Key questions

Similarly to gates, keys have important metaphoric meanings; either it is about things of key importance, key figures or the key of solution. Besides using them as metaphors, different kinds of keys play key roles in engineering and technical aspects in our culture as well: limiting unauthorized access, protecting the private sphere, and they also allow us to close up or hide things. Although modern keys are not as decorative as their medieval peers were, they are just as essential as their “ancestors” were, regarding functionality.


How can a key be admirable?

DSC_0924.JPG“Beautiful keys can be seen in a minor museum of Paris, in the Cluny or the Carnavalet, but maybe in both of them, I don’t remember exactly. But I remember that they are beautiful. Because a key can be beautiful too, like everything that human hands fabricated with taste, artfully, expertly and with great accuracy. What is nice about them? Both their bows and their bits. It is nice that besides the techniques of lock-smithery and black-smithery, the signs of meticulous goldsmith art and even of grand sculpture and the recognizable fingerprints of artists appear on them. You can find there keys, for example keys of castles, whose elaborateness and fine chiselled appearance bespeak not only that a difficult lock system, a garden gate, a palace entrance and secret doors can be opened with them. But they also open up whole epochs; the style world of medieval, gothic, renaissance, baroque and rococo periods.”

What did old keys look like?

Elet_es_tudomany_1978_32_szama_m.jpg“A key fits not only into its own key-hole, but also into the style of its period, the method of terms in which its castle was built. A key like this solves the secrets of almost a whole era’s method of thinking and ideal of beauty. Late masters created the key-bits of ancient abbeys, churches and cathedrals according to religious symbols. They beat the iron congruously with the consecrated place. They implicated a cross, a chalice or attributes of martyrs into the key; its bit was a public symbol but also closed a mystic lock. The owner’s name initials were standing in the key-bit of a private palace, and the bit often followed the line of the owner’s whole signature, like a scrawl.”

Bakeboard-size castle keys with flag-like bits?

KF_F_72_74.jpg“There is a key whose bow is a small bust, obviously the house owner’s bust. In the museum, you can see castle gate keys with flag-like bits as big as a bakeboard, and with so difficult labyrinth slots and scores that their secret was known just by three: the locksmith, the castellan and the lock. These huge castle keys are hardly real keys; they are rather weapons, battering rams, cannons, howitzers, things like that. And naturally, next to the key room, your can find other objects that refer to the era, the style and habits of the period: for example, guillotines, instruments of torture, pillories, halberds, broadswords and pikes. The keys that are cosier than these threatening and beautiful ones did not guard severe gates, castles, treasures, dungeons, powder towers, but thoughts and emotions to hide.”

Keys to diaries, boxes and epochs?


“I think about the keys of lockable diaries, books with lockets, albums with buckles, which are tiny and can be worn almost as a jewel; tiny little silver keys of boxes, secret drawers, hidden cells that close up ruminations and hearts. How much braveness and how much shyness is kept under locks; how much pain and disappointment, timid yearning and how many unanswered questions – so many! So many secrets that do not have other clues, just an indifferent and indolent key, which is nice as a jewel, but clueless and lonesome for a solution.”
“Then there are other types of keys – actually they clicked this bunch of keys in me. They are not giant, iron keys nor silver-mounted cosy ones, but spiritual ones made out of artifice, cunning, necessity, defensive instinct and offensive impulse. They are the keys of ciphers. In their own ways they are also beautiful and interesting. Their designs, methods and systems show the near artistic, but leastwise military or political artistic talent of unfailing human wit.” – Béla Mátrai Betegh 1978.


Source: The quotes are from Béla Mátrai Betegh’s work Kulcsszó (Key Word) that was first published in journal Magyar Nemzet in 1978.

Translated by Zita Aknai