Sunday, September 17, 2017

Studying at St Denis Cathedral

As those of you who regularly follow my blog know, about a month ago I went to Europe for a study tour of some cathedrals, palaces, and museums. One of the places I visited was St Denis, an important historical place for much of the history of the French people, located in the suburbs just north of Paris. This basilica is noted for its importance as the "birthplace of Gothic Architecture", as it is the first place where "all the elements of the Gothic style" first came together. (There is a 9th century manuscript which depicts a "Gothic" type pointed arch; the importance here, is the "all the elements" bit.)



One of the capitals in the south-west of the choir depicting a pair of dragons



This basilica was rebuilt (for at least the third time; its origins as a chapel go back to the 4th century) by Abbot Suger, beginning in 1135. The choir of his newly renovated structure was complete by 1144, from which the capitals discussed here, originate.

When I was studying these capitals in the rather dim light, I saw traces of red paint on some, including this one. (the camera sees things more clearly than I could; it was a cloudy day). If you look carefully, here, you can see some hints of red on the moulding of the capital and on the tips of the dragon's wings over their heads. (it looks like reddish highlights) I asked an attendant if it was OK to use a flash, and was told that it was. (in some places it is forbidden, so it is better to ask permission if you do not want to get told off by someone) I then went and took more pictures of the capitals knowing that once I looked at the photos the colours would show up much better even if I could not see them at the time. They certainly do, as you can see from the next photograph. (you must enlarge it to see any real detail)


A similar capital, taken using a flash, showing green, red, gold, and
a hint of dark blue or purple along with lots of traces of the lime used over
the stone in preparation for the painting. (the white areas)

It is important for people to realise that these buildings were never intended to have bare grey exposed stone walls. When a church was first built every surface would have been covered in a layer of white plaster and then paintings would be done on the walls, the moulding and ornaments would have been painted,  and frescoes would have been done on important areas, such as the ceiling, and nave. The degree and quality of the decoration would have been determined by geographic location, its patron, and the amount of money those involved were willing to spend on the project. (not based on the time period in which it was built!) An important place such as St Denis would have had lavish decorations to it, incorporating lots of gold and silver along with a wide range of available colours. I have supplied another shot of part of this same capital below, with coloured arrows corresponding to the same colours, pointing to some of the areas where that colour is discernible.


The yellow areas point to places which were covered in gold leaf. The white
areas point to some of the places where the lime under-layer still remains
(much more of that is still visible in the preceding picture)

Basically, this capital had green dragons with red shading, and gold wings and it had leaves of red with 'highlights' of green, a term refereed to by medieval artists as being "shot". The idea was to give a look such as is seen in the Caladium (elephant ear) plant, (this plant is originally from Asia, but has been known in Europe since the Roman era) or iridescent silk fabric, which shows two colours and has been used since ancient times. (Bellow is an example of a man wearing such a garment from a 10th century Italian manuscript.)


A caladium plant, green leaves "shot" with red



Depiction of an iridescent silk garment, 10th century
The fact that this is a deliberate colour contrast to imply
iridescent silk is demonstrated by the fact that the blue
cloak is not shaded and highlighted in the same manner.


Here is a bit of silk showing what the artist had in mind.




Iridescent blue and red (fuchsia) silk

Think that is far fetched for 12th century art? Think again. That is why I am going to the trouble to mention and demonstrate this; because so many medieval enthusiasts and even scholars are unaware of the technical sophistication that existed in many parts of medieval society. 

There is a small collection of medieval writings on the various disciplines of art which have survived in various forms to our time. Two of the most well known are Cennino Cennini's Il Libro del'Arte (the book of art) and Theopholis' On Diverse Arts, but there are others such as Heraclius, and an unknown compiler who's work is called Liber Diversarum Arcium (book of various arts). All of these books, and a few more, either complete or fragments, have material compiled of information known to the writers at the time of their work, and spanning many preceding centuries. Some of the passages in these books have even been handed down since Greek and Roman times, as has been shown by the relation to certain passages from surviving works of those eras. Most of these works deal with the topic of "shot" drapery in their chapters on painting fabric, as is shown here, from Il Libro del'Arte. "If you want to make a shot drapery for an angel in fresco, lay in the drapery in two values of flesh color, one darker and one lighter, blending them well at the middle of the figure. Then, on the dark side, shade the darks with ultramarine blue; and shade with terre-verte on the lighter flesh color, touching it up afterward in secco" (dry). In other words, here, he is making a pinkish silk which is "shot" with blue colours, but on the lighter parts of the blue it becomes aqua coloured. He also mentions adding highlights to the flesh tones with white to further model the drapery. This is not something new from the 14th century, as many scholars have proposed, but is probably nearly as old as silk weaving itself.

I am mentioning these things because, for one, there is some bit of evidence of this type of work done in St Denis, (some figures on some of the altars have evidence of this type of painting technique as well as the already mentioned plant leaves), and secondly, I want people to be aware that the bare stone walls, and unfinished wooden furniture so much on display and in film and television was not the reality of the Middle Ages. In writing this, I am giving the hints, as I have found them, of some of what used to be.

Back to the capitals, which are the topic of this post, bellow are given a few examples from contemporary manuscripts of similar dragons. These will demonstrate, in a two-dimensional way, how artists would have seen dragons such as these, and give an idea of how they might have been painted. Medieval artists were using a combination of work they had seen in other places and pictures they had in books as reference for their own work, (no different than what artists do today) so images such as these would have influenced the way three dimensional objects were decorated.



Gilded dragon, enhanced with blue, red and green; before 1056.
Part of an initial "Q" from a manuscript produced in Freising, Germany.

A gilded dragon with blue and (formerly) silver leaf accents. (the grey colour
used to be silver leaf; most of which has corroded away.) Another initial "Q",
also from Freising dated to 984-94

A yellow, and two tones of green dragon, from an early
12th century German manuscript.
In this less expensive manuscript, yellow paint stands in for gold leaf.
Three intertwined dragons in gold, green, blue, red and white forming the
top of an initial "P". This manuscript comes from Rochester, and dates to
the first half of the 12th century as well.

I chose to first show two earlier examples of dragons of a similar design to those in St Deinis to demonstrate that whilst the construction of the choir might have been new in 1140, the designs for the capitals certainly were not. One example is from some 150 years earlier and the other from around 85 years earlier. I also deliberately chose examples from other countries, (Germany and England) to show the wide-spread range of these designs. Art styles and techniques evolved much more slowly in medieval Europe than it has since the 15th century. These days, it is possible, due to the rapid changes in style, to date most things within a few years, but for most of the middle ages, much of what was produced cannot be positively dated closer than within a couple centuries unless a date or event is somehow attached to it.

It is sad that so little of the paint is left on these capitals, but the fact that any at all survives is actually the real wonder. One must consider that, although they are indoors, and therefore not exposed to rain, wind and snow, they are certainly not protected from all of the elements. Every year in the spring and autumn, and sometimes during the winter, there are cold days followed by warm ones; on these occasions, a stone which was cold, and then is exposed to warmth begins to "sweat", as the condensation in the air accumulates on the surface, as seen in the picture of a piece of slate, bellow.




All the bright spots here are water drops caused by a cold stone exposed
suddenly, to much warmer weather


All of this repeated heating and cooling with the accompanying moisture will ruin almost anything over a period of 900 years. Cennino Cennini mentions this problem in his book, whilst treating the topic of painting and gilding stones, by telling the reader to prepare a special buffer of varnish and charcoal (which he calls a "mordant") to be applied to the stone before the gilding and painting occurs. " In explanation of the purpose of applying this mordant, the reason is this: that stone always holds moisture, and when gesso tempered with size becomes aware of it, it promptly rots and comes away and is spoiled: and so the oil and varnish are the instruments and means of uniting the gesso with the stone, and I explain it to you on that account. The charcoal always keeps dry of the moisture of the stone". This method probably helped to some degree, but the fact that so little paint on stone is left, testifies to the fact that even this method did not last forever. It is also likely that, as with all good ideas that are more time consuming and expensive, people often dispense with the implementation of said methods in favour of expedience or cost savings.

Also in St Denis was an altar retable from about 100 years after the completion of the choir, which retains considerably more of its paint. This can be explained by reason of the fact that an altar would have been given more care in its original preparation, and thus had a greater chance of surviving, coupled with the fact that it would probably have been given a little bit of cleaning and maintenance which would also have helped it to survive. In this piece, we can again see the use of colours, how stone carvingss were originally painted, and the use of gold as a key part of the ornamentation.


A 12th century altar retable showing scenes associated with the birth of Christ
Much of the paint has been lost, but with the aide of the flash, one can still
discern enough of the colour to get an idea of how it originally appeared


There is much to be learned by visiting and studying ancient places, but it is also important to study other sources of information to get a broader overall picture of what it is that you are actually looking at. By studying artwork, and written material, we can gain a broader sense of the environment in which the remains we are studying originated. It is good to go into a church and take a few pictures and appreciate what is left, but it is better to study and try to understand what it would have been like when new and realise that all that remains is a shadow and a hint of the former glory and splendor of that place.



Videre Scire





Sunday, September 3, 2017

9th Century Box - It is Still in Progress

I was astonished just now when I looked back through my posts and saw that it has been 13 months since I posted anything on my box project. (here is a link to that post from July 2016) Even though it has been that long, there has been a bit of movement on it from time to time. I had wanted to finish up the back before posting about it again, but the time keeps running and I do not want the project to go completely cold.

I am not sure why I didn't take any pictures of the second scene whilst I was working on it or when I finished it, but I never did. This one was taken today after I did a bit more fussing with it, as can be seen by the lighter areas.
Proetus, king of Tiryns


The back panel of this box will have five scenes from the story of Bellerophon, this is the second scene in which He goes to meet with Proetus, a king in the Mycenaean realm, seeking forgiveness for a crime he committed. As with medieval artists, I searched for existing models to guide my work. In the 9th century (and for many centuries after) People did not draw from life, they used other pictures, or relief sculptures as a guide and source of inspiration. The fact that art styles continued to change tells us, however, that artists still used their own creativity and the influences of the styles around them in creating their own work based on those models. An example of this method can be seen from the way I used the following image from the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter as a model for my Proetus. (This Psalter is the model for most of my images on this side of the box)

A king on a throne, but this scene has a religious context, as evidenced
by the gospel book he holds on his knee

I carved most of this scene back in April, but did not finish it until last week. My museum adventures in Europe gave me the inspiration to get back to work on the project again. I have been so busy with my job that I have not been able to work on the box, but I decided that busy or not, I will make time for this project at least once every two weeks so that eventually it will get completed. I am ahead of the game, because I worked on finishing up the Proetus scene and began the next scene last weekend. This week I continued where I left off and worked another six hours. (about all my neck can take bent over working on such small detail) I took a Picture of where I was when I started today.


The beginning of scene three


In the Story, Bellerophon meets with the king who wines and dines him as a guest. Later in the story, he goes to king Lobates who is Proetus' father-in-law, who feasts with him for another 9 days. Instead of doing two separate banquet scenes, this one stands in for both. This is a typical medieval practice of combining events of different places and times into a single scene.



Two hours later

The further I progress with this carving, the slower the work goes because I keep going back and working over previously "finished" areas. Such was the case today, so much so, that nearly two of the six hours I spent went into "cleaning up" previous work. After looking at the pictures taken for this post, I can see several areas that will require more work the next go-round as well. Sometimes one sees things in the photos that they did not notice in life.



Another hour gone by; the drapery is complete and the table has begun


About an hour after this picture, the sun came around the corner of the workshop and provided perfect lighting to show off the carving (and lots of areas that wanted fixing!)


Dramatic afternoon sunlight; perfect for carving, but it only lasted half an
hour before disappearing behind the trees


Though I am mainly using the Stuttgart Psalter as the model for this project, it does not serve completely, because there are no scenes of people feasting at a table in the manuscript. I find this quite odd considering that the Utrecht Psalter, (another of only four still existing 9th century examples) has at least 20 scenes with tables. In fact ,that was where I turned for a model of my table in this scene. Some people might find it shocking, given that we are constantly being told that "medieval tables were comprised of planks of wood set on trestles" (sometimes they were, but this is mostly a lot of rubbish) but early medieval tables continued to follow Roman forms, and thus, many tables had lion-formed legs and were of a round 'tripod' type as the one pictured below.




Into the first half of the Middle Ages, tables continued to follow Roman forms
this illustration comes from the 9th century Utrecht Psalter


In doing this project I have also been consulting actual ivory carvings from the 9th century to try to get a sense of the way an image would have been translated from a two-dimensional drawing to a three-dimensional relief carving. I found this image from a book cover in the Aachen Cathedral treasury quite useful.



A carving of people eating at a round table; Note that there are
no legs pictured on the table. This became a trend and is especially
prevalent in 10th through 12th century artwork, and very exasperating for
someone interested in medieval furniture.
(obviously the table had legs, it was just a fad to not bother picturing them)


As the sixth hour drew on, my neck began to tire and I made a couple of stupid (though minor) mistakes. I realised it was time to pack up for the day. Here is the panel as it stands at the moment. You can see I did a bit of borrowing from the ivory illustration for some of my figures.




The panel is a bit more than half finished now. I am in the midst of scene
three, but the final scene is shorted than the others so I have actually done
more than half of the length





.








Sunday, August 20, 2017

Return From My Trip

As I mentioned in my last blog, I went to Europe for two weeks; I just returned last night.

In a nutshell, it was a whirlwind tour, I visited three countries and passed through two more, but I was primarily in France and Germany. I stayed the first week in Paris and used the Metro (Underground) to get around, a system that worked very well and was always on time. The second week I hired a car and did all my traveling; 2431km worth of it, to be specific. I walked more than 150km and nearly wore the soles off of my shoes in museums and city streets. I also took lots of pictures; 9705 of them, to be exact. It will take me months to sort them all and I am sure at least 10 per cent of them will be thrown out, maybe more. Taking pictures with no flash in a dimly lit room can be a challenge. There were a few closed museums, or collections, and buildings partially, or even entirely wrapped in scaffolding that I had wanted to visit but was unable to, which was somewhat frustrating as well, but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and felt it was very much worth while.



Johann International and St Thomas Guild meet for some museum hopping;
pictured here in front of the Köln Cathedral
One of the highlights of the trip was that I got to meet Marijn from St Thomas Guild in the Netherlands. We met in Köln, (known in English and French as Cologne) to tour the St Maria im Kapitol church. This, and visiting some other museums were my reason for going to Köln in the first place. I also have wanted to meet Marijn since I first came across his blog about seven or eight years ago, and this seemed like a perfect place, as he had also never seen these doors. (The St Thomas Guild blog was actually the primary inspiration for me figuring out how to make a blog of my own).

St Maria is an important pilgrimage sight for anyone interested in medieval woodwork, as it houses the "oldest carved wooden doors, north of the Alps" (there are three older doors or parts of doors in Italy) There are older wooden doors fro Egypt and Syria, in the Louvre so this is referring to European doors still in their original buildings. These two door leaves that we saw were produced ca 1060, pre-dating them by a few years, to the Norman Conquest of England (1066) and just after the middle of the 'Middle Ages'. Aside from the lower section which saw the most weather and wear, these doors are in remarkably good condition, owing to the fact that less than 100 years after they were made an enclosed porch was added to the entrance where they stood, and in the 17th century, they were repainted, giving them additional protection. These doors stood in place and were used until the 1930's when they were taken down and the 17th century oil based paint was removed, revealing traces of the original resin based paint, visible in the pictures.


There is an iron gate protecting these doors
so no picture like this can be taken by the
public, this picture was scanned from a
postcard.


It is important to consider the various things that this single unit of medieval artwork can actually teach us. First of all, no one does work of this nature and scale unless they are very proficient at it, and one cannot become skilled in such work without having done a lot of it. These doors, then speak of an entire career of artisans (more than one worked on it, and doubtlessly an entire workshop of artists was at work at it). Though there may be no other carved wooden object surviving from this workshop, it tells us that once there would  have existed all the work produced in the lifetime of that shop, concentrated in and around whatever region these were originally crafted. Furthermore, since medieval craftsmen learned on an apprenticeship basis, these doors speak of yet another artist's workshop and all of its products as well. 



Though much battered from nearly a millennium of age,
missing some pieces, and much of its paint, these
doors still bear witness to an almost entirely vanished
world of technically sophisticated and accomplished
medieval woodcarving of the highest order.


There are several carved wooden boxes and chests from the late 12th century which survive in various European museums, all of the carving on these are very similar in quality and style to this 11th century door; this informs us that woodworking of this calibre was an ongoing and regular feature of medieval life at a time when most people assume anything made of wood to have been "crude" and "primitive". These doors look to me anything but primitive.

It is a fortunate fact that some of the original paint has remained on these doors, enough to show us the colourful method of ornamentation utilised by medieval craftsmen. It may be more popular or fashionable to have simple clean unadorned things at the present, but this was not the taste of our fore-bearers, they liked things to be highly decorative, even if it was only with a simple two colour scheme. This door, however, has multiple colours in use, and doubtlessly, was originally partially gilded with gold leaf, as are illustrations in books from this period. The best guess would be that portions of the moulding, accents on the clothing, and the backgrounds to the scenes would have been gilt and in addition some areas would have been done in silver leaf (for example the halos on the two figures in the illustration below - the part which is now grey could have been silver). The yellow background colour is very much in keeping with the yellow under paint used in items which do still have their gold leafing.


This picture, scanned from a postcard; shows in clear
detail the crisp and spirited carving, and the remains
of some of the colour used to ornament it.
Though some 50-70 years after the doors, this painting
from the Bavarian State Library, shows a figure on a
gilded background. This painting is very much in the
spirit of the painting of the doors, as they would have
appeared when new. Even the moulding on the border
is not completely unlike the carved round sections
of the door frames.

Looking at all of the details on this door, it is evident of skilled confident artists at work, but nowhere more so than in the carving on the moulding and the round bosses at the corners of each panel. There is some variety in the carved borders around each panel, and the nearly round moulding framing each door leaf into a single unit is a bit different on the right, as compared to the left, but the round knobs or bosses are each different to any other. That in itself is a feat, that someone could come up with so many variations on a theme, but still giving a uniform look, yet having no two alike. This speaks further of a well established and skilled workshop, confident in their craft. All of the carving is crisp and clean, done by a person or persons who were very comfortable and familiar with their art.


Turned sideways, this picture shows two sections of round moulding, a
segment of the flat moulding, and two of the knobs. In addition it shows part
of the inside border which accompanies each panel, which had text explaining
 the scene. I suggest that this informs us that there were people who could read,
 which also goes against the generally held notions of this time.


I visited several museums on my trip and I saw an amazing number of artifacts, but logic tells me that there would have been more items produced in one year of work in one city, such as the city where these doors were created, than the amount of woodwork which now remains in the entire world from this time period. It is therefore safe to conclude that we have no real idea what the interiors of homes or palaces actually looked like in the 11th century, yet from this one miraculously surviving piece, we can get a glimpse of a rich history and the amazing workmanship that must have been present in the 11th century.



Sunday, August 6, 2017

Johann International Goes To Paris

Yesterday was my birthday and as it is one of those "milestone" years, I decided it was a good excuse to treat myself to a little European tour. It has been more than 33 years since I left Germany, (I will be going there next week) and the last time I was in Europe was 2001 (Amsterdam). I have not been in Paris since I was 12 (things have really changed!) In other words, it has been way too long since I have been back.


"one of the oldest Churches in Paris" the first church on this site was built in
the 6th century, but sadly, almost nothing is left of any of the various stages
of its incarnation. What is visible here is mostly a 19th re-creation
The church, as it was in the early 19th century; a tower had been built over
the apse to serve as an observatory. Notice there is no bell tower.
(picture from Wikipedia)




My agenda for this trip is to try to find anything left of the Middle Ages, (a feat surprisingly hard to accomplish in a city as old as Paris), and to see furniture and woodwork of the 18th century.

To that end, today I took a long trip out of the city of Paris to visit an early 17th century chateau which had been extensively remodeled in the Louis XV and XVI periods.

Chateau Breteuil, built in 1604


I wanted to see woodwork and furniture in the rococo manner and I was not disappointed. An added bonus was a lovely walk in a very mature and beautiful forest of (mostly) beach and oak.

Carved oak paneling, left unpainted

A gilt console table with lovely carving details and an unusual cetre
upright in the back

Gilded carving and faux painted marble.
This is the stuff I came to see

Stay tuned for future posts of more of my discoveries in the coming weeks.







Sunday, July 16, 2017

"pulling Out All The Stops" In a Grand Way

In August I will be taking a trip to Europe. It will be the first time since 2000 that I have been there, and the first time to return to Germany since I left more than 33 years ago. needless to say, I am very much looking forward to this holiday.



Château d'Écouen, home of  the Musée national de la Renaissance.

Most people would probably assume this to be a medieval building, but it 
was built in the 2nd quarter of the 16th century and is in the style 
of the French Renaissance.



I will be spending most of my time in the region of Paris, doing research for my business and visiting museums to feed my passion for things medieval. It was to that end that I found myself browsing a list of the Chateaus in the Ille de France, and came across this gem of Renaissance engineering/art. I will not actually be visiting this chateau because the renaissance is too modern for my medieval tastes, and too old for work related designs, (with only two weeks one must be very particular about priorities) but as a lover of history and all things well made, I found this extremely fascinating and wanted to share it with the tool loving sector of my audience.

All pictures have been gleaned from the internet, I had nothing to do with any of them.


Made for the Elector of Saxony in 1565, this 4,5 metre long wire drawing
machine is as much a work of art as a machine. Thousands of hours of work
must have gone into the inlay, carving, and steel engraving used to ornament
this remarkable device; the only one of its kind still extant.
Detail of some of the inlay used to ornament this machine

This was the picture I saw in Wikipedia which got me sidetracked from what
I was supposed to be doing. The web can be a real "rabbit-hole"

Detail of a wire-drawing plate and the braces used to hold it. Besides all the
 engraving, notice that the plate gets thicker towards the centre to prevent it
 bending. Each hole is a tiny part of a millimetre smaller than its predecessor 
allowing for subsequently finer wire with each pass.

Detail of the gear-box. To the right is the attaching point for the hand crank
which is the key to how this whole things works.


I am very familiar with wire drawing, an art that has been practiced since the Middle Ages, and by some accounts, was invented in Germany. I saw this basic art being performed at the jewelry shops I visited in Manila, essentially unchanged since its invention; the jeweler grasps a length of wire, which has been hammered into a thick rough wire shape, with a pair of pliers and pulls it through the largest hole. He then pulls it through the next, and each time he advances to the next smaller dimension hole until he achieves the size wire he is after. What I found fascinating in the pictures of this 16th century machine were all of the 'non-standard' wire shapes which were obviously produced as well. Obviously wire had many more decorative functions then than they do now. I zoomed in on the above picture so that all of the various shapes would be more easily visible, below.



Here one sees squares, stars, hearts, tear-drops, triangles  and lozenge shapes.
A feat of phenomenal proportion when one considers that each of these plates
 was made by hand, and the difference in size from one hole to the next is 
almost imperceptible. It is amazing that even with modern technology 
about the only shape of wire one will ever see is round.

In ages past people often put a lot more time and effort into the things they made, This sort of dedication to the art of ornamentation is a characteristic which is very appealing to me. Not all such machines were so lavishly enhanced, however, as this more humble 18th or 19th century version shows.


Very primitive and ordinary by comparison, but much more of an "everyday"
working machine.

I could not end with such a simple ordinary looking machine, however, so here is a detail of one of the legs to the one found in the Museum of the Renaissance.



Each leg is different, but all carved with a similar
design








Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter and its Furnishings - Part V

Once more we come to our occasional series examining the furniture found in the 9th century Utrecht Psalter, now housed in the Universiteitsbibliotheek, (University Library) Utrecht. This study is being conducted alphabetically, as I have labeled the different types of furniture, and we are now come to the letter 'P'. This is a significant classification, because as far as I know, I have coined the phrase "Plinth Chair" to designate a type of seat which is the single most popularly illustrated device used for seating prior to the 14th century, across all forms of medieval artwork, but which no history of furniture has yet to point out as a distinct form.


David composing the psalms. (detail of fol 1v)
In this illustration we see a plinth chair, a foot stool, and a desk.
both the chair and the desk are depicted as paneled furniture


Most people assume these plinth chairs to be chests; if a "chest" is completely synonymous to an enclosed square or rectangular box form, then perhaps they are chest. I strongly disagree with this narrow classification, however, as there are numerous medieval illustrations showing both chests and 'plinth chairs' in the same scene, with a distinctly different form, and manner of decoration. They are, in my opinion, no more "chests" than an "ottoman" (known also as a tuffet or hassock) is a chest, which is incidentally a modern version of the former. Modern refrigerators are basically of 'cabinet' form, yet one never sees them classified as such in furniture books. I introduced this form of seating by the name of "Plinth Chair" a couple years ago here, so there is no need to repeat myself completely.

St John from a 9th century gospel book, Rheims
Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal MS 1171 fol 164v
In this illustration one clearly seas the difference between the chest
and the chair.

In the Utrecht Psalter, there are at least 21 illustrations depicting no less than 25 separate chairs of this type. There is no need to show multiple illustrations of them here, because, in keeping with the general impressionistic nature of the illustrations in this work, they are all of near identical design, showing only the basic form. A few have, as the above illustration shows, the addition of the indication of paneled construction by way of a secondary rectangle drawn within the perimeter of the main body.

Unfortunately, no chair like this has survived from any time in the medieval period, which leaves most people, without a second thought, to assume the objects in these illustrations to be chests. As can be seen in the above illustration, though, this particular design would be very impractical as a chest in the sense that we usually think of them, for reasons such as the very pronounced overhang of the top and the large protruding moulded base. Many of these chairs are also depicted, as the above example, with curved or shaped sides. This is not to say that they could not have been used for storage, no example that I have found in artwork is detailed enough to prove or disprove this concept. In fact, there is no reason to doubt that some would have been used as such. Others, however, are depicted with open arcading or in other forms of semi-openness which indicates that even if some examples might have doubled as storage items, they were not all used as such, nor was that their primary function. Simply put, they are a distinct form of seating, made and used as such.



9th century ivory panel, formerly part of a book cover, now in the Louvre


The above ivory panel detail is great for two reasons, the first is that it shows four such chairs in various states from completely enclosed (top left) to completely open, having only a base, and seat connected by four legs. (lower left) The top right could either be paneled or having openings, and the lower right depicts a plinth chair with solid ends, but open sides. (part of the ivory has chipped off of this one) The second reason I like this carving is because of the chest in the centre which completely flies in the face of most people's concept of early medieval furniture. This is more of a 'cabinet' in size and shape, has a vault shaped lid, and carved post and panel constructed sides.

The idea that early furniture, including these plinth chairs, was necessarily "crude" or "primitive" is further dispelled by two more illustration, this time from a later 10th century manuscript now located in Strahov Monastery in Prague, but originating from Trier, Germany. I have cropped the pictures to allow the details to be readily visible. The artist (known as "Meister des Registrars Gregorium") has indicated mitred corners to the panels in the body of the chair, gold accent to the moulding, and a carved acanthus leaf panel in the second example which is all in gold leaf with painted moulding. Some of the gold leaf has been lost on the left edge, revealing the very carefully drawn details of the chair.



Two details from a Trier Gospel book, now housed in the Strahov Monastary
ca 980

These chairs are illustrated in every century of the Middle Ages, from the 6th (the beginning of the "medieval" period)...


6th century panel from Rome, still very much in the "antique"
style of the Roman era.
This chair is exactly the same as the two 10th century examples.

...to the 15th, which is the end of the Middle Ages. In fact, I have one example that I stumbled across from the middle of the 16th century, but cannot remember where I filed it.


From the British Library comes this early 15th century example
BL Yates Thompson MS 37 fol 103r 

This is an excellent illustration because it shows that just as in the 9th century, the artist made no real distinction between the altar (shown with two red tablets representing a diptych) and the chair. As I have mentioned many times before, the artists were usually not very concerned with details in book illustrations. In the Utrecht Psalter, the plinth chairs and altars have exactly the same form and only other associated items distinguish one (unoccupied) type of furniture from the other, just as the diptych does here.

As I have said, no such chair survives, so any attempt at reconstructing one would be purely speculative. Some clues to the type of ornament used, however, might come from carved stone panels of the same time period in question, such as this 10th century former altar frontal, shown below.



This carved stone altar panel might give some indication of what a moulded
wooden panel might have looked like.


I have no idea when these chairs first came into vogue, but throughout the course of the Middle Ages they remained extremely popular and survived well into our modern era. As times and tastes have changed, they have adapted to those changes in material and the application of ornament and finish, but their basic form held true for more than a thousand years. To me it is a great wonder that no one else has ever given them as much as a second thought or the place they deserve in books of furniture history.




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