“Put your seal on my heart like the seal on your arm for love is strong.”
This is a translation of one of the many verses about love that wind their way around this scherenschnitte. German for “scissor cuts”, scherenschnitte is a traditional Pennsylvania German art form brought to Pennsylvania in the 18th century by German immigrants. Scherenschnitte is made by drawing half of a design on folded paper and then cutting out the design using scissors or knives. This piece was painted with watercolors and features German text written in ink.
This scherenschnitte, submitted as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure by CAP Curator Rachel Lovelace-Portal, is a bit of a mystery. The museum purchased the artifact in 1988 assuming that it was a valentine. Curators later discovered that the piece is in fact a love letter, given that it is dated May 15, 1840—several months too late for Valentine’s Day. The creator is also a mystery. The only part of the signature that can be clearly read is “F. G.”
We are indebted to Craig Benner of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania for translating the German text which appears on the scherenschnitte. The text is a love poem comprised of verses and paraphrases from the Song of Solomon, a book in the Bible that focuses on love. The texts that can be clearly identified include 8:6-7, which is commonly used in marriage ceremonies: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love is strong . . . Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly despised.”
The verses on the love letter are broken into phrases that are not always in sequential order and are also interspersed with phrases not found in Song of Solomon. It’s possible the creator gave it to the recipient folded, and that as one unfolded the piece the verses could be read in the correct order. Or, maybe, the scherenschnitte was meant to act as a maze or puzzle. Although some of the mysteries surrounding this piece have been solved, the identity of the creator and how to correctly read the poem remain a mystery.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.