Furniture As Religious Experience: Refectory Tables

Furniture As Religious Experience: Refectory Tables

Johnny Williams
Sep 24, 2010

If brewing beer and building furniture is your idea of heaven, you might consider becoming a monk. Driven by ancient tradition — and economic necessity — many monasteries doubled as artisan communes. And while I love a frothy mug of Chimay, it's the monks' refectory tables that really get me buzzing.

Group dining is a sacred daily ritual at most monasteries. Traditionally, monks eat in strict silence in a dining hall, or refectory, at lengthy trestle tables that seat upwards of sixteen. These wooden tables date back to the late Medieval era, when furniture was handcrafted on-site…and IKEA only had stores in Sweden. Refectory tables take structural integrity to a higher power — the tabletop is typically built using a "breadboard" construction that limits warp and a long, low "stretcher" attaching two trestles ensures sturdiness. As such, it's far more likely the monks will break their silence than their dining tables.

Today, refectory tables have fallen into obscurity, stuck in the muddy category of "farm tables". But all rustic furniture isn't created equal and even the most pious Shaker makers can't compete with monkish durability. Of course, such intelligent design comes with a big-ticket price — refectory tables generally cost between $2,500 and $10,000. You might want to start praying.

Images: 1 Elizabeth James Antiques, 2 Quercus Furniture , 3 Antiques & More, 4 Le Louvre French Antiques, 5 Gordon Fry

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