Ethnographic collections in Gordailua: The fireplace

Gordailua, the Gipuzkoa Heritage Collection Centre

This small exhibition shows some of the elements linked to the living unit par excellence: the fireplace.

The word that best symbolises the family unit is the fireplace. Because the family gathered around the fire to cook, heat themselves, eat, work and talk about everything. It was the intergenerational communication space par excellence.

Beds, chests and a wardrobe; for centuries there was hardly any furniture in homes outside the kitchen. 

The wedding trousseau was so austere that it entered in a cart; in fact, showing furniture and linen when moving to a new home was part of the wedding ritual.

You could keep everything in “kutxas” or chests, but the most elaborate ones were reserved for bedding and clothing.

Although it is not a piece of furniture that is exclusive to the Basque Country, far from it, the “kutxa” or chest is very characteristic, especially for its richly elaborate front, on which it is difficult to discern the symbolic character of the purely ornamental.

Those that served a more practical function, such as for storing cereals and pulses, or foods in salt, etc., were sparsely decorated, although they were of such good quality that some of those that are preserved at Gordailua are more than four centuries old.

Wardrobes, which were more functional, as they occupied less space and allowed better interior storage, started to gain prominence in houses up to the 20th century, when they replaced “kutxas” almost entirely.

Over time, a main table and several matching chairs around it were added to this basic furniture, especially when the room began to be a separate area from the kitchen.

In the days when families were large, a baby walker was not a rare piece of furniture, as there was often a little one, whose first steps had to be protected: from stairs, from fires, from tools, from animals ... bearing in mind that the house, including the kitchen, was primarily a workplace.

In a largely non-literate society, a desk, i.e. a piece of furniture for writing and storing papers was limited to a very few wealthy families; therefore, just as the function was a luxury, so furniture used to be luxuriously crafted and decorated.

Around the fire
The Basque name for the kitchen says it all: “sukaldea”, the fire zone. Tooling was more or less plentiful, based on the capabilities of each family, but there were a number of essential elements. 

The “laratza” or rack was a chain that made it possible to hang containers, grills, etc. above the fire. Despite its simplicity, or perhaps because of it, the fireplace symbolised the home better than anything else, as all family life went on around it.

Andirons could be found just below the “laratza”, pieces of iron which were sometimes finished with other metals. Their function was to restrict and hold in firewood, as well as facilitate its combustion by allowing oxygen to reach it from below.

Cauldrons and other cooking elements hung between the fire and the chain. A large, hard-wearing copper cauldron made it possible to cook the main meal every day.

That is why it was part of the trousseau, along with linen and furniture.

Chimneys began to become more common above the fire in the 18th century, first in centre of the room and later attached to the wall. Then the back plate began to become more widespread, which protected the stone and helped to distribute heat.

In popular imagination, the iron was considered the female instrument par excellence, perhaps because it combined dependence on the home and care of clothing, environment and dedication traditionally attributed to women.

When there was no running water at home and when heating it in the fireplace required a lot of fuel and considerable work, bathtubs, even portable ones, were reserved for a few wealthy families.

The home in the Church
The relationship between fire, the home and family was so close that it was even reflected in the church. In the parish, every family had their own burial place, on which the “etxekoandre” - the lady of the house - made offerings of bread and light to her ancestors.

The tomb inside the church was part of the home and was passed down from generation to generation with it. At the end of the 18th century, cemeteries began to be built for hygienic reasons, but the custom of sitting on the old family tomb continued.

When burials were not carried out inside the church, the cemetery used to surround the building. Tombs were marked with steles, the motifs of which were probably more symbolic than ornamental and similar to those on “kutxas” and “argizaiolas”.

“Argizaiolak” represented the idea of fire as a symbol of the family very well, as they were lit in the church, but were owned by each family and were only lit to pray for the deceased of the house.

Although it evolved into more practical and less decorated forms, the “argizaiola” remains one of the most characteristic objects of Basque ethnography.

The Basque institution of the serora, the woman responsible for cleaning and conserving churches and hermitages, their pictures, furniture and garments lasted well into the 20th century... heritage that has reached us despite centuries of wars and destructions.

Gordailua, Centro de Colecciones Patrimoniales de Gipuzkoa
Credits: Story


The Gipuzkoa Heritage Collection Centre
Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa

Credits: All media
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