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What is a Schwibbogen?

The Schwibbogen is a candle arch made of wood or metal. They come in various sizes and are usually on display, whether at the window, in the front yard, in public areas or as miniatures in the living room over Advent and Christmas. There are a number of candle holders attached to the arch, which resembles a bridge. For practical as well as for safety reasons, however, electric lighting is used more often than real candles. Many different motifs and designs have been developed since the creation of the first Schwibbogen. As an artistic creation of the Erzgebirge (Engl. - The Ore Mountains), this decoration is a testament to the region’s rich traditions.

The origin of the Schwibbogen

The longing for light was and still is very strong in the mountainous country of the Erzgebirge. When the miners left their homes early in the morning to begin the work day in the mines underground, it was dark, as it was in the evening upon their return. Until the modernization of the mines, a miner’s only source of light was his pit light.
The entrance to a mine, the tunnel’s mouth, is a half circle opening. On Christmas Eve, the miners traditionally held a silent prayer in the gathering areas around the mine. They hung their lamps on the wall, creating a festive atmosphere. After their final shift, the miners hung their pit lamps outside, at the entrance, creating a bright arch. This is the origin of what would later become known as the Schwibbogen.
Up until the middle of the 19th century, there was a mine located in the middle of the forest between Jöhstadt and Preßnitz. The lonely miners had a special task alongside their regular work: preparation for the Christmas festival. Their trademark piece was a seven-meter-long, curved tree trunk. It was their arch of light. The oldest Schwibbogen still in existence is from Johanngorgenstadt, a mining town in the Erzgebirge. The miner Johannes Teller is said to have built it in 1740. This metal arch was intended for the miner’s final shift. Such art pieces were given as gifts to the mining surveyor, and were considered precious family heritages.

In modern times, making handicrafts during Advent is still quite popular, especially in the Erzgebirge. Plywood and a base plate made of wood can be used to build a Schwibbogen.
These crafts were developed in a few notable manufacturing centres; for example Seiffen, Olbernhau, Marienberg or Annaberg; came in various sizes, and were a popular Christmas gift and export.
In the middle of the last century, this type of artwork began to flourish, as the production of wooden Schwibbogen made of wood (instead of wrought-iron) had begun in Seiffen.

Varieties and locations

The world's largest Schwibbogen is standing in front of the toy museum in the town of Gelenau in the Erzgebirge. Its bright electric lights can be seen from far and wide. Seiffen’s original Schwibbogen is also world famous. The 352 individual pieces are all handmade and are examples of old folk art on the one hand and toys from the turn of the century on the other.
The Schwibbogen can come in many different forms, and, depending on the size, seven or nine grommets are usually attached to the arch which hold the candles. Although electrical lighting is not traditional, it is safer. A Schwibbogen with electric candles placed at the window can be left alone to shine harmlessly in the dark.
Burning candles have to be watched constantly. Arts and crafts is a multifaceted field. A three-dimensional Schwibbogen creates a 3D effect. Two equal sides with the same motifs are held together by cross-links. In the middle, an additional light source can be installed that generates indirect light.

Outdoor Schwibbogen are usually made of metal. At the entrance of some mining towns in the Erzgebirge, they are around the whole year, welcoming evening visitors with their brightly lit electric candles.
The Dresden Christmas market has been decorated with a huge Schwibbogen since 1959, and in places like Schneeberg it is even mounted at an impressive height above the street.
Small versions used as table decorations are only outfitted with candle holders on both ends.

The Schwibbogen and its design

High-quality handmade products from the Erzgebirge are unique pieces of art. The original motif was of miners or scenes depicting the average work life of the people of the Erzgebirge, which included lace-making. Recreations of the Christmas story, local landscapes, forestry workers, the image of the Seiffen church, integrated pyramids or the snowy mountains - these are just some of the nearly endless variety of motifs which can be depicted between the Schwibbogen’s arches.

A modified form is the illuminated window triangle. Similar to a Christmas tree, small glass balls are inserted between the branches of wood. Resembling a seed box, a multi-storey Schwibbogen is created from boards of different lengths placed on top of each other (used to elevate the Schwibbogen to window height). Miniatures are placed at each level as decoration. This kind of light arch is of course best when made by the professional manufacturers of the woodworking industry.
With templates, a fretsaw, plywood and a little skill, hobbyists can create their own beautifully designed light arches to take pride in. The traditional "Ur-Schwibbogen", made of metal, will forever remain unchanged, however: two miners with hammer and beater: the symbol of mining.

Table of Contents

What is a Schwibbogen? What kinds of Schwibbogen are there? Where does the Schwibbogen come from, and what does it symbolize? What is the difference between a Schwibbogen and a Lichterspitze? What are Schwibbogen usually made of? How do I build a Schwibbogen myself?

What kinds of Schwibbogen are there?

The word "Schwibbogen" translates approximately to “hovering arch”, and has been in use in architecture for a long time. The most well-known is the delicately designed support arches on Gothic cathedrals. They can also be placed between two walls to provide support. In narrow streets, e.g. in Görlitz, Vienna or Graz, the Schwibbogen are located on higher floors of buildings and protect the high walls from sinking to the side.
Following their architectural prototypes, the decorative Schwibbogen were designed with the Christmas festival in mind. These types of Schwibbogen are meant to create a festive atmosphere, and are mostly used as festive window lighting. Traditionally, the shape of the arch is round. Modern designs employ triangle arches or imitate the Gothic Schwibbogen, which is pointed. Christmas Schwibbogen use the support arch as a candle holder.
The area inside the arch features a variety of decorative motifs. Most Schwibbogen these days are carved from wood. During Christmas, large Schwibbogen are often erected in public places. They serve as festive ornamental lighting, illuminating Christmas markets or inner cities.

The Schwibbogen has its traditional origins in the folk art of people of the Erzgebirge. To this day the woodcarvers in the Erzgebirge are the primary producers of these elaborate candle arches. The oldest surviving Schwibbogen was built in 1740 in the small town of Johanngeorgenstadt. The town, which is located in the Erzgebirge circle, is to this day known as the "City of Schwibbogen".
The Christmas Schwibbogen were passed down through the centuries and originally made of metal. At the time the first Schwibbogen were made, burning candles were used as a form of decoration and the metal protected the Schwibbogen against fire. Since the Second World War, electric candles have become ubiquitous. At much the same time, metal Schwibbogen disappeared almost entirely, with the majority of those produced today being carved out of wood.

Those made of metal can be distinguished by their motifs. The oldest motifs depicted the traditional occupations of the people of the Erzgebirge who lived between the 18th to the 19th centuries. This classic motif is a scene with two miners together with a lace-maker and a woodcarver.
Another traditional motif is derived from the natural landscapes around the Erzgebirge. In these, forest scenes are recreated with native forest animals such as deer and stag.
A third motif used widely in the Erzgebirge region is that of the Christmas story. Here, the decoration traditionally portrays a nativity scene with hovering angels. However, there may also be Christmas motifs from the 19th century, for example one inspired by the story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. These show the figure of the nutcracker with a Räuchermännchen (incense brner in the shape of a pipe-smoking man) and an Oberhaulner rider, a young boy on a rocking horse.

A typical fourth motif is the church of Seiffen. This village in the Erzgebirge is particularly well known for its woodcarving tradition.
In the 1990s the triangular Schwibbogen was introduced. These are called Lichterspitze. They generally feature an atmospheric nativity scene in a forested location. The manger of the baby Jesus sits under high pine trees and is surrounded by deer. In the background stands either a forester’s lodge or a church. Additional lights behind the skirting board illuminate the carved silhouettes. The Gothic Schwibbogen, introduced in 2010, also features a snowy Christmas scene.
The original Schwibbogen was closely tied to the life of the residents of the Erzgebirge. Its arched shape symbolizes the heavenly arch and was once decorated with sun, moon and stars. The miners’ longing for a clear view of the heavens was expressed in this way. When the miners returned home from work in the darkness of winter, the light decorations in the windows showed them the way.
The Schwibbogen for lighting cities and their Christmas markets are far larger than the decorations used in the home. Nevertheless, the motifs used tend to resemble those of their smaller counterparts.

Where does the Schwibbogen come from and what does it symbolize?

Many windows are decorated with Schwibbogen during the Christmas season, bringing a little light into the darkness of the winter time. Very popular at many Christmas markets are the elaborately carved arches of wood from the Erzgebirge, which have a long tradition. The earliest still preserved Schwibbogen date back to the end of the 18th century. The first known Schwibbogen was created in 1740 by the miner Johann Teller in Johannsbergstadt to celebrate the final work shift before Christmas Eve. He forged this chandelier of iron and shaped it into an arch. According to tradition, the Schwibbogen’s lights are meant to guide the miners home safely in the dark.

The term "Schwibbogen" is an architectural term and translates roughly to “floating arch”. It looks like two columns or walls connected by an arch. The origin of the Schwibbogen is assumed to be an old custom of the miners; namely, the arch-shape created by them hanging their pit lights on the wall at the mouth of the mine tunnel after their shift. It is not quite certain whether the arched shape of the lights represent the opening of a tunnel or the sky. Motifs such as the sun, moon and stars on the first Schwibbogen lend credence to the latter. The design of the Schwibbogen has changed over time.
The first Schwibbogen were made of wrought iron or black metal. On the arches were usually 7 to 11 candles with biblical stories as motifs. Later, the material changed to wood, and the motifs also changed to more everyday scenarios from the lives of the miners or the folk art of the time. In addition to its function as decoration, the Schwibbogen also had a very practical function as a light source.
The work of the miners began in the dark before daybreak and ended after dark, meaning the miners were dependent on artificial light. The candles light in the windows would safely guide the miners as they made their way home.

What is the difference between a Schwibbogen and a Lichterspitze?

A Schwibbogen generally refers to a candle arch used during Advent and Christmas. It originated in the Erzgebirge and is still produced there in places like Seiffen. Usually, the Schwibbogen is designed as a half-circle. The decoration consists of electric candles placed on the arch’s brace. The area inside the arch is elaborately decorated with figures or carved silhouettes. The Schwibbogen is particularly well suited as a window ornament. It is visible above the window frame so that it can be seen from outside. Generally speaking, Schwibbogen are between 30 and 40 cm high.
Simple designs tend to be flat. Larger varieties can have a small 3D panorama. A typical motif for such a design is, for example, a hut in a winter forest. To enhance the effect, lights can be hidden behind the figures or the stand, basking the scenery in a warm light. The motifs are varied and range from the portrayal of traditional professions practised in the Erzgebirge, winter and natural landscapes, city silhouettes and unique architecture, to classic Christmas scenes.

The Lichterspitze is a special form of the Schwibbogen. It is designed as a triangle and mimics the shape of a Christmas tree. Every scene depicted takes this nature motif into account. It’s possible to have a forest hut hiding under the tree or the scene with Mary and Joseph together at the manger. Other options include forest animals or a small baby Jesus standing among the forest trees.
The lighting is placed on the outer frame, giving the appearance of a Christmas tree with candles. The lights can alternatively be hidden behind the stand or the individual figures in the motif. This creates a beautiful, atmospheric glow. A combination of both lighting variants is also possible. The Lichterspitze can be significantly taller than a half-circle Schwibbogen, making it suitable for use with high windows or in large rooms.

What are Schwibbogen typically made of?

Practical reasons for using certain materials

In almost all traditional products of the folk art of the Erzgebirge, the answer to what material the small (rarely also large) works of art are made of is simple: wood. In the Erzgebirge, there is more than just ore and mountains, and it is an easy-to-handle, versatile material for sculptures and furniture. However, wood has two important drawbacks which make it somewhat unsuitable as the sole material to use for Schwibbogen. If it catches fire just once, half of it could easily burn to ash. Whoever wants to chime in now to say that you’re supposed to light the candles and not the Schwibbogen... well this is fundamentally true, but don’t forget that once a candle burns down, the flames can get dangerously close to the Schwibbogen. If using electric rather of genuine candles, the other disadvantage is evident: wood tends to be pretty poor conductor of electricity.

Consequently, very few Schwibbogen are made entirely of wood nowadays and for those that are, one needs to keep an eye on the candles. A safe alternative is wider arches designed for tea candles. However, most wooden Schwibbogen with brackets for genuine candles have brass-plated metal inserts, either sunken into the candle holder or with a plate-shaped, protruding collar that catches the overflowing wax.
For electronic models, the mount must be made of metal, even if the Schwibbogen is carved and the thread of the mount and the cables are well hidden behind a wooden panel. The exterior of the artificial candles and the insulation of the cables are made of plastic.
Some Schwibbogen are made entirely of metal, although these are primarily the large, outdoor standing specimens like the world's largest Schwibbogen in Johanngeorgenstadt. Wood is more susceptible to bad weather conditions, which is why outdoor Schwibbogen are generally made of metal. But it’s not only the location that determines the type of material used; the motifs displayed on, or more often, under the arch are also a factor.

How do I build a Schwibbogen myself?

Traditional crafts made of wood like the Schwibbogen are great for creating a peaceful atmosphere during the Christmas season, so making one on your own is an excellent idea. A simple Schwibbogen consists of a panel and a base plate. More elaborate models have two screens and an interior motif, as well as small motifs placed in front of the bezel. The variety of designs is limited only by your imagination.

Materials and tools

The Schwibbogen is basic fretsaw work, it being needed to carve a motif out of the wood. Plywood is available in different qualities. You should choose 3-4mm birch plywood or 4-5mm high quality "B" cardboard plywood. For double-sided sheets, you can use B/BB. The "nice" B-side is used for the exterior.
For the spacers and the base plate you can use soft beech wood or two 10mm plywood boards. The length and width of the base plate should be slightly larger and thicker than the wood of the arches. Alternatively, you can put two plywood boards on top of each other and glue them together. To carve out the fine details, you need a fretsaw and a drill. In addition, you’ll need a hammer, pencil, sandpaper, wood glue, spray glue or paper glue stick and if necessary a hot glue gun or small screws. For the electric lighting you need a mini chain of holiday lights with a bracket, and for candle lighting a candle holder made of metal.

Saw out your motif

First, the motif is transferred to the plywood board. Depending on the template, it is ironed or fixed with adhesive. Before you reach for the saw, holes for the saw blade insertion must be drilled in the recess areas. Use a drill with a diameter of approx. 1.2mm to 1.5mm. Now you can start with the actual hard work.
Saw directly from the inside out. After sawing, carefully remove any residue from the jigsaw with a damp cloth or abrasive paper. Also, small corners and rough areas should be reground. Then cut the base plate. In order to be able to connect the screens and the interior motif to the base plate, you must cut the recesses into the plate. Draw the dimensions of the apertures with a pencil and drill holes for the saw first, then cut out the recesses. If you are creating a double arc, you must trim the spacers. With that, you’ve completed the hardest part.

Let there be light

The lighting is installed before assembling the Schwibbogen. In the case of a single-sided arch, the brackets on the back of the chain of lights are fastened with flat screws or by means of a hot-glue gun. In the case of a double arch, the lights or the candle holders are placed in the spacers. Appropriately large holes are drilled into the wood for this purpose. In the case of a double arch, the spacers are first glued to one of the arches. Finally, attach the chain of lights and mount the second arch. All you have to do now is insert the covers and the interior motif into the base plate. Then you can turn on the lights and enjoy your work.

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