This was a week of keys; I lost a key (temporarily), got a new key, and seemed to be perpetually teaching about Renaissance popes who asserted their power visually by wielding big keys (to the kingdom of heaven, of course) in an age of questioning authority. I have always liked keys, both their material existence and their symbolism. They represent access, understanding, the revelation of secrets, possession. When I moved into my house a decade ago I found a big box of skeleton keys in the basement, far more keys that I have doors. So I strung them up on ribbons which I hang from hooks on my back stair landing. Of course, everyone who passes by thinks I have a key fetish so I have collected even more keys over the years.
Fifteenth-century popes seem to be in the possession of an ever-present key, symbol of their possession of jurisdiction over salvation, bequeathed to them by St. Peter. Here are images from two mid-fifteenth century illuminated manuscripts in the British Library showing popes and their big keys:
Jumping forward into the modern era, keys have lost their religious symbolism and taken on all sorts of associations. Here they appear on tarot cigarette cards, in illustrations from a mid-century text called Robbery as a Science (with instructions on how to pick a lock, very useful for potential burglars!) on an abolitionist envelope, in a political cartoon entitled “the key to the situation” featuring President Grover Cleveland (all from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery), and in the titles of two popular genres of twentieth-century entertainment: sheet music and a Clark Gable film from 1950 (Library of Congress Digital Collections).
The keys to the city custom has a history all its own, dating back to when medieval cities were independent entities that extended the “freedom of the city” to special visitors. There are lots of references and images of early modern kings like Louis XIV entering, claiming, and receiving keys to cities (like Strasbourg below, in 1681) but obviously the modern custom represents recognition rather than possession. Below Louis, we have presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower receiving the keys to the city of Rock Island, Illinois from its mayor Melvin McKay in 1952 (Time-Life Photographs) and a very recent photograph from the Wall Street Journal of Ralph Lauren with his newly acquired key to the city of New York.
Below are some neat keys that I’ve had my eye on for a while: a porcelain set made in Japan, a “steampunk clockwork magic key” textile border, and USB flashdrives, “the key to love, success and all your photos, files, and music”. What better key for our age?