Monday, July 13, 2020


There is doubtless no definitive, universally accepted reason why, but since the beginning of time, man has been inventing fantastic, made up creatures. Forty some years ago I even once read a book that proffers the view that the dinosaurs were actually living experiments in crossbreeding by an antediluvian society, for the purpose of gladiatorial type sports. Probably a very far-fetched notion, but the point is, that somehow, humans (myself included) have always had a fascination with making up fantastic creatures, known in German, as Fabelwesen or Fabeltieren.('en' makes a noun plural in German)


Some eleven or twelve odd years ago, looking through a book, I came across a drawing of an early medieval decorative motif for some metal object, in the form of an unidentified, (to me) rather contorted, creature in a roundel. I found it fascinating and wound up drawing him myself. That led to to the concept of creating a carved chest somewhat following after the manner of a small casket in the MET, which has a series of roundels with animals. With this idea in mind, I began making up additional creatures that might suit the purpose.

My dabblings with Fabelwesen. Somehow, they seem to fit more
appealingly in a roundel. They are numbered in the order in which they
were drawn over a couple of days. Number one is the one that started it all
and I believe number three was at least partially inspired by an historical
creation as well; the rest were figments of my own imagination.
The little casket from the MET which was the second part of the inspiration
for this project

That chest is yet to materialise, but in the autumn of the year of this initial conceptualisation, the organisers of a local event asked me to do some demonstrating. I decided to try carving one of my creatures, which I had recently finished drawing. In my wood-rack were several planks of pine left from a project, and as it was rather soft, seemed like a good wood to make the carving "easy". (As it turns out, carving pine is not particularly easy, - no forgiveness in grain direction and it is easily dented - oak would have been a much better candidate)

The carving progressed slowly over the course of the one day event, and by the end of day, his head and part of his body were defined inside a circular perimeter, his tail was also fairly well finished. After that day, however, he spent more than a decade in storage, almost completely forgotten.

Recently, in need of some material for a project, I was rummaging in the storage and happened upon this unfinished work. As I had been trying to think what meaningful gift I could give to my friend, Steffen, for his birthday, this suddenly presented itself as a good candidate. I got the carving out and took it back to my shop. It took me parts of four days to complete him because I completely re-carved every last millimetre in order to get the background much deeper than it had been. I "took a picture" of the piece as it was, but like many times before, there was no memory card in the camera, so no picture of how he was at that stage.

By the time I realised there was no memory card in the camera, the carving
was almost complete. The exposed dark colour is due to the 12+ years of
waiting in the storage building to be finished. Another plank of timber
 partially covered it, resulting in the lighter coloured upper half.

As I like to do with this blog, a bit of historical context to these imaginary creatures is warranted. I have no idea of the origin, and have not found any pre-medieval examples that show a very close connection, though there no doubt are such prototypes. The Gundestrup Cauldron shows on the "exterior plate A", two lion/dog looking creatures. Perhaps this is part of the tradition that eventually was codified by the early Middle Ages. The earliest versions that I know of, come from the 7th and 8th centuries. I do not profess or pretend to be an expert on the topic, however; the purpose of the following is simply to show some examples of the evolution of one branch of the Fabeltier through the course of the Middle Ages.

These characters, here shown in an 8th century iteration, will continue
in the ever changing styles throughout the course of the medieval period

It is hard to say what they are, or if they were actually, originally intended to be a real animal and, over time, became so stylised as to become Fabeltieren. Whatever the earliest intentions, by the 8th century they were already canonised as decorative repertoire for almost any ornamental purpose.

Amiens BM MS Lescalopier 030 fol 10v 4. V. 12jh Weissenau

In this late 12th century manuscript, from Weissenau Abbey, God is depicted creating the animals and fish on the fifth day of creation. (Latin; "Dies V") The interesting thing is that the "animals" portrayed are all mythical creatures. The "sea dog" and flying "sea lion" both have faces similar to our character.

Kölner Diözesan- und Dombibliothek MS Cod 83ii Fol 146r
798 (Detail)

Petrischrein, Domschatzkammer Minden
Carolingian Enamel plate re-used in an 11th century reliquary

Sometimes these creatures take on more of the characteristics we would ascribe to our notion of "dragons" such as those shown in the last example above, but often both these and dragons are shown together. Generally, the dragons will have thicker and often split tails, as well as wings, whilst the other, unnamed guys have neither of those.

Sometimes they take on more lion-like features, whilst other representations have them more dog-looking. My Fabeltier is a nice mixture of the two, which is also often found, as is exemplified in the following French miniature of the late 12th century. (middle left)

Getty MS Ludwig XIV 2 fol 126r um 1170-80 Umkreis Paris

These creatures seem to be prevalent throughout Europe, with slight regional artistic nuances, but generally recognisable as stemming from the same tradition, they can be found in all types of surviving artworks from as far apart as Spain and Norway.

Anglo-Saxon Stone Fragment from Jedburgh, Scotland, 9-10th cent.

North Italian or French Capital, now in the Louvre, 11th cent.

From a former frieze of Cluny Abbey, 12th cent.

Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Ministerialbibliothek Ms Min. 15 fol 45v
ca. 1100

One of my favourite characteristics of a sub-group of these creatures are those with a propensity to bite something (fruits, flowers, vines - see the Jedburgh stone carving above) or even their own backs or tails. In my opinion, they work best in a rounded fatter form, such as that shown in the Cluny fries-fragment above.

(A not very good picture of a detail from the) Basler Antipendium (altar)
now in the Musee de Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages) in Paris
1st decade of the 11th cent., gifted to Basel Cathedral by Emperor Henry II 

In this roundel, the creature is biting his foot, which is another version of the biting theme. This is the sort of image I had in mind when designing my creatures for the box.

Taking advantage of some nice afternoon light to have a look
at the progress of my own carving

Once my animal was carved it was down to thinking about how to finish off the whole thing as a stand-alone piece of art. I took a cue from 12-13th century ivory mirrors and put "ears" (stylised leaves) on the four corners. In all, I think it worked out good. Once it was all done, I rubbed it down with some abrasive leaves and linseed oil, then I put it in the sun to give it a bit of a "tan" in an attempt to eliminate the piebald effect from a decade of being half buried and half exposed. I should mention that Steffen's Christmas gift to me aided my carving of his birthday gift; he gave me some very narrow carving chisels which worked great for getting into the gap between the border and the feet and rump. (1.5mm)

My Fabeltier - finished and delivered

Monday, May 11, 2020

CNC Machine

CNC is an anagram for "[real] Carving Necessitates [carving] Chisels"
(Carving Necessitates Chisels)

In the last post, the roof and one leg of the chest had just been finished. That was more than four months ago. Wow, the time really flies! Even though nothing else has been posted, I have not been sitting idle on my medieval projects.

I finished up the legs around the end of January, but then went out of town to do a job, anyway, they did not seem significant enough to warrant their own post. When I returned, I sawed up some panels (by hand) to for the sides and then started carving here and there as time and work permitted. They will eventually be fit into grooves in the the posts, but I decided to do the carving before doing the mortises on the panels, so that I would not accidentally break off the shoulders whilst carving.

7th century box lid and corner posts

7th Century box, the carving is underway. In the background one can see a
print-out of a Langobard panel, in the Church of Santa Maria, Civita
 Castellana, in Italy which I based my panel on.

7th century box, completed front panel
this depicts a wild boar hunt

7th Century box, Front panel detail. I love the way the frantic activity
of the dogs have been portrayed, albeit in a rather impressionistic way.

In the original Lombard panel, there was one additional standing figure and the trees extended further to the right, over his head. The scene was nearly perfect for the format of my box, but if I had made it exact, that figure would have been cut in half. The solution was to space everything just a bit wider, eliminate the forth figure and then shorten the branches of the tree so they fit within the space. This still left an unsatisfactory void to the right of the last figure. Taking a clue from the original artist, who had too much space below the spear-man, and thus left that area uncarved, I did not carve the right-hand edge straight in order to not have too much blank field beside that figure.

Red line showing what would be a straight edge to the field

In carving this panel, I realised that there is a lot more detail than one notices at a glance. I also realised, that even though it looks "simple" it is technically nearly as complicated as any "classical" carving. There are many subtleties which are not readily obvious, but where details are important to the scene, they have been rendered with care, such as the horses' bridals and trappings. Another factor which greatly increases the complexity of the process is the depth to which the background is sunk. If this were shallow, it would be fairly easy and take much less time, but the ground is sunk, in the scale of my work, at about 7 to 9mm. It is not easy to remove and clean out corners and small places at that depth but this was a very common characteristic of early medieval relief sculpture so I followed it.

I considered posting about this panel once I had finished it, but decided that I could get the next one done fairly quickly. "After all", I thought, it was "just circles and flowers, mostly" (I never learn) which should be fairly easy to carve, right? It took me a lot more time, again in large part due to the depth of the grounding. This panel is patterned after a panel which is, or was, in Berlin, but came from Rome, originally. I have no idea if it survived the war because I can find no modern mention of it, the original of what I used (found on an internet archive site) was taken "before 1920".

7th Century box, back panel nearing completion. I draw the simpler elements
directly on the wood, but the birds, which are more complex, I drew on paper
and then pasted that to the timber.

The original from which I based my panel on (It is marble)

7th Century box, back panel. I chose this design for two reasons, number one,
I liked it, and number two, because it worked perfectly in the space that I had
to work with. I believe this was a large factor in determining a lot of original
medieval decoration, not so much in the supposed meaning that modern
art historians and analysers want to attach to them. 

It is true that some symbols and patterns had special or significant meaning, but artist have always worked with and influenced decorative trends. It is no accident that much art of the 6th through 10th century utilised interlacing straps and bands, because this was one of the stylistic trends of the times, but like most other elements of design, sooner or later,  even long-winded popular elements fall out of fashion and are discarded. I came across several early medieval panels, with designs similar to my box design, which had been re-purposed in the 16th and 17th century. Apparently the busyness of the grooved strap-work was offensive to 17th century taste, however, and the panels were ground flat enough to remove all or most of the grooves.

Detail of a defaced 8th century marble panel incorporated into a
17th century altar in Chur Cathedral, Switzerland
I chose this part because it most clearly shows that it formerly
had the two grooves dividing the strap into three lines.
Sadly much of the detail of other elements, not so easily imagined,
were also forever obliterated - all in the name of contemporary taste.

Because I believe there is no particularly significant or special meaning to the design of this panel, (It is ornament, for ornament's sake), I felt no reason to rigidly adhere to it. (Besides, I hate blind copying of anything) I did notice, however that there seemed to be some thought given to the layout of the original design, and possible evidence of a "screw-up" along the way. In the bottom row, the same basic bird is repeated, in the same position each time, but every one of them has its own details which sets him apart as unique from his neighbours. In the middle row, there is a deliberate act of alternation one fruit and one rosette, throughout that grouping. Each flower and fruit is again rendered unique to itself. The first has 8 pointed petals, the second 7 with alternating pointed and round, and the third has all rounded tips, again with 8 petals. Two more rosettes in the top row are also individual.

The top row is where some seeming randomness and lack of reason is found. It begins with a bird on the left and ends with a bird on the right. I believe that the artist was like me, and was a bit dyslexic and confused by odd and even numbered repeats. If one has an odd number of objects in a row, the first and last can be the same, but if there are an even number of repeats, then what is on one end, cannot be on the other, leaving a bit of asymmetry to the overall design. (I have made this mistake myself in trying to lay out patterns) It is my belief that the artist wanted to have a bird on either end of the design but was also intending to alternate bird and flower. He began by carving from the left side, at the bottom, following his plan, as he progressed, however, he made adjustments to it. I deduct this from the fact that the first two "fig leaves" in the bottom row, and the first one in the top row are simpler than the others. As he worked on the design, he realised that his scale was large enough to give the leaves more detail, and so he began doing so. When he got to the top row, for some reason, he skipped to the far end, and again carved a bird, forgetting that a rosette should finish up the row begun with a bird. Once the mistake was begun, there was no way of correcting it.

Since I am speculating and hypothesising, and there is no way to "prove" or disprove my theory, I will go one step further and point out the second from the left element, which is not a "rosette" as I have named the others. One would say that it is a "Cross" and so it may be, but it may also fall into the general "flower" designs, and was used because the artist could not think of any other variation on the rosette than what he had already used.

It is interesting, however, to see that both the "flower" element and the "cross" element go way back in history. I have found evidence for both of these motifs in Assyrian art from at least 2000 BC. It seems, according to what I have read, that the cross within a circle represented the rays of the sun as obscured by the moon in an eclipse. As time went on and artists did what artist do best, the design was modified to include circles or dots within the void created by the quadrants of the crossed arms, and then the dots gave way to swirls in Celtic art. I have seen many variations on this theme from Celtic, Assyrian, Dacian, Scythian, Etruscan and Greek art, all long before the adoption of this symbol as the central motif of the Christian religion.

Two Greek Vases, one showing Celtic influence in the cross ornament, the
inside of two Etruscan cups, and a Celtic metal ornament, all showing this
as a form of decoration from several hundred years BC

Cross-shaped ornament

Since by the early Middle Ages, this cross motif had been adopted by Christianity, this was an appropriate element to incorporate within a panel intended for a church, but was in no wise intended for anything other than decorative elements within the broader field of ornamental work. It was simply part of the contemporary artists repertoire.

Videre Scire

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Chipping Away

A year and three months ago (almost) I did a post on my theories concerning the making of a roof-shaped box or chest lid out of a solid log section. I had hardly had time to touch it after that until October, when I decided that I really wanted to get back into one of my medieval projects; it had been so long since I worked on any of them. (I have several underway thanks to my ADD - most of which have been featured at one or more points in this blog.) After finishing the painting of the moulding that I had been working on, I had almost a week before the installation was scheduled, so took advantage of the time to take up the lid project again.

The lid as it was in September of 2018

Once I got started on it again, it was easier to pick up a carving gouge and have a go at it at any moment I could spare, thus, about two weeks ago it was mostly finished. I have even begun the box itself, but that will also take quite a while, as it will be carved to the same level as the lid. Sadly, I did not have any more of the ash, so I will be making the box out of walnut.

Bellow are some pictures of the lid as it is at the present; two years after it got started.

Second end

Back side. This is a "textile pattern" made to represent woven cloth

Current view of the first end and front

The winter light is not very ideal for photographing anything, but that is what we have to deal with right now. Bears are much smarter than humans, they go to sleep and wait for spring.

Carving the back was somewhat amusing, because I chose a "simple" design. Many surviving 12th century boxes have simpler and/or textile designs either painted or carved on the back, and all of the early medieval boxes I know of, have simpler designs to their backs. Using that information and a lovely 7th century textile pattern, carved in stone and now found in the museum in Metz, I came up with a pattern for my lid. The amusing bit is that it may look simple, but the time to carve it was no less, and perhaps actually wound up being more, than the design on the front.

Inspiration for the rear of the lid
And as it turned out after carving

The designs for this project are taken from surviving 7th century Merovingian or Lombardisch stone carving. Some of the patterns are also echoed in metal and ivory-work of the same time period, which leads me to believe that had any wooden box survived from the same time period, it well could have had similar designs carved onto it, and thus my lid is a faithful reproduction of the possibilities of the time-period.

This lion was the main source
for my lions; adapted to the
carving style I am using

Additional designs and sources for border decorations/
All of my border designs were taken from 7th century sources

I had begun this side in December of 2017 and in September '18 when I posted
about it for the first time I had done some more. More than half , however, was
done this October. Even areas which had been "finished" were re-done because
the grounding (background area) was not deep enough. The darker areas
are still from my original efforts of two years ago.

European areas which had been occupied by Roman civilisation still retained many of the "classical" design elements in the 7th century. These styles were actually never completely eliminated and show up to more or lesser degrees until the Renaissance, when there was another deliberate attempt at wholesale imitate the art of classical Rome. (there had been at least two prior efforts at this, in the 9th and the end of the 10th/beginning of the 11th centuries) Most of the designs for this lid have some connection towards that Roman tradition, as did the stone reliefs from which I sourced the designs, however, as with a lot of my original source material, there were also "Migration People's" design elements interspersed. Such is the case with the "Flechtwerk" or woven band on the top of the lid.

Flechtwerk, "Woven-band" ornament on the flat top of the lid

As I said, the box itself has been started and here is a sneak-peek at one of the legs. Again, In Italy, France, and much of Eastern Germany, the 7th century still much more resembled Roman society than it resembled the arts architecture, culture, and styles of modern people's general conception of "medieval" Europe. (which is mostly that of the 13-15th centuries) Thus this leg is right in keeping with that fading classicism that would have prevailed in much of 7th century Europe.  

One of the legs, taken from a
7th century stone sarcophagus
found in France
(there are actually several
similar designs, not just a
single example)

Sunday, November 24, 2019


This house will probably never be "finished" but the installation of the mouldings which the last post was about is now finished, anyway. There were 27 section of moulding, each about 2.4 metres long, it went into the passageway, a stair vestibule and another small vestibule which connects to the end of the main passageway.

Below are a few pictures of the results.

Stair vestibule

A joined corner

Small vestibule
The pattern had to be cut down and joined in the middle in order for the
corners to meet up properly

Another view of the small vestibule

One end

The other end.
The possibility of the corners in both ends lining up was very low and
creative sculpture work had to compensate for the fact that the pattern
did not line up nicely

However, the overall view of it looks fine.

A reminder of what it looked like before this round
And how it looks now (from the opposite end)