First the questions: Is this a door? Or a chest front or lid? Or perhaps the side of a box bed? What do the designs on the panels mean? And what does the inscription mean?
The facts are few: The panel is made from wood, probably oak, and consists of seven separate panels at the bottom and two at the top, all inserted into a frame. During its lifetime, it has been attacked by woodworm, has been affected by damp, and all its wooden nails have fallen out!
The Musee National des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London have agreed, independently, that this piece of old oak is probably a chest front, most likely from Brittany. The French Museum deduces a Brittany manufacture from the decorative vocabulary; £leur de lys, spiral slices, cords and rolled parchment, and particularly the use of the monogram of Christ (IHS), which is used frequently in Brittany on domestic furniture.
If these experts are correct in their assumption that the panel is a chest front, it was obviously very large and heavy, and therefore not moved very often. It could have been a marriage chest, a sort of glory box, or maybe it was from a church and used to store vestments and altar fronts.
The carved designs contain some clues. The bottom centre panel shows the £leur de lys (lily of France) interspersed with a motif which could be ermine tails, the emblem of Brittany, or scallop shells. The latter were used by pilgrims as eating utensils, and were sometimes shown in coats of arms to depict a family whose ancestors were Crusaders.
The two panels on either side of the centre, the lion rampant and the deer (not a unicorn), give a hint of a royal owner.
The two panels with the animals could be depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables - perhaps the Fox and the Crow or the Wolf and the Kid? Or if the chest came from a church, it could have been the church of St. Eustace who is the patron saint of hunters. The two side panels are open to any interpretations. The swastikas dispersed over the panels have a very ancient origin but are usually deemed to depict the sun or the wind. If the cross pieces point to the right it is a lucky sign, and if to the left, unlucky.
The Latin of the inscription roughly translates as 'May Jesus, the Lord, and His angels watch over, me.
However, the significance of the floating letters is obscure, and the Department of Classics at the University of Adelaide suggests that maybe the carver was not completely literate and is attempting to demonstrate a skill he has not fully mastered.
Even the date of this panel is unknown: If the motifs in the centre bottom panel are ermine tails, the piece was almost certainly made after 1499 when Anne of Brittany, widow of Charles VIII of Brittany, married Louis XII of France, amalgamating the two countries. A medal was struck on this occasion depicting Anne with a background of fleur de lys and ermine tails.
French experts think that the rolled parchment design and the Latin inscription indicate a date into the reign of Louis XIII who ruled France 1610-1643. Marcus Binney, an English Heritage expert, agrees, saying that the parchment roll carving is typical of the early 17th century. The Victoria and Albert Museum also feels that the dating could be about 1600.
Are there companion pieces? Although research has been conducted in western France and England, no similar panel has been identified so far. The carving, except for the lettering, is quite sophisticated when compared with other pieces from the same period. It may well be that the lettering is a later addition, replacing original lettering which would have been in relief rather than inscribed, as on this panel.
The two areas cut out at the bottom of the panel are perhaps where the supports for the chest went through. Alternatively, during this piece's long life it could have been converted into a door, making these the holes for hinges. However, they are neither equally sized, nor equidistant from the edges.
After five years of research, much remains to be discovered about this time-worn piece of carved oak.