Sunday, March 26, 2017

Some New Carving Gouges

About 10 years ago, (maybe more, time flies so quickly) I bought around 30 assorted carving gouges from a blacksmith in the Philippines. His facilities were quite rudimentary, but the products which he produces are not bad. He uses old leaf springs for the steel and real charcoal to fire his forge. He has an electric grinder with dozens of different wheels to grind the inside profile of the gouges. Some of these are in better shape than others.. Over the past however-many years, I have taken the time to sharpen and handle around 8 of these. I use them right alongside all of my Pfeil tools, and though they need a bit more frequent honing, honestly, they work just as well, so long as they are kept sharp. This morning, I got busy and did two more because I really need a finer V gouge and a small fluting one. All of the gouges I have sharpened so far were done because I needed that particular profile.

Bent V gouge and  straight fluting gouge blanks,
both are 4,5mm

The grinding stones pose the biggest challenge; their profiles leave a lot to
be desired because they do not follow the outside edges very well, 

An assortment of oil stones and slip stones used to sharpen and shape the gouges 

I learned a very useful sharpening technique from Chis Storb, who works as the furniture conservator for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He grinds the heel of the V gouge back quite a bit so that there is not so much metal trying to jam itself into the cut which the tool is making. It makes a huge difference. Below is one that I have not gotten around to re-sharpening that way, and the new gouge which I just did, using this method.

"Out of the box" bevel, and a re-ground bevel which lessens the drag caused
by too much metal on the heel of the gouge.

It always amazes me the difference a few extra passes on the strop will make. The gouge marks on the right of the photo below, were done when I thought they were sharp. It did not take long to see that they were not. A few more passes on the inside with a shaped piece of wood charged with oil and rotten stone made all the difference, as can be seen by the gouge marks to the left.

Testing the gouges on some old white pine. I purposefully used this wood
because when it is old and brittle it will tear even if fresh wood would not.
My strop is to the left.

A chunk of mulberry from the firewood pile will give a nice pair of handles

Bringing the handle to shape

2 Sharpened and handled gouges, ready for service.

Another handle from years ago; the mulberry will take on a nice colour
which is why I like to use it.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Bit of Gold Leafing

Last summer I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Passing through one of the rooms that had nothing medieval in it, I paused to snap a quick shot of an early 18th century staircase balustrade which I found fascinating. Since my purpose was searching for medieval things, I did not spend much time looking at it, but later, on going through my photos I was especially attracted to the finials on the newel posts. One evening, over wine and cheese, my clients and I were looking through these pictures together and they were also impressed with the finial. They asked me to create a set suitable for their staircase.

Zooming in on the original (horrible) photo I took of the

The MET had a much better picture on their website

Because the size of the original finials are slightly more than twice the size of mine, it was necessary to make some adjustments to the design. One example is that the original has raised dots on the segments of the 'head' but they would have been very difficult to make on the scale I was working with so I opted to make indentations instead. They are carved with the gouge and then punched.

A ompleted finial and another, sans base, in the background;
These are less than half the size of the originals

I still have not gotten around to gold leafing my 9th century candlestick that I made almost two years ago. It was supposed to have been a practice piece for doing some gold leafing before jumping into my client's project. Sometimes life does not like to follow our plans, and I have gone through several hundred leaves of gold doing things for the client already. Until now, however, all of the leafing that I have done has involved the process of painting on a ground, using a water based latex mastic and then applying the leaf. This method is much faster than traditional "water gilding" but the results are less spectacular.

True gilding involves applying a gesso ground which is made from gypsum and hide glue. To get a good base, several coats must be used, and sanding and scraping must be done between each coat to remove blemishes whilst maintaining the details of the carving. Once the gesso is finished, a further two or three layers of "red bole" (yellow is also sometimes used, but I like the red) is applied. This is basically the same as the gesso, but red brick dust is traditionally used. The purpose is to give a tough smooth surface which can withstand the pressure used in burnishing the gold. The animal glue in the bole becomes tacky with the application of a little water, (hence the term, "water gilding) allowing the leaf to adhere to the object being gilded.

One finial with a layer of gesso and two with sizing; ready for the
first coat of gesso

I am sure I did not invent this method, and most probably many other people have used it, but as a way of eliminating a couple steps in the above mentioned process, I thought of another way that might give the same results. I used a mixture which in medieval times was referred to as "glaire". This is a mixture of size (very thin animal glue) and egg white. This can be brushed on like latex mastic and, so long as it stays wet, will work the same. One difference, though, is that you cannot disturb the gold until the glaire has dried, but once dry, the gold can be burnished to a bright lustre.

Partially gilded finial

Completely gilded.

My intent was to gild some areas to be burnished brightly, and then do the rest with the faster latex mastic. This would give "highlights" to the gold and create more variation in the colour. 

For the second one, I decided to burnish the base as well;
the results are spectacular
(I wound up doing two with each method)

Once the gilding is done, I add a bit of transparent dye
to give the gold a bit more 'gold' colour
it actually looks pale and dead to me without the glaze

Another thing I like to do is add a bit of burnt umber glazing to give more definition to the colour and add some more character to the piece. My clients and I have very similar tastes in gilded objects, so this if fairly easy for me. They are delighted with the results. 

A finished finial

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Something is Missing...

Last March I tried to watch the movie Macbeth on a flight from Bangkok, but the director had chosen such a bleak, drab, crude, grey setting for the movie, that I was not able to enjoy it, and after about 20 minutes, gave up watching. The problem, as I saw it, was that it was so inaccurate to the reality that my research has shown, insofar as the clothing, furnishings, and architecture were concerned. It was not enough that nearly everyone in the film was wearing black, brown, and drab grey, they even reduced the colour saturation in the outdoor settings to make the vivid, beautiful green Scottish landscapes appear drab.

My research has shown that medieval people loved colourful and highly decorated surroundings and objects. Modern people go into museums and see plain, dry, grey and brown wooden furniture, drab unfinished stones, and unpainted plaster and assume what they are looking at must have been how things were when they were made. Almost any reenactment setting you will see supports this by exhibiting unadorned unfinished wooden furniture as well. To me, this contrasts greatly with the fact that almost anything we find with even a hint of its original finish, shows us that even among the most remote and primitive communities, some form of coloured ornamentation was used. Wealthy people had gold, silver, jewels, and a wide range of dyes and paints to chose from, but even simple people used the natural colours around them to create yellows, reds, greens and browns, in combination with black and white to achieve a lively degree of colourfulness.

A nice example of a 14th century chest? The wood is all there, but what
about the way it was finished?

I think I borrowed my first picture for this post from my friends at St Thomas Guild, taken at Cloister Isenhagen or perhaps Ebstorf. (I forgot) It shows a "clamp-front" type of chest, probably from the late 13th or 14th century. Any medieval enthusiast, including myself, would be thrilled to own such a piece of furniture even though it is very rough and worn. Though it is a fantastic piece of furniture, I believe it looks almost nothing like it did when it was newly made.

Here, posted below, are two pictures which illustrate my point using modern objects. (It was not easy to find two pictures of the same vehicle taken at the same [almost] angle.)

1931 Studebaker Dictator, now
A 1931 Studebaker as new. 

Whilst the form and most of the basic components are still there, obviously there is a huge difference between the cars appearance, as it currently sits along the famous "Route 66", and what it looked like when it rolled off of the assembly line in 1931. Might the same not be applicable to something which has been used and abused for 600+ years? I would venture the answer is, "yes".

I mentioned St Thomas Guild a moment ago; they recently posted a link to the Norwegian University Museum's photoportal. In this website you can enter a variety of words (in Norwegian) or museum numbers and see a vast array of medieval objects, mostly from Norway and Sweden. This site was of interest to me for the purpose of finding high resolution images of some of the altar panels which I know to be in abundance in Norwegian museums. (I was a bit disappointed in this regard, as there were not that many in the database.) My search, however landed a few other gems, both real and figuratively, which I found interesting.

Door from an "altar cabinet" 13th century. The original
yellow of the robe and halo has faded to a dull colour, but
enough of the ornamentation remains to see that this was
once a very finely decorated door.*

The picture which primarily sparked the inspiration for this weeks blog post was this cabinet door from an altar shrine. It comes from the early 13th century, and is very reminiscent in style to the drawings of Villard de Honnecourt; quite firmly grounded in the Universal Gothic style of the 13th century. The sad part is that the rest of the cabinet which the door belonged to seems to no longer exist, but the good part is that the door itself is in a very fair state of preservation, considering its age. By comparing the painting at the top with that at the bottom, we see that some of the subtle details which gave the illusion of depth and form to the vegetal elements have worn away, and there is some chipping and flaking to the paint, but we can well see the beauty that was achieved by the use of paint on what would otherwise have been a dull, ordinary, flat wooden panel. Modern taste is perfectly happy with plain flat wooden panels (or even plastic ones - horrors!) unadorned white walls, and bare stone, but we should not try to project our modern taste onto history.

I have mentioned in previous blog postings about the way paint and ornament can be erased by time through the debonding of the gesso undercoat, so this post is a bit of a repeat on that theme, but also an expansion on it. As I said, nearly every medieval object which has any semblance of its original character shows us that people of the Middle Ages loved colourful things. Here are two very different artefacts which help to illustrate that. The first is a shard of pottery from the Norwegian database. It shows that the pot it came from was decorated in earth-red, yellow, green, white and black. Very different from the ubiquitous drab grey crockery we usually see in settings such as the previously mentioned movie. The second comes from a manuscript in the library of Engelberg, (Codex 3, folio 157v to be exact) This manuscript was written in the middle of the 12th century, and is very interesting for the fact that several of the parchment sheets used for it manufacture had tears in them; rather than discarding these pieces of velum, someone very creatively stitched the slits together with various coloured silk thread. It is evident that the repair is contemporary with the book because the writing avoids these areas. On the portion of a page I have reproduced here, there are yellow, copper-orange, green and wine (rose madder) coloured threads, one other colour of red, another of green and two of yellow are found elsewhere in the manuscript. This shows both a level of creativity and the love of colour which I have mentioned.


Two very different types of objects found thousands of kilometres from one
another, but both showing that even comen objects were enhanced
with colour even if in simple detail

I mentioned the way that a gesso ground can dissolve and leave a completely blank surface to what had been quite a vividly ornamented object. The database revealed many other objects which illustrated this problem to a greater or less degree. Below are a few more examples, and my commentary on them.

Another altar cabinet, this time from the late 15th century. Note the
simple use of stars and lines to enliven the blank areas and the frame to
the doors. Observe the bottom to see what remained once the woodwork
became damp and the paint flaked off.*

This detail comes from a late 12th century sculpture. It shows a section of
Mary's chair. I included it because we can 'almost' see how this chair would
have been decorated. The pale yellow-green paint has a dark layer over it
which would have been painted in such a way as to make foliage; the lighter colour
showing through. There is a band left plain, which has been enhanced with black
'dots'. Below the knob can be seen the remains of a blue-grey and a black stripe.*

Notice the areas where dampness has entirely obliterated any
trace of the paint to this altar frontal. Scroll-work like that seen
in the spandrels could very well have been used to enhance the
decoration of chests, boxes and cupboards,*

The Borre Cross
Arm of a crucifix which has lost its Christ figure and most of its decoration.
Enough remains to reveal that it was brightly painted, as well as partially
gilded. (the carved vine scrolls and the lion which is missing its wing). The
carved lozenge shapes were also gilded and probably originally had
coloured glass inserts, imitating gems. Red, green, blue, yellow and black
were used to decorate this, as well as gilding; in all, it would have been
a very vivid object.*

Not all objects from a given time or place were created equally and there have always been more and less ornate things created. Another cross from about the same time period and geographic location illustrate this variety. This cross relied much more on paint than it did on carving for its ornamentation, and so would be much less interesting were all of its paint gone. Happily, enough has survived so that we can envision its original condition. It also illustrates the way what now looks like a plain unadorned object could have originally been very elaborately ornamented.

Base of a crucifix showing the loss of paint due to moisture*
Left arm of the same cross showing better preserved decorations (again, the
original yellow has faded to a dull buff colour) Red, black, white and
blue-grey were the other colours used on this piece.*

Not every object was so highly ornamented, whilst others were even more so. The determining factors would have been geographic location, money invested in the project, and the value the user placed on the intended object in the first place. On a whole, Norway would have had less highly sophisticated objects than things produced in Rome or even Köln, at any given period, but that is not to discount the quality of created objects in the former mentioned country. Even though Norway was remote and had less contact with the rest of Europe, it was not altogether left out, as the styles of ornamentation on these objects clearly demonstrate. 

On the other hand, Norway was a remote place, and historically, one often finds much more primitive conditions there. Subsequently the objects from these regions are also often much more "crude" than one might find in more urban areas of Europe. Regardless of the remoteness of an area, however, the same basic principle still applies; people did not like plain, unadorned objects. Here are two more objects which illustrate this point.
A section of paneling from a wall. It is only decorated
with black spots on a white ground, but still clearly
shows that no matter how primitive, people still wanted
ornamentation to their surroundings, not bare unfinished
wood and stone.*
Thousands of this sort of enameled shrine were produced in various centres
of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. Normally they were much more ornate
than this (though this is the back, which was usually less ornate than the front)
but it shows yet again, that even if expenses were to be spared, ornamentation
was nonetheless employed.*

With this information, let us come back to the chest at the beginning of this article. There is no way to know with any certainly exactly how it would have been decorated, but it is a safe bet to assume it was painted in some manner. The degree and quality of that painting would mostly have been determined by the amount that the owner wished to spend for the project. By studying other artwork and objects of the time period in which it was made, we can make some educated guesses on its original ornamentation. The stiles or "legs" might have had some vegetal or floral ornamentation to them, perhaps as on the inside of this Italian chest dated 1290.

A chest from Venice, dated 1290 shows again the destruction that time has
taken to a formerly very ornate piece of furniture. Incidentally this chest
was not first prepared with a heavy coat of gesso, which has allowed some
degree of the painting to survive as it was not thick enough to all scale off.

Most probably the arcades would have been filled with figures; if the chest was used in an ecclesiastical setting, they would have doubtless been saints, apostles, or the Virgin, and the Christ, or a combination of all of them. Given the proportion of the arches, there would most likely have been two figures beneath each. If the object was for secular use, it could have had figures from a romance, mythology, history, or contemporary persons.

Depending on the quality of the painting employed, the columns and arches would have been painted to represent architecture, either simply or with multiple colours, patterns and shading. (Notice how the above door panel achieved dimension to the drapery of St Peter simply by the use of black lines of varying thickness; more like a drawing than a painting.) Surely the semi-circular shapes at the bottom of the columns would have been filled in to represent a column base, and the usual method of doing this was to paint it with some sort of acanthus inspired design such as this cross terminal from an altar baldaquin of one of the Norwegian stave churches. (This is now in the Bergen Museum). Variations of this sort of base were used in paintings, sculptures and illuminations since at least the 8th century, and were extremely popular motifs in the 12 and 13th century artwork throughout Europe.

An acanthus terminal to a cross arm. This sort of terminus was very popular in
Romanesque and early Gothic artwork.*

This leaves us to ponder the detail of the remaining area of the chest. Again, the quality of its decoration would have had a lot to do with the end result. On the simplest level, it would have been a solid colour with dots, circles, stars or other simple ornament, (or it could have had some sort of grid pattern like the reliquary casket pictured above). Below is another example of this sort of simple work, from a 13th century baldaquin over a sculpture of the Virgin. (again, from Norway)

Stars and simple floral shapes painted in a single colour add decoration to
an otherwise plain area *

Were a more ambitious programme employed in the decorative scheme, perhaps thin scrolling vines like those seen in the altar panel depicted above would have been used. Another possibility could have been a geometric pattern like that in the background of the picture showing the detail of the cross arm. This was a very popular design based on interconnected circles which leave a nearly square area in the centre of each. This pattern can be found in everything from floor tiles, to wall ornamentation and jewelry; as with everything else, simple quickly executed examples exist along side of very carefully worked, multi-coloured versions. Below are more examples of fill work, used to ornament blank or flat areas of design. 

Fleur-de-Lis, and leaves from an early 14th century
chest in the MET. Notice the colour change on the recently
exposed areas of blue.

From another Norwegian altar frontal, this shows painted gems and an
imitation of figured wood. Note also the wavy two-tone green, and white and grey
 borders. This was a popular enamel technique which was also often imitated
on painted surfaces. The buff coloured areas are gilded though this picture
does not very well reflect that fact.*

More vine and scroll infill design, Also an acanthus roundel (damaged)*

This is a border from an early 12th century Spanish wall fresco and shows
another popular border treatment which could also be used on uprights such
furniture legs and columns.

Two colour ornament; the relatively thick scale is due to the size of the
ornament; this is a very small area in an illuminated manuscript.

Another fragment of an object, again a baldaquin from a Madonna sculpture.
This exhibits once more the use of colour as well as quick line ornament to
enhance an otherwise plain flat field. Green and gold originally trimmed the
arch, bordered by a thin line of black. Once again the yellow has faded to buff.

Until now I have been discussing painting as a means of enhancing furniture and other wooden objects, I do not want to give the impression, however, that I believe all wooden objects were painted in the Middle ages. Late medieval artwork by painters such as Van Eyke and Campin clearly infer that furniture could be left unpainted (though it says nothing about varnish, wax or oil). To what degree this was true cannot be determined, only that it existed. Furthermore, These paintings mostly show the possessions of the Flemish bourgeoisie in the first half of the 15th century, and therefore cannot speak for the remainder of Europe nor the rest of the medieval period. Other painters of the 14th and 15th centuries, painting in a somewhat "realistic" style, such as Master Theodoric of Prague, usually depict their furniture as being painted or gilded. Even one of Van Eyek's chairs, in the same basic form as all of his others, is depicted as gilded, because it is occupied by Mary, "Queen of Heaven" not a merchant class person. Some wooden objects were made with intarsia, marquetry, and veneers, and obviously they would not have been painted, so a balance of many sorts of finishes including natural wood, would be the most probable conclusion. 

Furthermore, though paint was a very common treatment for wooden objects, it was not the only means of ornamentation. Cenion Cennini mentions using eggshells to ornament (think low cost mosaic); cloth, parchment, leather, gold leaf and even beads were also used. Another type of ornamentation, used in connection with gesso and paint, was the art of applying moulded low-relief (usually) ornaments, also made of gesso, to the object before painting and gilding it, as is seen in this detail of a sculpture in the MET (and found in hundreds of surviving Italian "cassone" and picture frames and altars from all over Europe).

Red, yellow, and two colours of blue, along with three dimensional gilded gesso
originally decorated this French sculpture chair from the mid 12th century,
 now in the MET

I mentioned intarsia as another means of decorating wooden furniture and the Museum database did not disappoint in that regard either. Here is a 14th century (?) wax tablet, "booklet" which was originally decorated with a geometric intarsia pattern. It was a shame that I could find no coloured photo of it, but I know of other objects made with this technique from the 12th and 13th centuries. Once again, moisture damage could entirely erase any trace of such ornament from a wooden object.

A multi-leaved wax tablet (with its last writing still visible) shows the remains
of a very nice intarsia pattern. I have no idea of the precise date of this object,
it was only listed as "medieval", but other work like this exists from as early
as the 12th century.

Last of all, many wooden objects were covered in metal foils. There still exist, examples of this type of work from every century of the medieval period, in which all or most of the metal has been ripped off for its scrap value, (copper with gilding or silvering). We can usually know that the object in question was covered in this manner because some of the foil was carelessly left on, or by the shape and context of the object. (a shrine in a church) but how much private furniture would have also been ornamented in this manner? It is impossible to answer the question, but I feel confident there would have been such items, especially from the earlier part of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne had, according to his will, four tables "made of gold and of silver" with scenery and ornamentation, but surely these were wooden objects with foil coverings.

Once again, the ornamentation of the object completely transforms the
wooden object, It is surprising how little the nails effect the wood. An object
originally covered in gilded foil which no longer had its covering might be
hard to detect, and nearly impossible to distinguish from one which had been
covered in cloth or leather.*

In closing, it is impossible to recreate an accurate reproduction of something in which you have no original to go on, however, it is still important for the sake of history and those looking for answers, to be aware that the dark ages were not nearly so "dark" as modern popular culture (largely influenced by 18th and 19th century notions that everything before the present was "crude" and "horrible" -  A quick example comes a story concerning the famous Bayeux Tapestry which was used to cover military wagons during the French Revolution. Mark Twain is also reported to have commented that it was made by rank amateurs.) would have us to believe. Certainly there were many things that were crudely made, but that fact neither began nor ended with the middle ages. Crude things have been produced in every age and in every country right up until this very moment. One thing, however, that we should be sure of, was that regardless of the crudeness or fineness of medieval objects, they were highly decorated in some manner (even the smallest and simplest of objects), and above all, colourful in a natural organic way.

* All photos marked with an asterisk were sourced from the Norwegian University Museum's website though most have been cropped and all have been re-sized. They are used with the intent of education and research for the enlightenment of the general public.

Videre Scire

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.

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