Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fine Quality in Early English Art? Definitely!

The early (and often even later) artwork of the British Isles often gets a bad rap. It seems the general notion is that due to its separation from mainland Europe, it tended to develop styles and habits unique to itself, and these were usually more “crude” and “primitive” than what was developing on the Continent. This post is not the place to discuss the long and complex inter-connection between the islands and the mainland, and their interdependence and stylistic influences, which were in play back into prehistoric times, but I want to knock a hole into the wholesale notion of the idea of backwards and primitive works being the norm of medieval England.



Though broken and pitted, this is still a very beautiful glass bowl
from the recently (2003) discovered 7th century Prittlewell grave.
As I have said before, (and doubtless will say again) every region and time-period in history has had it more and less skilled artisans; this, coupled with the fact that not every client wanted to pay for the most outstanding work for every project he or she commissioned, led to the fact that one will always find finer, and less skilfully executed work, from any period and place in history. It is worth remembering that Charlemagne imported many English artists and craftsmen into his court.

The British Isles are a long ways from Rome and Greece, the two most prominent cultures and sources of stylistic influence of the Early-Modern period of European history. If one accepts the notion of “Helenistic” art and architecture as the cannon by which to judge all other works of art by, Insular products will not appear the same, and thus can be deemed as more “primitive”. One must consider the fact, however, that as with all styles and fashions, even those people in the Mediterranean Basin, grew tired or bored with their own styles, and developed new ones, which held under the microscope of “idealistic realism” fall short of the mark, and thus can also often be termed “primitive”. Even in the cosmopolitan center of Constantinople the art of the classical world was supplanted by less idealistically "perfect" designs  in a seemingly deliberate move to create a "modern" form of art, differentiating itself from that of the classical 'pre-christian' world.

My research and the topics of this blog primarily focus on the first two thirds of the medieval period. The Insular (British Isles) artwork from the first half of this period is what I wish to focus on in this post. I have no intention of defining or defending “primitive”, and “non-primitive” art at this moment, rather, I want to point out several works executed in an assorted variety of materials, and over a period of five hundred years of history, to show that even in the more remote corners of European society, fine works of art were being produced by talented and skilled artisans.

This notion of the inferior quality in British craftsmanship is long and complex, and perhaps on a psychological level, partly stems from some deep seated subconscious inferiority complex of the English people themselves. The notion that French furniture and fashion was superior to that of the English was at least twice foisted on the people of the British Isles by the French, in the 11th century, and again in the 17th and 18th. However, since there was such an inter-connectedness of these peoples, this distinction was primarily psychological and political. Somehow, though, the English people seemed to buy into it, and even wear it as some sort of perverse badge of honour.


Both of these pieces were created by English artist, in the same year
Originally the lower one would have been painted and gilded. Most
likely, the top one was painted as well.

During the 17th century, much simple and rustic oak furniture was produced in the provinces of England, and this furniture has become ubiquitous with the notion of English furniture. It completely ignores all of the fine pieces that were also being produced at the same time period for the court and the nobility. Ingo Jones and Grinling Gibbons certainly did not produce “crude” products. Somehow, this notion of simple, self-reliant, rugged English furniture got romanticized by the Victorians and the idea was applied to the Insular work of the middle Ages as well, in part, perhaps as a way of attempting to distinguishing themselves from the French.

In the book, Early English Furniture and Woodwork, written in the early 20th century, by the English furniture historian Herbert Cescinsky, is written a comment, regarding a particular piece of 13th century furniture, that it could “not possibly have been made by British craftsmen”, because a moulding plane had been employed in its construction. Here was an Englishman both accepting, and promoting the idea of his country’s own inferiority, insofar as craftsmanship and technical capacity was concerned. I guess he never went to Westminster or saw the Coronation chair which was made in 1296!

Edward's Coronation Throne of 1296, carved, moulded, painted and gilt.


Most people interested in medieval English history tend to get hung up with either the early Anglo-Saxon period, (4th through 8th centuries) romanticizing over the hoards of jewelry and martial implements unearthed over the past couple of centuries, or the Post Norman Conquest period (1066 for those of you who have forgotten your history) and all the armour and weaponry of the High Middle Ages. This almost completely leaves 300 years of history in the dark, largely dismissed as crude, primitive, and backwards.


Gold and garnet fitting for a belt from the Sutton Hoo grave find. 6th-7th c.


Given the quality of early Insular grave good, from places such as Sutton Ho, there should be little wonder that people romanticize over the this period of history. The quality of workmanship and craftsmanship of a vast number of artifacts is undeniable. What I would like to point out here, however, is that those skills never vanished from the People of the Isles. From a period not long after that of the Sutton Ho hoard comes another artifact worth mentioning; a small (127mm long) reliquary casket, now in the Anton Ulrich Museum of Braunschweig, which is known as the Gandershiem Casket, and is originally from England. 


Detail of the Gandersheim Casket showing the finely carved detail.
8th century. (the portion shown in this photo is bout 60 mm in width)
Sure, it is not Greco_Roman classicism but there is no denying the
quality and beauty of the craftsmanship even before considering the 1300
years of wear and abuse it has undergone.

From about the same time comes an ivory panel of another casket, this time found in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München, but also originating in England, and demonstrating a superb level of craftsmanship. One can only wish that the entire box had survived, instead of just one side. This panel has design elements like those on the famous Easby Cross, and other English stone crosses, and shows the probable quality of those carvings before 1300 years of erosion took their toll.(although this panel also shows considerable wear to the high details.)


Back (?) panel of an ivory casket now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum
München. 8th century

St Cuthbert was a monk and later a bishop in the country of East Anglia, during most of the 7th century. He died in 687 and when he was buried, (or possibly shortly after) his personal copy of the gospel of St John was buried with him. Happily, that little book survives to this day, and is now housed within the collection of the British Library. It is another testament to the ongoing quality of the English craftsman, as no finer execution than this could have been done even in the 18th century.


A small but very well made 7th century book, with applied
gold leaf decoration, now in the British Library, was buried 
with St Cuthbert in or around 687.

For those who like metal work, I have a couple more examples. On display in the Ashmolean Museum, in the UK, can be found the so-called Alfred Jewel. This used to be the end of some sort of pointer or reading aid, and was made as a gift and sent by King Alfred, probably to the head of Athelney Monastery in the late 9th century. When one sees a picture of this, he might be tempted to think that is it crude, because the figure is not very life-like. I wish to point out, though, that the entire object is scarcely larger than a man’s thumb, and that the figure inside was created by soldering little gold wires to a flat plate, filling the resulting cavities with powdered minerals, fusing those minerals into glass, and then flattening and polishing the surface, and finally cutting and grinding a piece of clear rock crystal into a beveled tear-drop shape and overlaying the enameled figure with it. After this work was finished, a body was fashioned from gold, and the letters spelling out, in old English, “Alfred had me made” were cut out of the sides.  A Dragon’s head was fashioned for the end of the object, the beast’s mouth serves as a means of attaching it to the stem that served as the actual pointer. This dragon’s head is also fashioned from gold, and is finely wrought, and covered with gold wires and tiny gold beads less than the size of a poppy seed. In all, this is a superb work of craftsmanship, even though it may be made in a less than “classical” style. It is also worth noting that this jewel was produced during a time of great unrest, due to multiple and continuous viking raids and plunders of Alfred's kingdom. 

A reader once took issue with my suggesting that jewelers "faceted" stones in the early medieval period, yet that is precisely what was done her, no rock crystal has such shape and form in its natural state.


The 9th century Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum
This is believed to be the handle of a pointer, and is believed to have been
 commissioned as a gift by king Alfred the Great (reigned from 871-99)

Another piece of work coming from about the same time, is the famous “Fuller Broach” now to be found in the British Museum. This is a round, slightly convex metal plate with figures and animals created in silver and nielo. (A jeweler’s technique of filling engraved areas of the design with fused carbonised metal to give dead flat black accent areas to the pattern.) Though the figures are not “realistically” portrayed, anyone studying the design can see the sure signs of a deliberate, accurate, and very skilled craftsman, working in the style that he was familiar with. The resulting product is one of timeless beauty and a sure testament to a craftsman of outstanding talent and skill.



Late 9th century Anglo-Saxon "Fuller Broach" in the British Museum,
originally it had hemispherical roundels in the center and at each intersection
of the cruciform shape in the centre


Whenever we see an object in a museum, we must realise that this is a single work of an artist who made his entire living, for whatever length of time he was active, producing similar or even more complex items. One does not suddenly, out of nothing, pick up a tool and create a masterpiece. It takes hundreds or even thousands of hours of practice and training under the eye of another master, who will guide him to learn to produce such objects. Therefore, even though only one thing might have survived until now, created by that person, we can be sure that there were dozens, if not hundreds more items created by the same craftsman during the course of his lifetime. This is an important thing to contemplate when examining my next object; The so-called, Litchfield Angel. This is an artifact comprised of three fragments of carved limestone; all that remain of a small chest or sarcophagus. The general scholarly belief is that this was half of an “annunciation” scene, and that Mary would have been on the other half of the end. What would have been on the front and the other end are left to wild speculation. The back seems to have not been carved. The object was "most likely" destroyed during the viking raids of the 9th century and remained buried until its discovery in 2003, under the nave of the Litchfield Cathedral.


Late 8th or 9th century Litchfield Angel, all that remains of a stone
chest. Originally this was painted in red, yellow, and white and
partly gilded. Traces of the paint still remain on it.

There has been a lot of debate as to what time period this chest came from, due in large part, to the fact that almost no other similar stone objects have been found. This tells us how thoroughly the ravages of time have erased most of the past, and should give us a cautionary note as to interpreting the past by what we have remaining. There would have been thousands of buildings all decorated with artwork, of various medium, but scarcely a single trace of any of it remains.  Though there are no other similar stone carvings which have come to light in the UK, there is an 8th century ivory panel (also in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München) but again originating from England, executed in a very similar style.  Though the subject is different, they share similarities of the over emphasised lozenge shaped limbs, the wave like undulation of the drapery, and the 4½ head height ratio of the figures.


Late 8th century ivory panel in the Bavarian National Museum

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 250, p. 515 9jh
By comparing the above two English works with this
Frankish illumination, one gains a glimpse of how universal many
 aspects of European artwork was, and has always been 

Both of these carved panels are also very reminiscent of late 8th and 9th century artwork, as found in illuminated manuscripts, such as this page from a 9th century treaties on astrology, from the St Gallen Monastery.



Detail of BL Harley MS 2904 fol 3v l V 10th century
A surprising amount of "realism" has found its way back into the artwork of this
time period, but notice that the dots and circular pattern to the cloth are
still evident on the weeping Mary's shoulder. (As well as on the not-seen-in-this
-illustration,, knees of the figures.)

Speaking of manuscripts, I love studying them, and one such work brings us to the 10th century, the end of the period of discussion for this paper, and my last piece of artwork for it. This is from the British Library and is known as the Psalter of Oswald. It was created in the last quarter of the 10th century. It is not necessarily the finest example of Insular art of this period, but it does show that the pendulum of taste had swung to a more "realistic" style by this time period. Instead of generic, expressionless faces, there are actual individual characters to each figure in this scene. 

I could go on with other examples throughout the remaining centuries of the medieval period, because happily, every age has had it superbly talented craftsmen, but I think these photographs give the general idea. Next time you see a movie with a medieval setting filled with ridiculously crude furnishings and drab clothing on the characters, remember that this is purely the product of someone's fantasy and that the reality of the Middle Ages was full of colour, and life and finely wrought products, created by craftsmen imbued with the same level of talent and skill as people of every century have been.



Videre Scire






Sunday, January 29, 2017

An 18th Century Style Inlaid Candle Box

I made this box a couple years ago - back before the inception of my blog. This past autumn it sold at the Waterford craft show; so this post is, in part, a chance to show to the kind individual who purchased it, a little "behind the scenes" look at the production process.

As with most things that I make, there was a picture which was the inspiration
for this project; found on a random web-search

The original 18th century box had charm but not enough flourish to be Johann-esque; it was a good source of inspiration, however.



Slabs of locust which will become the box; just enough for the project. Two
will be for the back, one for the bottom, and the last for the top. They are
long enough that two of the cut-offs will make the ends

In 1998 I bought a very large band saw for the purpose of re-sawing timber to make veneer and thin panels, such as these. (I sold it in 2009 when the economy went down the drain) When it was delivered I looked around for something to "try it out" on, and a chunk of locust firewood became the hapless victim. I had no idea at the time what I would do with the pieces once I sliced them up, and most of it got shifted around in my shop for 15 years before inspiration struck on what to use the them for. By that time, they had taken on a nice rich amber orange colour which I so much love in this species of wood. Unfortunately, all of that colour was lost in the planing; intense exposure to sunlight gets it back fairly quickly however.


Planing a glued up two plank panel for the back


Most people have fancy workbenches with lots of ways to hold and cramp their stock in place to plane it; I do not have such luxuries, so I improvise; a couple pieces of five millimetre plywood cramped to the top of the bench serve to keep things in place whilst planing thin parts.


Cutting the shape out for the back panel after planing

My method of trimming dovetails

There are a lot of ways of cutting dovetails and I am no expert at it, I manage to make serviceable joints. There are many ways to cut them and trim them; To work the area between the pins I use a square block to true up the edges with a chisel after cutting away the waste with a coping saw.



Pins and tails cut to match

Final assembly. Notice the worm-hole which can be seen in the second from
left piece in the photo which shows the rough cut stock; this hole might be a
"defect" to some, but for me it is "character".


Looking through several sets of pictures for various projects, I noticed a trend in my habits. I seem to take a lot of pictures at the beginning of the process but as the work progresses, I usually become more involved and forget about keeping up the photography. I have no pictures of making the hole in the back, carving the moulding around the edges, (it was carved with a gouge, not done with a "scratch stock" or plane), nor any aspect of making the lid.



This box and a few other pieces which were made during the same work
period of activity


As soon as it was done I knew that it was not done, because even with the slightly embellished moulding around the edge and the "fancy" hanging hole, it was still just too plain and I was not satisfied with it. I spent a week debating with myself about carving or inlaying the front panel. I did not even attach the bottom because I knew I would have to do more work before I could give it my "seal of approval" or sign my name to it.



Cutting a channel for the inlay


In the end, the inlay idea won out. Nearly as old as the planks which were used for the box was a block of inlay that I had made up to do a restoration project on an 18th century chest of drawers. I made up the individual pieces of ebony and maple and cut and glued them together, then re-cut and glued them up as necessary to achieve the desired pattern. I cannot locate any pictures of my process of making that inlay but below is a picture which shows various stages of different patterns made in the same manner.




Pictured above are various inlay patterns in different stages of production
below that is one of the original 18th century drawers with a piece of the
same inlay banding inset, before colouring to match the original


Finished box with inlay banding; now it looks right

Showing the lid open

I did not plane the back because I wanted to leave the original aging colour
which 15 years of standing around the shop had given to the wood.
When a small piece is finished it gets my logo; larger ones get a signature
and date

Another view which highlights the hand-made character


Locust is a difficult wood to plane because it tends to tear and the fibres are very "stringy" If the grain goes the wrong way you are liable to get a very long splinter ripped out before you know it. The best way to plane the stuff is across the grain, then scrape it with a cabinet scraper to smooth it. This leaves a somewhat undulating surface, but that is fine with me. It is these characteristics which cannot be achieved by machine work but compel me to make my things by hand in the first place. I do not strive for 'dead flat perfection', because I find no beauty in 'overly perfect' objects. They look machine made, and I find no real beauty in them; wood is a natural thing, and part of the beauty of nature is giving the appearance of perfection, but not actually being perfect. The subtle waviness, and variation are what give life and vitality to nature. They are also what makes hand made objects so beautiful, desirable, and worth making in the first place.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Exercising to Stay In Shape and Improve

Most everyone knows that the best way to stay fit is to exercise. I know it, and I also know that I hate doing it. Exercise for the sake of exercise is incredibly boring and even tedious to me. Fortunately I enjoy working so I do not need to exercise so much; I also love dancing, and as long as I make sure to get on the dance floor a few times a month, I get enough aerobic exercise that I do not need to do push-ups and jumping-jacks. I have recently realised that my attitude to the exercises of carving and drawing, though, are much like my attitude towards physical exercise. To me it has always seemed pointless to just carve or draw with no apparent purpose (as in, not producing something). I also have realised that, metaphorically speaking with regards to carving, I am very flabby, and need lots of exercise.


Exercising.
I have always liked drawing with a Biro, I usually use black ink but this
blue ink looked nice on Manila paper.


When I was working on the drawings for my moulding project, I realised that even though I know the general look and feel of Rococo design, I am very illiterate in the language of this style. The artists who developed this new art of the 18th century were constantly surrounded by the types of ornament which led up to it, and were surrounded with these elements every day. They also worked in shops in which they were employed doing carving or plaster work on a daily basis and thus were very adept in this type of work. I, on the other hand, grew up in a world where most people almost never even see anything carved let alone are fluent in the language of a particular period of artistic taste. Because of my lack of fluency, if I want to design something I have to pour over books looking for pictures of things that looks similar to what I wish to make and then try to adapt them as best I can. I get very frustrated at my inability to transform from my imagination to physical reality in this style.



When I was making this hanging shelf I really struggled with the design for the
carving; in the end I just fudged it as best as I could. It works for anyone
who is not intimately acquainted with 18th century art, but it would not fool
any serious art historian. (good thing I was not trying to)

It has recently occurred to me that one of the ways I can improve my abilities in this regard is by the simple act of exercises. In drawing classes one of the biggest obstacles which students must overcome is the inability to let the eye observe what is actually there instead of letting the mind dictate what it thinks it sees. The best way to overcome this problem is to keep drawing things and forcing the eye and hand to focus on the details. This is useful when it comes to carving as well, I see a leaf, a flower, or a "c-scroll" and think I know what it is, but since I am not fluent in the language my end results are very much like a person learning to speak another language; no matter how much thought he puts into what he says, and tries to remember what he has learned, he will still sound like a foreigner learning to speak another language. The only way to become fluent is with lots of practice - Exercise.



A lack of proficiency and rustiness in the field of drawing means that I need
lots of exercise 
Exercising
I do not like New Year resolutions and thus never make any, but perhaps an
unofficial one this year is to spend more time drawing and practicing.
After all, I call myself an artist.



I have been doing a bit of exercise this week with the aim of more careful observation of the elements of 18th century French design, because I would like to be able to 'speak' more eloquently in the art, and realise that my best efforts are currently not much better than "Me Tarzan, you Jane". I have come across a couple of artists over the past year (Patrick Damiaens and Alexander Grabovetskiy) whose carved works puts me to shame; it also gives me inspiration to try to improve my abilities and therefore I must get into the 'gym' and get busy doing some exercising.

Doing these drawings actually helps in two ways, I learn to observe the details of design better and I practice my draughting skills at the same time; the more beneficial exercise is, the less tedious it can seem. I know this is no masterpiece, and will never hang in a museum, but one can still feel good about his work if he has put honest effort into it and works with the aim of always improving; never being happy with remaining the same. Sometimes it is difficult to get better at doing something, but anyone who does not wish to do the work required to improve himself certainly will not.


Exercising
One of the best ways to keep at an exercise program is to be able to see
results. It feels good, and gives one something to feel good about.


Happy New Year

Sunday, December 25, 2016

One Thousand Years of the Christmas Story - A Century by Century Look at one scene from the Nativity

Being that it is Christmas and all, I thought that it might be nice to trace the story, as portrayed in art through the period know as the Middle Ages. Therefor we begin with the 6th century and end with the 15th (though my preference would be to end with the 6th because I like the early medieval period so much more). There is so much artwork on this topic that I have chosen to focus on the subject of the "Adoration of the Magi" also know as the "Three Kings" or the "Three Wise Men". This is a subject whose earliest surviving examples are from the 3rd century. It is also doubtless one strand in the evolution of the trend of giving gifts at Christmas which has become the major theme of the holiday for most of us.


A panel from a 3rd century catacomb sarcophagus now in the Vatican Museum


Most art histories will say that this subject "first appeared" in the 3rd century, but that, in my opinion, is a misstatement because not all of the artwork from the 1st century onward has survived, so unless we are able to examine every single piece that was created (which, obviously we are not) then we cannot categorically say what was or was not "first done" in any period. All we can say with any degree of certainty is what the oldest thing we know of is.



6th century depiction of the "adoration of the Magi" from Ravena
this image still follows very much in the manner of 3rd century
Roman (not Byzantine) models.

(On the topic of art historians, they also love to cite examples such as that above as being Byzantine, yet the model this clearly draws from pre dates the Byzantine Empire. Historians seem to often forget that "Byzantine" art was Roman art which slowly changed as the two halves of the empire drew apart.)

As I mentioned, the intent of this blog was to trace this topic, century by century, through the course of the Middle Ages, but I sort of faltered in the 7th century. For some reason, the ravages of time seem to have been extra hard on things produced in that century. There was plenty of artwork, and architecture produced in this century, but subsequent unrest and the (un)luck of the draw seem to have dealt this centuries artifacts a heavier blow. For example, there are a number of fragments of illuminated manuscripts from the 7th century, including a few that most likely originally would have contained a depiction of this subject, yet none have survived.



Late 6th century example. This cover is very similar in style and layout
(including the irregular shape of the top and bottom sections) to the 9th century
Lorsch Gospel cover, The 9th century example was worked with much more
precision so perhaps this example and that are both derived from another
example which no longer exists.
This example almost comes from the 7th century, (705) and almost shows the
Adoration scene, however it is only a fragment and only one arm of one king,
offing a box to the Christ-Child survives; it comes from Santa Maria in
Cosmedin, Rome.


The fact that there are many examples from the 8th century tells us that obviously the subject was not lost in the 7th, yet I completely failed to locate a single example in any medium from the 600's. The closest I came was a late 6th century example and another from 705 so there is a gap of about 120 years in the story. The fact that 8th century examples are found in places as far apart as Italy, Spain, and the UK, however, tell us that weather any have survived or not does not mean to say none were produced;  it also shows that the imagery was widely dispersed.


8th century Franks Casket showing the Adoration of the Magi

From the first half of the 8th century comes a fantastic ivory box, known as the Franks Casket. This is an example of the "accidents" that have determined what we have left of the Middle Ages, and how they came to us. It seems that in the first half of the 19th century the silver mounts on this casket were considered more valuable to the person who was using it as a sewing kit, than the box itself, and thus the mounts were removed and exchanged for a ring!

In this example we can still see evidence of the original Roman model of the subject in the form of the baggy trousers which the Magi are wearing. As with most early medieval artwork, regional style shows up more in the execution of the subject than in the format. (this is still basically the same model used since the 3rd century, but the Insular style shows up in the ornamentation and simplification of the design.) Another wholly innovative idea is the whimsical use of the duck, I find the little guy very amusing.

Made sometime between 744 and 49 this altar comes from Lombardi Italy 

The style of this altar is not so strikingly different from the Franks Casket though it was made on the other side of the continent, so to speak. It is my own opinion, but when I look at this sort of sculpture I am strongly minded of the metal-work produced at this time and cannot help but wondering if it was not originally covered in gold foil. From the grave finds of this period, we can see that gold work was one of their most prized achievements, and the peoples all across Europe seemed to value this sort of work; it would only seem logical to me that an altar of great importance would have been gilded, as were later examples which still retain their gold foil coverings. (gold, gilded copper, and even gold coloured silver were all used to ornament all manner of objects of the "Migration Peoples" of Europe)


Embossed gold foil ornament made as a burial offering (7th century)


Lest one think that all of the artwork of the early Middle Ages was of this "crude" and "primitive" style I include this next example of a fresco fragment from a church in northern Italy, executed also in the 8th century at approximately the same time as the altar above. This fresco comes from a cycle which also included the Adoration scene, but it is, unfortunately not as well preserved. By comparing these two styles, we see that the "crude" and the "naturalistic" were matters of taste and choice, not so much a lack of presence of skill. This is further told out in the 9th century artwork, of which we have much more to go on. Based on the examples from the time of the Carolingian Empire (began ca 768 with the crowning of Charlemagne) we see that these two styles were both in evidence, and very much in use, but began more and more to be incorporated together into single works of art. The Migration Peoples continued the tradition of their Celtic origins, and the people of the romanised provinces continued in the tradition of Roman art, but as the centuries passed the Migration tribes began to see themselves as "Roman" and thus continued the art of that culture along side their "own".



8th century fresco from Castelsepiro, Italy. This is part of a Nativity cycle
and depicts the "flight into Egypt", an event which was necessitated after
the visit of the Magi, who had first visited King Herod, looking for
news of the birth of the Messiah. (he did not take kindly to the news)

The next two examples, from the 9th century, show us how firmly entrenched the original 3rd century model still was at that time. Both of these examples are from ivory boxes, one from Germany and the other from France. They exhibit the individuality of the artists who created them but still follow the original example to a high degree.




Top; mid 9th century casket from France (now in the Musee de Moyen Age)
Bottom; ca 800 panel from the Werden Casket now in the V&A


It might have begun earlier, and most probably did, but the earliest example which I found which begins to show a deviation from the original model comes from 10th century Spain.


10th century Spanish example

This example falls into the category of the "crude" and not much excuse can be made for it. Not everyone who did artwork had the same degree of skill, and time has often not left us with the best of what was produced. In this example, what we are seeing is a move away from the examples of the Magi wearing short tunics and loose trousers which were the distinctions made in the original models, signifying the Middle-Eastern origin of the Three kings. Also gone are the Phygian caps, but no crown or halo is yet found on the figures.



Top; Byzantine Menologion of Basil II, ca 1000
Bottom; Benedictional of St. Æthelwold
BL Additional 49598 ca 975

In both of the last two examples we see the manner of dress changing to keep up with the times and regional style, (these come from Constantinople and Winchester, and once again demonstrate the near universal iconography of early medieval art) but it is worth noting that they still have some nod toward the original trouser form of leg-wear.



A lovely carved door from Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Köln ca 1056
The top right panel depicts the Adoration, on the left the Magi speak with
King Herod, in the lower panel are the scene of Joseph's Dream and the
Flight into Egypt. This is an exquisite example of the state of woodwork
in the 10th century 

An orphaned illumination from a manuscript in the style of
the Bamberg Codex etc. from the first half of the 11th century.
It is now in the J Paul Getty Museum

The 11th century saw a continuation into the contemporarization of the costumes, but the basic format is still there; three kings presenting their gifts to Mary who sits on a large chair and holds the Christ Child. At some point along the way the Phyrgian cap had given way to crowns, another indication that the iconography had slowly been shifting away from the notion of "Eastern Kings" and was being replaced with generic kings, contemporaneous with the place and time of execution.

As early as the 4th century there was a wide variety in the examples of the objects which the kings were depicting as presenting as gifts. There is everything from indistinct balls, to bowls, cups, boxes, pyxides (cylindrical boxes) and large oval platters (?[in the 4th century church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome it looks to modern eyes as if they are offering pizzas!]) As time went on, this tradition generally held until the 14th century when urns, covered cups and monstrances became the usual objects.


A very much reproduced image, this
12th century ivory panel, now in the V&A
originates from Spain.


From about the same period comes this stone fragment from
Czechoslovakia, demonstrating the still near universal trend in
style and evolution of imagery across the continent.
From an exhibition  in the Schnütgen Museum in Köln comes
this 12th century German enamel plaque which in form and
style is very much like the previous two examples.
If any new trend can be detected in the 13th century perhaps it is the loosening up of the grouping of the three Magi, they are not always so clustered together and there is a tendency to give each person a bit more individuality. Their manner of dress and their crowns continue to reflect local styles, but overall the universalness of the format still holds.

From a church in a small town in Denmark comes this altar; the Magi have
been split up in order to fill two panels

From the Badische Landesbibliothek come this illustration
from around 1220 (MS Bruchsal 1 fol 11r) still very much
in the style of the 12th century

From St Mary's Church Black Burton mid 13th century. About the only thing
that has changed here is the changing trend in the style of crowns.
Notice here is an example showing that the mundane white walls we are
so accustomed to seeing were not original to medieval interiors of
even the simplest of buildings


In the 14th century we began to see a trend toward more "lifelike" examples and more innovation in the interpretation of the composition. I put the lifelike in quotations, because while they may seem more naturalistically rendered, they are still formulaic to the trends of their time and place of execution.



Early 14th century French Ivory

Late 14th century German Altar Panel by
Meister Bertram von Minden

Adoration of the Magi,  Pietro Lorenzetti ca 1335-40
The Italian Renaissance began in the 13th
century and led the way in the idea of incorporating a
naturalness into paintings that had mostly been absent
since the 9th century.

Old habits die hard and even though much of the iconography has disappeared, in the Italian painting some things persist. All of the Magi, Christ, Mary, and Joseph are still portrayed with halos. Although Mary is no longer seated on an elaborate chair, her status as "Queen of Heaven" is belied in a way which might well be lost to most modern viewers, because the rich indigo blue in which she is clad was reserved for the wealthiest of nobles.



English alabaster carving mid 15th century
Just as wooden sculptures were originally
painted, so too were stone carvings.

Adoration of the Magi, Mittelrheinischer Meister ca 1400
More of the medieval tradition still held in the Northern Kingdoms but
even here the hands of time were ticking and the middle Ages were over


In much of the medieval artwork, the various scenes associated with the Nativity, such as the shepherds, the Magi, and the birth in the stable were pictured in separate frames, but as time went on one finds more often multiple scenes combined in one image or object. In the last two examples we see the animals associated with the stable under Mary's chair in the first, and we see the scene of the shepherds in the background of the second. This was still very much read at the time as being two separate scenes, but this trend continued to develop in time until we reach the point in history when the Shepherds, the Magi, and the birth are all combined in a single scene and we find it in front of every church at Christmas time to this day.




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