Sunday, August 21, 2016

Reflections On My Visit to the MET - A carved 6th or 7th century panel

It has now been twenty years since I came to the States, (where does the time go?!) and until two weeks ago I had never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, known colloquially as the MET. A few weeks ago I decided to remedy that shortcoming by giving myself a birthday present; a trip to the museum. One of the things that had prevented me from visiting earlier was that I knew it is a huge museum and there would be no way to take it all in in one day, thus I would need to stay overnight, a rather costly investment in New York. In fact, the museum is so vast, that even in three days I did not see half of what I wanted to see. (And to think that I had also planned to visit the Cloisters which is another whole building devoted to 12-15th century European art, located in a different part of the city.) I spent all of the opening hours of the Museum inside it for the duration of my trip. A fact that had the native New York cab driver incredulous, he could not fathom someone coming there to visit a museum?!

I could gratuitously post a bunch of photos which I took there, (I managed over two thousand, and am still sorting through them.) but just about ever object in the MET is online, and some of them have thousands of renditions posted by others. I do not feel the need to add to the noise. What I decided to do, rather, was to post over the next few months some of the pieces that particularly impressed me, and to share some of the inner workings of my mind, in seeing, appreciating, and comprehending them. In short, I will be curating them into a broader medieval context than what the museum has time or space to do.

A carved wooden panel from the 6-7th century

Before I even went to the museum, I knew there would not be time enough to see everything I would want to, and so determined to stick to what would be the most important to me; namely late antiquity, and early medieval. Thus my tour began right inside the entrance, to the left of the ticket takers. (20+$ per day for three days is an investment in itself). The first few rooms are filled with a mix of objects from all over the Roman world, spanning a period of the 3rd to the 7th century, perfect hunting grounds to help understand the state of the arts at the onset of the Middle Ages.

I had not been there for more than twenty minutes when I spotted this object, hanging on the wall, and knew that my trip had not been wasted.

I was studying this lamp stand when I first spotted
the panel. I enjoyed seeing this lamp as well, and
was very happy that the museum placed it in front
of a mosaic which has an almost identical object
represented; touching on one of my key themes-
that objects portrayed in the artwork are always
much simpler that the actual things they represent.

I said that nearly every object in the museum is online somewhere, and this one is no exception, but I had never come across it, and so was delighted to "find" it. Wooden objects from the 6th and 7th centuries are extremely rare, so it was very special and moving for me to see this remarkably well preserved piece. Before reading the description, I thought perhaps it was a back panel for a bench, or a crest from a cabinet. There are holes in the bottom of the panel, however, which most likely held spindles or balusters, that making the cabinet scenario much less likely.

When I take a trip to a museum, I always try to take pictures of the descriptions either right before or right after photographing the object, so that I will be able to remember what it was I was looking at later. With 2000 plus photos, this was extremely useful! Here is the description for the above picture as provided by the MET.

Museum label for the panel

The museum inventory numbers allowed me to look it up online and find out more information about it. For example, I now know that it is 223mm high, 927mm wide, and 19mm thick. (Interestingly, even today, this is the most common thickness for basic timber stock.) I also learned that it was discovered in and is presumed to have come from Egypt. Because my studies are primarily confined to European Medieval culture, one might wonder why I would have much interest in this, but I will address that shortly. First, however, I wish to discuss the part which the museum mentions as being its likely function. ("The crest of a piece of furniture or a barrier") I am not going to say I have a more precise answer than that, because I do not, instead, what I want to do is examine a few applicational possibilities.

As I said earlier, my first thoughts, upon seeing it were that it could be the back of a chair or bench, but that was partly influenced by the fact that I had just been studying the Utrecht Psalter. Thus my mind recalled some of the benches and chairs depicted in that manuscript.

A bench depicted in the Utrecht Psalter; note the crested back.

This bench depiction represents a much larger piece of furniture than would have been possible from the MET panel (4 occupants), but thanks to an image which I have borrowed a few times already, from St Thomas Guild, we can see that smaller benches, suitable for two people were also produced.

A short bench from Sweden, purported to be from the 12th century, but in style
it could have come from any time of more than a thousand years prior to that,
based on Celtic and Migration Period grave finds and early
(8th-11th century) illuminated manuscripts.

In the late antiquity,and early Middle Ages large chairs were produced which were meant for a single user, and intended to impart a sense of importance and power associated with the occupant. This panel would be large enough to suit such a purpose as well.

A throne depicted in the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter

In looking through my manuscripts I came upon another possible application; that of a headboard. The manuscript pictures I have are less convincing, but when one factors in the Migration Period bed remains which have been found in Germany, Switzerland, and France, this increases the possibilities.

A bed depicted in the Ashburnahm Pentateuch this shows the way balusters
would have been inserted into the bottom of the crest panel
Remains of a 6th century bed (cut down to be used as a coffin) from a grave
find in Baden-Württemberg
(You would not look very pretty after you were buried for 1400 years either!)
Detail of a sketch made in the mid 19th century of a bed found in Oberflacht
a grave site in Baden-Württemberg. This sketch also shows a plan of the bed as
it was found within a sarcophagus. Based on these proportions, one can see
that a panel the length of the one we are discussing would fit such a bed.

As I said, I have no intention of trying to establish what this piece was actually used for, I just wanted to point out some possible applications so that you could visualise it in use on an actual piece of furniture. I have not found any depictions of screens or room dividers, but that could also be another function, as suggested by the museum. The fact that this piece comes from Egypt as opposed to Europe causes me little concern. There are many early medieval ivory artifacts from Egypt which are nearly identical to European examples of the same types of objects. These include Boxes, book covers, and mirror cases, there is no reason, then, to suppose the same might not be true of wooden objects.

The Roman Empire had a very homogenising effect on the arts throughout the area of its control, and we find items of furniture from Spain and Morocco to Iran and even India which had the same basic forms and methods of ornamentation. Small regional influences gave some level of distinction, but the overall Roman-ness of these pieces is almost always undeniable. Part of this was because the Romans incorporated and dispersed design elements from all of the regions in which they held control and allowed the craftsmen from those areas to continue to ply their trades in far flung parts of the empire. The result was a give and take in which both "sides" influenced one another. The classical Greek influence had also been absorbed by Rome, which itself had grown from diverse areas of Europe and the Near East.

In going through some of my collection of illuminated manuscripts in preparation for this blog I found some remarkable ornamentation which very much invoked the style and spirit of the carvings on this MET panel.

The artist who painted this manuscript stuck mostly to the Roman
tradition, but he used some of his native Germanic motifs in the border
and other ornamentation. The spirit of Christ's chair is very much like
that of our panel. The ornamentation surrounding the IHS XPs is even
closer. (This is the latinised  abbreviations for the Greek words
"Jesus Christ")

At first glance, this crest of a Cannon Table from the Soissons Gospels
(BNF Lat 8850 ca 814) has nothing to do with the panel we are discussing, but
look closely, and you will see the same rounded edges interspersed with leaf
points. This is a motif which is found throughout the Roman world at least as
far back as the 3rd century; predating "Byzantine".

Sometimes the influence went the other way as well, and forms of "barbaric" ornament made their way into Greco-Roman art. (or it had been there from the time that these people were also "primitive"). I pointed out the decorations in the above portrait of Christ; these sorts of decorations can be found all over the western world going back millennia before Christ. Here are a couple more examples.

This photo is from the MET website. It shows a basic form of universal
ornament shifted  a bit to give a deliberate emphasis to the cruciform form.
(Notice the dark areas, stained by the minerals used as paint pigment; this
piece would have originally been painted.)

Also from Lat 8850, this little scrap of a border shows the same basic motif
as it might be drawn in a simplified manner relevant to the scale

BNF Lat 9427 fol 145v This letter 'D' from the text, "Diebus Illis Maria"
(In those days Mary... but I cannot read the rest of the script, so I do not
know what the text is) has a somewhat similar motif but the same
design for the border of the roundel. The stem of the 'D' is similar to the
bottom border of the panel. This Frankish manuscript comes from right
at the turn of the 8th century (ca 700)
Even more impressive, however is this little gem, from about the same time, but in a different manuscript.

BNF lat 12048 fol 40v. I think it would be hard to find a closer example
from anywhere than this to the carved roundel in the MET panel. This manuscript
was produced in France at the beginning of the 8th century.
Please notice, also how well painted the cock is.

Thus I conclude that this panel, though it comes from Egypt, can still give us valuable clues as to how a 6th or 7th century piece of European furniture might have appeared.

Videre Scire

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight; Cabinets in Medieval Artwork

This posting will examine the existence of cabinets in the early and high Middle Ages.

From abot 700 AD comes this
two door cupboard with intarsia decoration
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, fol 5r
Back when I first began studying artwork in search of illustrations of furniture, I primarily focused on paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries. This was mostly due to the fact that it is almost the only "medieval" artwork on display in the museums. This is also why most people, when it comes to medieval reenactment, tend to focus on these two centuries, the information from earlier is just so rare, and there are relatively very few objects from earlier centuries to base recreation on.

A "Giebelschrank", which is German
for a cabinet with a pointed top.
ca 1200. Notice that it was
originally painted and is missing the
edge trim on the top.

As a furniture maker by profession, I have always been particularly interested in finding examples of "case goods" type furniture, Especially cabinets. The usual line, when it comes to cabinets in the Middle Ages, is that there were very few of them, and that they were very heavy, immovable objects. In fact, there are existing examples of this type of furniture which supports that idea. An example of that would be a late 12th/ early 13th century cabinet in Halberstadt which is constructed of timbers large enough to make a house with. but there are other less publicised examples which prove that this was not always true. The single door armoire from the Bergen Museum, pictured above, proves this.

Relief carving of ca 1330, depicting a very fine cabinet, doubtless this was
once one half of an Annunciation scene

As I studied the artwork though, I did come across examples of furniture which seemed more 'ordinary'. In particular, Giotto painted several desks and cabinets between the 1290's and 1337, the last year he was alive. All of these pieces of furniture seem little different to ones made in the 15th and 16th centuries. I also came across Several similar depictions of furniture in relief carvings by Andrea Pisano, and a splendid sculpture by Giovanni da Balduccio, of about 1330, pictured above.

The question might then be raised, "Were cabinets invented in the 13th century, and if not, why do we not see cabinets in earlier work?" The answer to the first part is 'no', and the second part is complicated. First of all, we do not have all, or even more than the tiniest fraction of all the artwork that was produced between the 6th and 13th centuries, so we have no idea of what may or may not have been portrayed, we only know what is portrayed in those artworks that yet survive. Second, there actually are a few illustrations of cabinets from earlier times; one example also in stone, is from a capital in the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene in Vézelay.

A capital in the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine à Vézelay,
created in the first half of the 12th century
It is obvious that the objects in the illustrations I havegiven are cabinets, simply by the modern recognisable form they take. I mention this, because several years ago, whilst going through the images from Royal Manuscript 16 G VI in the British Library. I came across the following two illustrations, and a "light bulb" came on in my mind.

Folios 85r and 112v from BL Royal 16 G VI 2nd quarter 14th century

In the first illustration, we can clearly see that a cabinet is represented, because it has shelves full of gold vessels, but in form, it is just the same as the buildings in the next illustration. My moment of realisation was twofold; some of the "buildings" in medieval artwork are actually meant to be cabinets, and a possible reason that more cabinets were not portrayed, was because in the context of simplified representational artwork, a building and a cabinet look just the same. Perhaps to avoid confusion, artists did not usually portray cabinets.

Part of this revelation was that I had recently seen the cabinet illustrated at the top of this blog posting. I realised that a typical medieval portrayal of this cabinet would not really be any different from an illustration of a doorway or a building. After this idea occurred to me I went back through a lot of illustrations to see if there were more examples to support my theory. I was delighted to find that, in fact,there are. 

BNF Lat 1 fol 3v , so called Bible de Vivien, or
the first Bible of Charles the Bald, ca 845

I had actually pondered this image earlier, and thought that the object on the extreme right of the centre register was some sort of cabinet, but had no way to prove it. Most discussions of this picture would say that the object represents a church in which the writings are stored. In fact, the lower register does show books being transferred from one church to another, but on careful examination, we can see that the artist did make some distinctions between his buildings of the first and third register, and the cabinet of the middle one, In the following three details, I have pointed out these differences,

Three details from the above illustration. I have added notes
to point out the differences between the buildings and the cabinet.

The first thing that I noticed was that, unlike the other buildings in this painting, the "cabinet", as I am sure it is, has no representation of stones to its walls; all the other buildings do. The next thing to note is that nearly all of the windows in the buildings are represented as having mullioned, glazed windows, as illustrated by their lighter colour and the white bars in the windows; those that do not are arched. Neither is true for the openings that would be interpreted as windows, were the cabinet actually a building. Speaking of those openings, they all have doors painted in various stages of being open, unlike any of the windows in the other buildings. Lastly, our cabinet has a frieze moulding above the door of the first tier (above the lower doors), and a plinth base to it, as one might expect a cabinet to have; none of the other building shapes from this illustration do.

Here is another illustration from the end
of the 10th century which shows essentially
the same principles. This time, the door
is closed and the cabinet has no windows
in order to distinguish it from the building.
Cabinets seem to have been an integral part of a scholars studio from the beginning of the medieval period, a carryover from classical Greek and Roman society, actually. (see illustration toward the end of this post)

A cabinet for theatre masks, from a book of Greek plays
BNF Lat. 7899 fol 2v 9th century
(So much for the notion that Classical literature was
"lost" in the early Middle Ages!)
BSB clm 14000 fol 97r 879

These two pictures help support each other, clarifying the intent of the
artist in portraying writing cabinets; in the first example, they are built into
the wall of a stone paneled room like one would have found in a palace.
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 371, zt. 2  11th century
In case there are any die-hard skeptics, here is another illustration ca 1330-40
which shows the same notion, just in the garb of 14th century ornamentation.
BL Egerton MS 2781 fol 71r
And another from the 1st quarter of the 15th century
BL Royal MS 1 E IX fol 63v

All of the cabinets illustrated thus far have very distinctive characteristics which they share with contemporary architecture. It should be no surprise that so much furniture of the Middle Ages had architectural elements to it,  This seems to have been a trend since Roman times. There is a much celebrated remains of a charred cabinet in Herculaneum, which had columns, capitals, and a frieze. All very much like contemporary Roman temples. I already mentioned that cabinets and architecture tended to be nearly indistinguishable in form in the medieval artwork. Below are a few pictures which are buildings, but look very much like the examples of cabinets we have seen; in other words, were one to add some shelves, these would be cabinets not buildings.

This is neither a cabinet nor a building, but a baldaquin.
Notice that it is nearly identical to the Norwegian cabinet.
BNF Lat 6(2) fol 88r 10th century.
The object to the right is most likely a doorway, or a representation of a building
but add a door and a few shelves, and it would be a cabinet.
BSB clm 23631 fol 24r 1V 9th century

There is probably someone reading this who still is not buying into my argument, but that is fine, I have one more card to play. I already showed the Bergen cabinet, which is very architectural in form, as pointed out by the above illustrations. This cabinet is what came to mind when I saw the cabinet in the British Library manuscript and set me on this line of investigation. Another fact that added weight to the notion, however, were the many 13th and 14th century sacristy and chalice cabinets still found in various churches and monasteries around Europe, especially in the Germanic lands; which are all built very deliberately to mimic architecture.

Schrank in the Brandenburg Cathedral
Originally this would have been painted and gilded.
A ca 1300 cabinet in Bad Doberan Münster, made to store 20
chalices and their respective patens.
Notice the painting on the inside of the doors which is
reported to be original to its construction.
Also from the Bad Doberan Münster, this is the left wing
of the high altar, completed about the same time as the
Minster, ca 1300. The entire building project was completed in 15 years.
This altar has been restored, but with the same colours and
gilding, as originally crafted. The cabinet above would originally
have looked like this as well; traces of the paint and gilding
have been left as time has aged them.

I am not saying that most people had cabinets in their homes, and it would be impossible to determine how prevalent they were. The point of this article is to counter the notion that in the early Middle Ages, the furniture was all, or nearly all "six board" and dugout chests. Many writers will tell you that the "hutch" (another name for a tall chest with legs) "originated" in the 12th or 13th centuries, implying that post and panel construction did not exist before that time. My research shows that throughout the medieval period, all sorts of post and panel "case-goods" type furniture was being produced, including cabinets and armoires.

All of the basic forms of furniture were already established in Egyptian and early Grecian civilisations, and the Romans continued those traditions. I have just returned from a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, where I spent three days studying medieval artworks. I will be sharing more in future posts, but here is one photo from the Late Antiquity/Early Christian period (roughly 250-500 AD). According to the museum information card, it depicts a doctor sitting in front of a cabinet containing scrolls, a basin, and medical tools; though it is inscribed with Greek letters,it comes from Rome, around 300 AD. 

A Roman cabinet from around 300 AD, from a sarcophagus now in the MET

This cabinet is very much like several depicted by the Ottonian artist known as the Meister des Registrum Gregorii, and others of his circle of influence. It would be totally absurd to think that whilst continuing the practice of making timber framed buildings, siege engines, and weaving looms, European society as a whole forgot how to make cabinets, but after several hundred years, again took up the art in the very same form.

BNF Lat 8851 fol 115v depicting St John in his Study
10th century
Just a parting note on a mostly unrelated topic; unlike many people will tell you, the chair in which St John is sitting does not have a two sided back "to keep out the draughts". The fact that it appears that way to us is simply the result of a common problem of medieval artwork, where the artist is trying to combine two points of view in one illustration. From the side, he knows that the back of the chair is 'behind' the sitter, but he also knows that from the front the back is visible on both sides of the occupant's body, thus he attempts to combine a 'side-view' and a 'front-view' in one picture. See my earlier article on interpreting perspective in medieval art.

Videre Scire

Sunday, July 24, 2016

9th Century Box - Beginning the back

When I began this project a year ago I had no intention of it taking so long, or being so involved. However as I began working on it and my confidence increased, I have continuously pushed myself to higher levels of detail an complexity. As originally planned, the back would have had two cheetahs facing each other with a tree in the centre. Once the front panels, were finished, though, I thought that I should make more panels for the top and back which portrayed the entire story of Bellerophone and the Chimera, much like the many religious narrative scenes that one finds on medieval ivory panels and boxes.

As far as I know, there are only two extant medieval caskets with secular scenes on them. Perhaps there are a few more, but no matter the exact number, they are extremely rare, so there is not much to go on in trying to design a programme with a 9th century interpretation of a 12th century BC Greek myth. The fact that the story of Bellerophone and Pegasus was known to 9th century artists is proven by their inclusion in the mid 9th century Bible of Charles the Bald, as I demonstrated in my article covering the topic of carving the front panels for the box. (one scene from this story is also included in the Veroli Casket, in the British Museum) The illuminator who did those original drawings was most likely working from Roman or Late Antiquity (3-500 AD) illustrations or relief carvings that still existed in his time. I do not have the luxury of seeing what he had to work from, so I had to do what many medieval artists did, which was to look at the material I do have available, and adapt them to suit my interpretation of the story whilst making them fit the format of the panels which I am using.

Five scenes from the beginning of the story sketched out and ready to begin
carving; besides all the time for research, the actual drawing took
more than ten hours.

In the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Württemberg State Library) is an early 9th century Psalter (known to medieval scholars and historians as the Stuttgart Psalter) which has a host of very fine illustrations. I chose this manuscript as my primary source of figures and inspiration for all of the remaining scenes which I will use for this box. In the first scene, Bellerophone approaches Proetus, who was the king in Tiryns, as told in the Iliad. He had just murdered someone, and came to the king for forgiveness. The second scene is King Proetus, and the third shows the king hosting a banquet in which Bellerophone is a guest. There is a break in the story, as the next scene will be on the lid, but the king's wife made advances on him which he rejected, and feeling scorned, she accused him of attempting to use her, (an oft repeated story very much like that of Joseph and Potipher's wife from the book of Genesis). King Proetus sent Bellerophone to his brother-in-law who was the king of a neighbouring country and asked him to "remove the bearer of these tablets from this world" for the crime of attempting to ravage his sister. That king also wined and dined Bellerophone before he bothered to read the message from his fellow king and thus was not willing to execute him, having shown him the hospitality of an honoured guest.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to include the two kings bracketing the banquet scene as it actually stands for both events in the story. Medieval illustrations are not nearly so linear and scene specific as what we modern readers are accustomed to in comic books and newspaper strips. In the first scene, behind Bellerophone, we see some buildings which can represent both the city of Tiryns, as well as the king's palace. Bellerophone is not depicted as "entering" the doorway, but rather gesturing to the king, as a way of progressing on to the next event in the story, thus multiple "events" and settings are often part of the same 'scene'. This is very common in medieval artwork as the following detail from an ivory panel demonstrates.

Scene from the Passion, depicting Judas attempting to return the 30
pieces of silver and hanging himself from a tree.

In this detail from an ivory book cover now in the Milan Cathedral's treasury, Judas seems to be looking at himself hanging from the tree as he attempts to return the "blood money" which he took in exchange for betraying Christ. This 'multiple events in a single scene' was a very common phenomenon in art throughout the Middle Ages.

I chose a picture of King David from the Württemberg Psalter as my Bellerophone because he had the general stance and sense of movement that I wanted in my panel. The hands had to be adjusted, and the mantle was shortened a bit so as to accommodate the format of the scene. 

Detail from folio 24v of the Württembergische Landesbibliothek
I did the carving over the period of about one and a half weeks in my "spare time" (This is what I do for fun, when I am not "working") Here is a picture about 5 or 6 hours into the work.

One has to constantly redraw or work from memory when carving, as the lines
are immediately cut away the moment one begins carving. I put the paper
over the next scene because my hand was smudging the drawing.

The buildings were mostly inspired by those in the Milan panels and another 9th century panel in the Louvre, a detail of which is below.

Inspiration for my buildings from a 9th century ivory panel in the Louvre

The style of the modeling for the figures was drawn from the Milan panel as well, as is shown below.

Trees and figures as inspiration for my panel

Even though this holly that I am using is about the same colour as ivory, it is not ivory, and does not carve like ivory which is rather hard and can be scraped and polished to great detail. Holly is wood, which is fibrous; no matter how sharp the tools, it still will not produce the crispness which is achieved with ivory carving. I was feeling pretty good about my carving when I finished for the day, until I saw it enlarged on the screen. If you are viewing this on your laptop the image will be about one and a half times the actual size of the panel. looking at this picture I can see a lot of details which I need to try to refine a bit. Once the whole thing is finished and has a coat of blonde shellac on it, it will hopefully look a little smoother and more polished.

One scene (sort of) finished; four more to go.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Utrecht Psalter, and its Furniture, Part I

In the Utrecht University library is housed a very important Carolingian manuscript, known as the Utrecht Psalter. Years ago, when I first learned about it, there was some debate as to whether it was from the 9th century, or the 8th, but it seems that for the most part, the argument has settled on the early 9th century side. The manuscript is a typical medieval Psalter, which is a book of the psalms plus other liturgical content. Intended to be used for private devotional reading, Psalters were the most widely owned books by the upper levels of secular society in the early Middle Ages.

This particular Psalter has an illustration for each psalm as well as a few illustrations related to the non-Psalms part of the text. All the illustrations are done in either brown or brown-black ink and were produced by several artists, judging by the variations in style. Some illustrations are much more expressionistic than others, but they are all rather loose and fluid. It is my own opinion that the illustrations were originally intended to be painted in, but someone never got around to doing that bit. Some of the artwork has been gone over again with darker ink, making them much easier to discern. The fact that this was done later than the initial brown ink drawing can be proven by the fact that some illustrations are partly intensely-inked whilst the rest of the same illustration is still light brown. In at least some of the images, the artist who did the dark ink did not work as loosely as the one doing the original light brown ink drawings.

Folio 1v of the Utrecht Psalter,
this page is approximately  25cm wide
St Mathew from the so-called Ebbo Gospel (fol 18v)
The similarity in style is very strong. Perhaps the
original plan for the Utrecht Psalter was to colour
it in as this one was?

The University of Utrecht has put the entire manuscript on-line for viewing by the general public. Years ago, this was in a low resolution format, but not long ago, wanting to reference one of the illustrations, I discovered that they now have it available in extremely high resolution. I applaud this decisions highly as I feel that every ancient manuscript aught to be accessible to the public, not locked away or kept as a treasure to be horded by whatever institution holds it. These manuscripts belong to posterity, and should be available online for anyone who wishes to study them, because for sure 99.99% of the population will never get a chance to actually see the original work, even if they pay to visit the museum or library where it is held. (Some institutions are making their collection available, such as BNF, [some works in] the British Library, and several others. However there are scores of other works which one will only read of the existence of in some scholarly paper and no images therefrom are available anywhere.)

There are a host of subjects illustrated in this manuscript, and whomever was in charge of the programe for each Psalm seemed not always to have followed the most logical or main idea of the text. On the website dedicated to this manuscript, one can click on any portion of a drawing and see the "relevant" passage from the accompanying Psalm, sometimes these are very vague and ambiguous at best. An example would be the annotation for a group of warriors (there are lots of groups of warriors) which says,"They are bound, and have fallenbut we are risen, and are set upright" As with most medieval illustrations, many subjects and episodes are combined in a single 'picture' In general, one gets the impression of a very violent world, based on these illustrations.

Because not all of the images were created by the same artist, some are much more 'legible' than others, due to the intensity of the ink, the quality of the work itself, and the fact that some text has bled through from the opposing side of the page, making it difficult to distinguish the drawing from the text. It is also interesting to note that one artist might have given more attention to the details of the figures, another, to that of the landscapes and yet another to the architecture. I first noticed this phenomenon because one artist was extremely loose and even more suggestive than the others with the furnishings in his illustrations, but at the same time, gave more detail to the architectural elements than any of the other artists. One of the easiest ways to note the differences in the artistic style of the various illustrators of this volume is to examining the foliage on the trees; at least five different hands seem to have been at work based on the variations in the styles used.

It would seem that at least five different artist were
at work on these illuminations based on variations
in style. These trees give a good example of that.
Before these illustrations were done in ink, they were first drawn with a silver stylus or an even weaker ink; some of that initial drawing was not inked in later, and one can still see remnants of the first sketches.  A couple examples of that can be seen in the edge of a building in the upper left side of the third tree depicted above, and in some rocks beside the fourth tree.

Obviously, since the primary aim of this blog is on furniture, that was the main focus of my attention in studying this manuscript. I went through the entire Psalter, one page at a time, in full magnification, scanning for any objects of furniture, and then making notes of each item I found. An alphabetical synopsis follows: (In the interest of not being too long-winded, this will be covered fully in three blog postings).


This might surprise some as being included in a treatise on furnishings, but an altar is furniture for a church. many were constructed of wood, and their form is essentially a large cabinet.

All of the altars had this same basic shape. This form
is also found in the Classical period for "pagan"
altars. The cruciform ornament on the roof
indicates that this is a church.

This is the only altar which gives any indication of being made from
anything other than a block of solid stone. This alter represents
objects made of panels with mitered corners to the stiles and rails.
This sort of construction is indicated on various early medieval
furniture including chairs, cabinets, and doors; it offers an argument
against the generally held notion that panel construction was
an invention of the 13th/14th century.

In this manuscript, all 45 altars depicted are nearly identical. The artists made no distinction between the form of an altar used in a biblical setting, for the purpose of an animal sacrifice, and a Christian altar in a church, used for the celebration of the sacraments. The two main distinctions are (sometimes) drawn by the use of fire on an Old Testament type of altar, and the use of a crucifix on top of the representation of a church building, denoting a contemporary structure and altar. There are a couple of altars which seem to indicate panels to the sides, and about 40% of them are draped with an altar cloth. The most interesting point for me, is that they have exactly the same form as the plinth chairs, (more on these later) and the former can often only be distinguished by an absence of the accompanying footrest.

A Mithraic altar from the Romanian National
Museum (via Wikipedia). This altar is some 500
years older than our manuscript of this study, but
this was one of the earliest forms for an altar and
continued in some form or other for centuries after.


This example seems to represent a metal frame model. it is similar to examples
found in "late antiquity" (3rd-5th centuries) illustrations.

The most detailed bed drawing; perhaps this one indicates a wooden
construction. Here is an example of a partially re-inked drawing.

The Romans seemed to have had various types of beds for different functions, the main two types were flat beds, and beds with a raised headrest, similar to what is now called a "day bed" The Germanic tribes seemed to have preferred sleeping in flat box type beds however, (as proven by early grave finds). There are 16 beds illustrated in this manuscript, 13 of which are of the Roman reclining bed form. Due to size variations, and the artists attention to detail, some are more elaborate than others, but the illustrations seem to indicate both metal and wooden versions; some plain and others ornately designed. In addition, there are two flat beds, but these are little more than suggestions, and no real design information can be discerned from them. The last bed seems to be of the box type, and is important because it is the only one which gives any suggestion of the medieval practice of a fabric canopy over the bed.


Not a very clear drawing, save for the right rear post, this seems to be a bench
made of turned front and back posts with ball finials and a flat gabled backrest.
An actual bench with a very similar form from 12th century Sweden,
some 350 years after the above illustration. (thanks to St Thomas Guild
for the photo)

A more ornate bench, this one is reminiscent of the jewel encrusted coronation
chair of Charles the Bald, as depicted in his Psalter of ca 850-60 . This image
seems to indicate a bench with ornamented square front and back posts with
an inset panel to the sides.
Coronation of Charles the bald, from a
Psalter ca 850-60

There are ten benches in this manuscript, and it is this form of furniture which exhibits the greatest variety of style, as well as some of the grandest suggestion of ornament. nearly half of the benches are just plinth chairs which are long enough to accommodate two or more persons. Two benches seem to be constructed of a plank with square legs attached, one is of a turned construction, similar to the few extant 12th century north European benches, two of them are more massive, and elaborately carved and decorated, and one has turned back legs, but carved lions for the front supports, in a manner reminiscent of the Dagobert Chair from the 7th century.

Again, very difficult to discern, but this bench has cabriole legs with lion's
heads and feet as the front support columns. Notice also the arcaded
footrest. This is an example of the text bleeding through the page.

Box or Casket;

The only small casket or box depicted in the Utrecht Psalter.
A small "purse" casket and a larger rectangular one, both made from gilt-
copper alloy and originating in the 9th century. The larger box is very much
in the form of the one depicted in the Psalter. (Elwangen treasury)

There is only one box illustrated. It is depicted with an open lid and is held by a woman who seems to be offering the contents thereof to a king who stands next to her. Other than its form and size, no information can be conferred from this illustration. (There is one other illustration of a man crouched down, either hiding behind, or pushing a cube shaped object, but since no frame, lid, or other distinguishing features are included, I have omitted it from any category.)

A back panel from a 9th century ivory box, now in the MET.

The illustration of a small casket from the Utrecht Psalter demonstrates a key point which I continuously wish to reinforce. Medieval artwork was primarily representational and never meant to accurately portray anything. The accompanying photograph shows an actual metal box of the same basic form, but there were also ivory boxes, and presumably wooden ones. Just as in later medieval times or even in our own, there were nearly as many ways to decorate a box as there were boxes to be made. There still exist from the 13th and 14th century, boxes made of metal, ivory, bone, and wood, which are further decorated with foil, gems, beads, intarsia, straw, paint, and even coloured eggshells. I see no reason not to assume that similar practices were not carried out in the 9th century as well. The only real information we can glean from illuminated manuscripts are form and sometimes general style. Some may even give glimpses to construction methods and type of ornamentation, but none will ever give an accurate representation of an actual anything.

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