The Art Of The Gable Stone

Contributed by Carmen Summerfield

On my trips to Holland, I’m always amazed at the gable stones that I see in so many old houses in Amsterdam.

Gable stones (in the Dutch language, gevelstenen) are carved and often colorfully painted stone tablets, which are set into the walls of buildings, usually at about 12 feet from the ground. They serve both to identify and embellish the building, and they may also tell us something about its previous owner.

Gable stones came into use in the 16th century, in the days before house numbers and when many people couldn’t read. 

To fulfill the need to locate the house for others, the owner affixed a gable stone with a picture or inscription to their house. If you needed to find someone, you had to know the name of the house. Therefore if you were one of the many that couldn’t read, you could find the house by looking for the appropriate symbol or design on the gable stone.

Some gable stones illustrate the name or profession of the owner, for instance a quill pen as a badge for an author, a ship for a sailor or a coffee bale for a coffee merchant. 

Some gable stones act as talismans, quoting from Holy Scripture. A pious motto repeatedly found on Dutch gable stones is Nooit Volmaakt (Never Perfect), a testimony to the householder's belief that only God can achieve perfection. 

Going beyond practicality or superstition, some gable stones make a joke, usually a visual pun.

Currently over 800 buildings in Amsterdam have gable stones, and volunteers are busy restoring gable stones, such as de Witte Oliphant (the White Elephant), which can now be seen in the center of Amsterdam, on the façade of a school building of the same name.

And the tradition of the gable stone remains alive and thriving, as new stones are still commissioned. Recently, the Rabobank in Amsterdam wistfully commemorated the introduction of the euro with a stone entitled “De eerste en de laatste gulden” (The first and the last guilder). 

I’m thinking of adding a gable stone to my house, but I’m not sure what picture or inscription to use.