and pass through this sacred threshold.

The gates at B’rith Sholom Beth and St. Michael’s are both full of little tricks because the artisans had to tie so many pieces of metal together while creating an impression of passage and a sense of flight. What also makes both sets of gates gorgeous works of art is this — the extent to which they revolve around and were built around the power of emptiness and the miracle of light.

Peter Ingle is the founder of StrategicBusinessWriters.com and Charlestontoday.net.

 

IMAGE CREDITS: Charles Bayless, Vanessa Kaufmann, Cindy Hornsby, Peter Ingle

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