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Minerva 3D Bookshop Sign
This carving of Minerva with books, owl and theatrical mask was installed in 1801 to promote a bookshop on the corner of High Petergate and Minster Gates, York.
The brightly painted figure of Minerva (goddess of wisdom, trade and the arts) is depicted sitting on a low stool, reclining sideways with her arm resting on a pile of books (the latter being symbols of wisdom and knowledge). She is wearing a loose-fitting short-sleeved blue-robe or dress and a golden helmet. An owl (a symbol of wisdom and good fortune) is perched on top of the books. A theatrical mask (symbolising drama and the arts) has been propped against the books next to a small pile of loosely rolled scrolls (which probably symbolise learning and / or the written word). The entire ensemble rests on a circular podium (perhaps symbolising the importance of learning for those wishing to rise above their peers). An inscription on the side of the podium reads:
THE FIGURE ABOVE
IS THAT OF MINERVA
GODDESS OF WISDOM
AND OF DRAMA BY
The display of three-dimensional signs outside shops, workshops, inns and other trading establishments became common in English towns and cities during the Middle Ages (a time when houses did not have numbers* and most people could neither read nor write). Many of these signs depicted the goods that were being sold from - or manufactured on - the premises (e.g. a boot for a cobbler or a horse shoe for a farrier). Others were chosen for a wide variety of reasons: some were connected with the owner's name; others were were selected primarily to be different, to stand-out, to be easily identified from a distance and / or to be easily remembered (similar to modern-day commercial branding).
During the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a fashion for increasingly ornate, brightly painted and / or gilded signs. However, by the mid to late 19th century (as house numbering became common* and more people learned to read), simpler and cheaper two-dimensional text-based signs become the norm.
* Before houses were numbered, directions were often given in relation to major buildings (e.g. the first street to the east of the church) or the homes of well-known individuals (next to the house of Dr Smith). However, for commercial premises, a sign or symbol was often attached to the front of the building, so directions could make reference to that. As an example, one of the other fascinating 3D carvings in York can be found "at the sign of the Printing Press" on Stonegate - see Printer's Devil (a.k.a. Little Red Devil) Carving.