Sunday, April 26, 2015

To Ornament or Not... Part 1; the scale of things

Visiting again the topic of medieval depictions of furniture in artwork, this post will begin to examine the question of what sort of ornamentation a piece of furniture might have had, based on the evidence, or lack thereof, in the various surviving representations of all mediums. We will be comparing similar objects depicted in various scales to see if the size of the artwork had any bearing on what ornament was used in the illustration, sculpture, metalwork, or glass painting.

BNF Lat 266 fol 2v um 850

To begin with, I present a work from my favourite time period in medieval history; the 9th century. In this illustration, which art historians have come to call a "Christ Tetramorph", (Christ with the Four Evangelists represented with their non-human [animals and an angel] forms) we have two scales of representation of the same type of object; a book. The books which the four evangelist's symbols hold are smaller than that which Christ holds, and thus they have less ornamentation. In neither case do they give us any information regarding the actual appearance of a 9th century book, beyond the fact that they were ornamented to some degree, and had clasps around the edges to keep them closed. Any other information we wish to gain about ornamentation of objects in this time period must come from other sources.

For me, it is nice when possible, to compare other ornamental representations from the same artist. Thus, though the books these figures hold are not very detail oriented, by examining other decorations from the same artist, in the same book, we can get a better idea of what ornamentation may have been possible in the realm of that artist.

BNF Lat 266 fol 106v um 850

I am not suggesting that this would be the decoration of a book cover, but it is an ornamental frame or border, and shows scrolling leaves and knot-work, both types of decoration which we find on all sorts of surviving artifacts from the 9th century. Notice also, the even more simplified rendering of four books on the four edges of this frame.

Of even larger, and therefore more detailed decoration, are these two bands of stylised, entwined leaf and bud motifs from another page of the same gospel. In addition to being rendered with silver leaf, these patterns were large enough to be further enhanced by highlights and shadow which gave them, when newly painted, a three dimensional form. Sadly, most of that highlight and shading has worn off over the past 1200 years. (Can you imagine that?)

BNF Lat 266 fol 74v um 850

From another 9th century manuscript comes another of those Cannon Tables which I have mentioned in the past. This one is nicely rendered with Corinthian capitals, marble columns, acanthus leaf carving to the architrave, and a very cute little bird perched atop the the crest. Above the columns sit two figures on plinth chairs; their posture very expressive of someone with a lot on their mind. Of the chairs we can discern nothing beyond the fact that they have a cushion on them and their basic form, though even that is not very precise.

Épernay  MS 1-220 fol 14v  9jh

From the same gospel comes this illustration of St John (identified by his symbol, the eagle). John sits on a chair very much of the same form as our last two contemplative figures', but this illustration is large enough for the artist to begin suggesting some ornamentation to the furniture. We see the implication of carved feet on the lectern, and scrolling leaves on its top edge, as well as on the foot bench and the chair. Notice, however, the level of rendering to the leaves comprising the border of this painting. This could quite easily be a carved design running around any one of these pieces of furniture. It is my belief that that is precisely what the artist had in mind; carved ornamentation, when he painted this border.

Épernay  MS 1-220 fol 134v  9jh

I am not saying that this border represents the ornament of that depicted on this furniture; the basic form is different, but it could be used as the ornament of some piece of furniture - or carved or painted moulding around a door, a cornice, or any number of other applications where moulding would be used. It is simply a depiction of one pattern of 9th century carved and/or painted moulding.

Biblioteca Naţională a României, Ms R II 1 Zt 136 um 800 BA

The ornament which the artist had in mind for the chair, foot bench, and lectern were of a more scrolling design, as I said, so we should look for examples of this form of ornament to get an idea of what might have been possible. Fortunately, there are many examples of this form of ornament, which, with slight variation, can be found from Roman times through the 15th century. For the sake of this conversation though, we are considering 9th century ornament, so we should look for sources from that era. In several of the more important gospel books of the 8th and 9th century can be found ornamental borders and page dividers on each folio. These borders are depicted as various forms of actual decorative mediums such as gold and precious stones, cloisonné and champlevé enameling, marble, wood, mosaic and other forms of decoration contemporary with the time of the production of these books. One of these borders is pictured above, representing gold and enamel decoration; it shows the degree to which this simple scrolling vine and leaf motif can be taken. (See also the upright stiles in the Maximian chair back.below for another variation on this theme.)

BNF Lat 11751 fol 59v um 1025-75

Another set of illustration portraying chairs, this time from the 11th century, again demonstrates this same basic concept that the larger the illustration, the more ornament the same artist will use in the objects he portrays.There are three scales /degrees of this illustration. The top tier with Christ is the largest and therefore has the most detail. The lower tier depicting the Virgin Mary as Queen of heaven, is on the same scale as the other figures within this register, but since she is more important than the other occupants, more care was taken in her portrayal.

Everything in this illustration is again representational, yet the depiction of Christ shows a highly decorated book, multiple forms of ornamentation to his clothing, and a jeweled throne and footrest. The throne of the Virgin in form is more elaborate than that of the Christ, but the degree of its ornamentation is lesser. Furthermore, Mary only has a few dots on her clothing to represent pattern to the cloth and none of the other figures, save the one to her left (right hand side) has any at all. All the other seated figures' chairs are also less ornamented than that of the Virgin or Christ.

In reality, it would be logical for a king's throne or chair to be more ornate than that of the queen's and hers more so than other members of court, so this diminishing of decoration is accurate from that point of view, but none of these chairs give us a model from which we can build a reliable example of an 11th century chair. Each of them, in their different forms only serve to illustrate that chairs of their type were ornamented to some degree. Because of the scale and importance of each sitter, the only thing we can accurately conclude from this illustration is that the larger the illustration, the more ornament the artist would have used in his depiction.

If we accept the premise that the circles and tear-drop shaped lozenges represent the gem encrusted ornamentation favoured as decorative elements in the 11th century, then, by the varying degrees of scale in this illustration, we can not actually even draw the conclusion that Christ's chair is more highly ornamented than some of the other's. The decorations on the two chairs immediately the right and left of Mary also have these same shapes. Given the scale of these chairs, there are less actual circles and lozenge patterns to them, but they clearly indicate the same idea of bejeweled ornamentation.

Duccio - Madonna of the Franciscans c1287

One might still wish to argue the point that the throne of Christ is more ornamental than those of the other sitters because he is a more important figure. So, what if an artist portrays the same person in two different images, surely, regardless of scale, the ornamentation should be the same, right?

Here are two late 13th century paintings of the Madonna by Duccio, one of "the fathers of renaissance art". They both portray the Virgin Mary seated in a turned and carved chair, and having a two tiered, arcaded  foot bench beneath her feet. One chair is actually of a 'stool' form, as it has no back, but in essence, they are similar turned post chairs, the principal difference comes in the scale. The first painting, above, is tiny, at 160 milimetres wide; it is on the scale of illuminated manuscript paintings. The second Madonna, below, is four and one half metres tall, rendering the smaller figures near life size! Duccio had so much area to work with, he hardly knew what to do with it all. He spent a lot of energy ornamenting the panels to the point of impracticability, and added a lot of highlighting, to suggest a highly polished surface to the wooden parts. (Thomas Chippendale's drawings are often too delicate to be practical as well, but no one says his designs did not represent possibilities for actual furniture.)

The real distinction achieved by the vastly different scale of these two works, however, comes in comparing the fabric depicted in them. In the Madonna of the Franciscans panel, the 'Cloth of Honour' behind the Virgin is draped over a supporting frame, like the back of a chair, but separate from it. We can see this from the way the cloth is formed into a series of peaks and valleys and by the undulating fringe a third of the way down from the top edge. (it looks like a brown water stain) The artist made no attempt at depicting folds or overlaps in the pattern, or shading to the cloth which makes its form a bit difficult to discern. The ornamentation of the fabric is a simple white St Julian's cross form on a blue ground. It is highly probable that such a pattern could be found on cloth woven in the 13th century, but compare it to the brocade depicted in the painting which is larger than life. In this Rucellai Madonna, there is also a cross pattern, but also vine and tendrils, quatrefoils and other ornamental banding along with multiple colours, In short, because of the scale the artist had to work with, the fabric in this painting is truly spectacular. (Incidentally, the blue gown of the Virgin, at the time of this painting, would have, merely by its colour, spoken of immense wealth; indigo blue dye was one of the most costly colours in the medieval world.)

Duccio - Rucellai Madonna 1285 Bildausschnitt
Detail of the lower left corner

Lewis Chessman, Bishop - Rear View
1st half (>) of the 12th century

Many people, on seeing the Lewis Chessmen, feel that they are quite representational of furniture ornamentation. Perhaps they are, but it would be a very heavy and clumsy chair if one were to scale this design up to the size of a proper chair. It does, however, have the elements of decoration from the 10th through 12th centuries, so in concept, it is a good source of information on possible ornamentation of an actual object.

Schloß Quedlinburg, back panel of the  Kaiserstuhl
c 1045-50
(apologies for the sideways picture, Google refuses to stop flipping it when I
 load it for some reason) picture found on Flickr 

I wanted to avoid the temptation of comparing actual examples with artistic representations of similar objects in this post, but at the same time, an ivory sculpture of 90 milimetres and a bronze chair back (which is actually a sculpture in its most fundamental concept) of around 900 milimetres cannot be passed by, in this context. This design is too similar to that of the chess piece to not recognise it as of the same type of ornamentation. This type of ornament could also have been carved into a wooden panel, and/or could also have been painted on a chair back, giving us numerous possibilities of possible ornamentation of a chair back in this time period.

Maximian's Chair, Ravenna mid 6th cent.
(from Wikipedia)
Maximian's Chair, Ravenna , Detail of  back panel

Whilst on the subject of comparing actual objects to that in the artwork, what better way of illustrating this than showing an historical furniture object which, itself, has depictions of chairs in its very ornamentation. Such is the case with this Chair of Maximian (which I have featured before). This is a fascinating piece of surviving furniture from the beginning of the Middle Ages; it shows the degree of ornamentation used in an important person's (a bishop, in this case) chair.

By comparing this real life chair to an illustration of a chair within its decoration, we can see the degree of simplification which goes into illustrating actual objects This left panel on the back of the chair has a Mother and Child, an image that would persist for more than a thousand years, virtually unchanged. The Mother Mary sits in a chair not unlike the one which this representation is ornamenting, though the actual chair has a partial wrap-around back and this depicted one does not. The only ornamentation to the depicted chair is a set of double lines on each of the straight members, and ball finials like those on the real chair.

I do not mean to keep wearing out the subject of chairs, but they seem to be the most common form of furniture in medieval artwork. Here is another example of one installation with numerous chairs with varying degrees of ornamentation, according to their scale and level of importance within the overall composition.

St Luke, Burgos Cathedral tympanum c 1235

This is part of a tympanum on the west (if memory serves correctly) facade of the cathedral of Burgos, in Spain. St Luke, seated in the largest chair, has a much more ornamented one than the saints which are in the volutes of the arch. In the centre of this sculpture, but not shown in this picture, is a Christ seated on an even larger,and therefore more elaborately ornamented chair. In addition, in a higher tier, there are two more smaller figures, (Mathew and Mark) at similar desks but their chairs are also less ornamented, and the desks do not have the carved floral pattern to the moulded edge. (there is a figure of St John, similar to this one, on the right side as well)

One of the reasons I wanted to use this illustration, however, is that immediately below the seated figure is a very similarly treated arcade to that of the chair, but because it is larger, the artist included more detail. Instead of the curls on the ends of the arch ending in scroll terminals, they end in human head form. (It is also worth noting that the finials to the posts on the chair have been broken off, as has the arm of St Luke.)

The Birth of St Edmund
BL Harley MS 2278, fol. 13v zw 1434-9
this miniature is approximately 120mm square

I began this post with a couple of items from my favourite time period, but am well aware that most people with an interest in the "Middle Ages" tend to prefer things from the 14th and 15th century; the same concepts still hold true for this part of the millennium as well, as can be observed by comparing the following two illuminations.

Here we have a lovely bedroom scene from the first half of the 15th century. It is not painted with as much detail as one sees in a Rober Campin, or Rogier van der Weyden painting, but the scale is much smaller and thus it would be very difficult to achieve that level of realism. Nonetheless, there is ample information for the seeker of medieval interior details to feast the eyes upon in this painting.

There are plenty of actual objects in museums for us to observe their physical appearance, but here we have a reference to types of objects found in a wealthy person's chamber. These include a fireplace with niches for the display of ornamental objects, of metal, ceramic, and glass. We find ornamental andirons in the fire, and a patterned carpet on a tile floor. The mother of St Edmund, who is the focus of all the attention in this painting, lies in a canopied bed. This illustration shows us, unlike so many other paintings, the fact that a rich person's draperies, covers, and bed hangings would have been made of ornamented (brocade) fabric. It also, with an economy of effort, shows us that the walls would have also been decorated, though most medieval illustrations leave them blank.

There are a few pieces of furniture in this painting, but the scale of them is too small to add detail. We see a backless bench of plinth chair form, a barrel backed armchair, and a buffet. The physical ornamentation of these objects were unimportant to the artist, he merely put them here to fill in the scene with as much detail as the space warranted, based on his scale of rendering, in order to give the feel of a habited living environment. The other objects in the painting are also there to add to the sense of wealth in a busy life filled room of a nobleman's household. These items, however, were not essential to the picture, as the next illustration shows. 

Birth and Christening of St Fremund
BL Harley MS 2278, fol. 72r 

This miniature is the same size as the preceding one, but the interest in comparing the two comes from the fact that this second illustration has two scenes in it, requiring the artist to simplify the pictures in order to make them smaller. On the left side we see another bedroom scene, but this time, most of the household objects are left out. There is one ewer beside the fireplace and a cushion on the floor; the only other object, aside from the bed, is a brazier used to put coals in. This object allows heat to be placed at the opposite side of the room from the fireplace. (From personal experience, I can tell you that it does a great deal to help keep a room warm on a cold winter day.) With only half the space to work with, and needing to retain the figures, which are the important part of the picture from the point of view of the original readers, (They did not need to see what a 15th century room looked like, they were already in one!) the artist had to economise somehow. He did so by omitting most of the objects. The overall level of detail is the same as the preceding illustration, but because less space was available, fewer objects and furnishings were depicted. This in no way tells us anything about the actual quantity of objects in a room, and should give us a cautionary lesson about judging the furnishings and decor of any actual room based on what we see in most medieval artworks.

I have given many illustrations here of degrees of ornamentation, in most cases by the same artist, to like or similar objects. In no way am I suggesting that every object was highly ornamented, but at the same time, I wish to make the reader aware that medieval furniture was usually much more ornamented than most depictions which we find in the artwork of the Middle Ages. People of that time loved ornamentation, and whether they were poor or rich, they decorated their objects to the best of their means. A king and a yeoman could both have a chair of similar form, the key difference in the two would have been the materials used in their construction and decoration. If one could not afford, or did not wish to have gold and gems, enamels, or ivory, he could still have something carved, or painted, but his possessions would have been decorated in some manner. Nearly every object which we find from the medieval period bears this out; those that do not, are not in a good state of preservation and thus cannot tell us how they appeared when new. Gold and gems are stolen or re-used for other purposes, paint peels and fades, dyes fade and lose their colours, cloth rots, wood is consumed by moisture, worms and fire, and gilding and moulded gesso flake off, leaving us with a sad shadow of the beauty that was originally found on these objects. Happily, not all objects are thus destroyed, and we can see from many of them them the true spirit of ornamentation in the Middle Ages.

Videre Scire

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Table Progress - part III

This week has been a busy one; back to work on the table. As mentioned in the last posting on this project, a few weeks ago I got the needed timber, but wanted it to acclimatise to my workshop before proceeding further. That process has been accomplished, and this week I was hard at work cutting, planing, and joining parts to begin the top. This week's posting will be a "slide show" type of story showing (most of) the steps in that process.

The planks which will become the top
I forgot to add the two needed for the leaves though

The first step was to choose the best pieces for grain and straightness. Some were straighter than others, however.

Let the sawing begin.

After the pieces were chosen, the lengths were marked out and cut off. Some smart guys often try to tell me that God invented an electric saw some hundred years ago, and it goes much faster using one. I agree, but it is not about how fast I get it done; for me, the joy is in doing it. Using a hand saw takes skill, and I enjoy the challenge of mastering that skill. It also means that I do not need a gym membership.

All the pieces laid out on the template

Once the cutting was finished, it was time to start planing. Most of the timber was fairly flat, but a couple of them had a nasty bow; time for the scrub plane.

The line shows the amount of bow in this piece of timber

I have several scrub planes, but my favourite is this German one from the middle of the 19th century. (no chip breaker, just a solid iron) The small size, deep curve, and the horn on the front make it a very aggressive plane. It made quick work out of the curve.

Checking for straightness 

One down, 17 more to go. Fortunately most of them were much flatter. The whole process took most of a day however. Planing elm is a bit tricky, because it tends to tear in long ropey strands if you go counter to the grain. Therefore, many of the pieces had to be worked from multiple angles. One thing I do to help minimise the tear-out is to go diagonally across the grain with the courser planes, then do the final smoothing with the grain.

Nearly finished

 Once all the pieces were planed, they had to have the taper marked and cut. Each narrow end is approximately 0.4666% of its wider end. The pieces must be cut on both sides, however, to keep the grain running straight and to keep the ends oriented squarely to the radius.

Some of the parts with one side cut.
the off-cuts are in the box

I hate dust and messes, so I try to collect the sawdust in a box instead of letting it fall on the floor, but that does not work for ripping, so I just have to sweep it all up afterwards.

Checking the sawing for squareness

I cannot rip a perfectly square edge very often, but I usually get pretty close. I have a much better success rate on cross-cuts. A long time ago, (cannot remember when) I discovered that adding wax to the blade from time to time, greatly eases the effort of sawing. Some time after making that discovery, I read in the Dictionary of Woodworking Tools, by R. A. Salaman, that cabinet makers used to have a box filled with oil soaked rags which they used to draw their saw through as a way of lubricating it. I keep intending to make some such box, but have yet to do it so I just wipe it on with a cloth.

Once all the tapers were cut on one side, and the first cut on the second side of the first piece, it was time to start joining them. The nice thing about joining by hand, is that it does not matter if you keep the edge perfectly square to the sides, so long as you match them face to face before you begin. As a way of demonstrating this, I made an exaggerated diagonal line across both pieces. When they are fit together, these two lines will be parallel each other. Of course, the down side of doing this is, that any curve you get in the length will be doubled once you fit them together, so one still has to be very careful when joining by hand.

these lines are at the same angle

Nice and smooth, and hopefully straight...

It looks like it worked. Here are those two lines, parallel as
I said they would be.

Out of sequence picture, cutting the second tapered edge

Each piece must be marked and joined to its neighbour in a custom fit sort of way. Though in theory, one should be able to cut all the parts with the same percentage of width to the wide end, in reality, even one degree of variance would put the whole thing out of round very quickly. The solution is to join two pieces together, mark where they fall on the template, put down the next piece and mark it to fit the preceding one. I used a giant compass to draw the template in the first place, so using that template in its original position, and a long straight edge, I am able to keep the angles accurately.

Straight edge and center point

Each new piece is laid over the line of the preceding piece and marked for cutting. Once the joining has been done, however, it will no longer be exactly in the correct place, and each subsequent part gets 'corrected for'.

The arrow points to the leading edge of the
preceding piece.

Showing the correction which must be made in the next
segment after joining the two pieces. (actually the
two arrows are backwards, but you can get the idea.)


Here all the pieces have been joined and laid out, including the four pieces which will make up the two leaves.

The next step involves making all those part into one whole table top. I could just glue them all up, but I do not like relying on glue alone; I much prefer a mechanical means of attaching parts to one another. I first encountered the method used here whilst studying 13th century altar panels, but have subsequently learned that this method was still in use into the 17th century. It involves inserting a loose tenon into both pieces and then inserting dowels through the timber and the tenon.

Drill and then chisel. The drill is a brace from the early
part of the 20th century. One of these days I will
find an antique one.

The floating tenon; the off-set boring is clearly visible.
The tenons are oak.

In order for the tenon to do its work properly, the holes must be drilled in the table top first, then the tenon is inserted, marked, removed and bored separately; slightly offset to the holes in the table top. Once the pin is driven through the holes, it will, on account of the offset, pull the parts more tightly to one another. This method is called "draw boring" and is an ancient method of keeping mortise and tenon joinery tight. When you drive the pins in, you will be able to feel them following the hole, as they tend to lean one way, then back the other slightly, on passing through. I have restored dozens of pieces of 17th and 18th century Continental furniture which are joined in this way and the joints are usually still tight.

Cutting a tenon on the end

One more thing that needs to happen before the pieces are permanently affixed is that they need to have a tenon on their ends which will fit into the edge rail. The end of each segment of the top needs to have a slight arc to it, in accordance with its portion of the circle, but that will not be done until the whole unit is joined up. It would be much more difficult to cut the tenons after the whole thing has been fit together, so I initially cut them a bit short. Once the centre section of the top is all complete I will then mark out the radius and trim the tenons back to the final shape. 

Speaking of the pins; they are made from some of the scraps which came off the edges. I cut them long enough to get four pins from each piece. I pound one into the hole, cut it off, point the end, then drive it into the next and so on.

cutting dowel pins

Finally, the pieces are glued together and the dowels driven home, then cut and trimmed flush. The final stage in this part of the process is to use a cabinet scraper and level out any slight variance where each segment meets in order to have a smooth surface. In addition to being functional, the pins will add a bit of a decorative element to the top.

Four pins which secure one of the
floating tenons; several more pins
await the saw.

I will join small sections of the top together in this way, then plane the backs of them even with the scrub plane before joining them all together. At this point, all the timbers are still rough on the back and of varying thicknesses. I will not worry about making them smooth, they just need to have more or less, the same thickness. The critical part will be the edge which is yet to be made, this will be slightly thicker than the centre panel. It is this edge which will have a uniform thickness throughout, establishing the visual dimension of the top.

That border and the parts which will make the skirt will be the topic of the next posting on this table; they have to be steam bent. This week I will be making my steam box for that purpose.  Before I bend the parts though, I have to do the carving to the skirt pieces; it will be easier to carve them whilst they are still straight than after they have been curved.

This blog is about, and for, many things, but one of the goals which I hope to accomplish is showing those who do not know, the time and effort making something actually entails. We live in a world where everyone wants everything instantly, and most things are made in a matter of seconds on machines or by robots, I feel it is important to share with people the process that goes into actually making something. I hope, by doing this, that at least some people will gain a greater appreciation for non disposable craftsmanship.

Videre Scire

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Interpreting Medieval Art; part II - What you see is NOT what you get!

In my last post on interpreting objects in medieval artwork, I introduced a chair from the 11th century. Before we get into more of what that chair might have looked like, however, I thought it would be good to further establish some truths of fundamental importance to the nature of almost all representational art of the Middle Ages. Basically, as I have said before, the original artists were not trying to show anyone what anything looked like, Even treatises on technical concepts were very basic and no one could possibly make anything functional using those illustrations as "plans", as we think of such now. All illustrations were simply meant to convey a basic idea to people who already knew what they were implying. This posting will attempt to further drive that point home.

Anyone even slightly interested in historical woodworking topics, will doubtless be familiar with the author, Joseph Moxon, and will know that even at the late date of 1680's the tools illustrated in his book are only form representational, not meant to show us exactly what a plane, workbench, or cramp (clamp for American readers) etc. looked like. I swiped a picture off of Peter Follansbee's website to show what I am referring to. (Though I also have the book which it comes from myself) Obviously, an actual workbench, and its associated tools, do not look like this, but it does give us the idea of the form which they might have had, and some clues to the type of construction utilised (mortise and tenon joints for the legs, for example) It tells us nothing about how the top was made, how the vise worked, or what type of wood would have been used in its construction, in fact, there is nothing in this drawing to even show us that it is made of wood, and only our knowledge of workbenches being made of wood inform us that this one would have been as well. The same is true of the joinery I just mentioned. People who know about woodworking will know how these parts would have been joined, but those who do not, would not. Even those of us who do, may wonder how the top was attached, as there could be several possibilities.

The concept I am trying to point out is that people in the know will understand what they are looking at, and do not need more information. People in the 17th century would know how to join the legs and the top, so there was no reason to explain it or make detailed drawings to illustrate the methods used. It is only later people, wanting to be authentic, who clamour for the details.

Even in our modern world with photographs of everything, the concept of simple schematic images to convey information has not been completely lost to us. When was the last time you saw a photo of a man or a woman on the door of the loo? Here is a sign of a duck crossing. Last time I saw ducks, they did not look like this picture, but anyone who knows about ducks and drives cars will recognise that this road sign is telling us that we should be on the look-out for ducks in the roadway.

quack, quack

Getting back to the topic of medieval artwork, which is the subject of our discussion, I constantly encounter pictures of objects which people have made, be they clothing, furniture, shoes, or housewares, in which the makers have chosen a very literal interpretation of the things they saw in the manuscripts or paintings. What I want to show here, is that we can tell by examining these illustrations, and comparing them with actual extant objects, that the miniatures and other works of art only convey form and basic information, leaving most, if not all, details of ornamentation completely out. By observing the level of ornamentational detail in an object within a picture, which we know the appearance of, we can gauge the probable degree of detail which would be appropriate for the other objects in that same illustration.

BNF Lat 323 fol 150r  850-75 AD
Notice yet another well formed desk also

Pay attention to the book which St John holds in his left hand in this manuscript. Right away, we can see that it is intended to represent an ornate book, as it has been rendered in gold, and also has rows of dots and a circle on the cover. Due to the scale of this piece, this was all the detail the artist felt was necessary for this painting.  We should ask, though, "What might a book cover actually have looked like at this time?" Fortunately, in the Bavarian State Library, can be found just such a book cover. Sadly there are not too many of these left from the time period of this manuscript but there are a couple, and this is one of them. Books written by hand were expensive and precious, their bindings reflected this; one meant for a king, or a bishop even more so.

Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram
Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
9th or 10th century

In this book cover, known as a treasure binding, we see the basic idea as expressed in the artist's dots from the last illustration. Around the border of the cover can be seen a row of gemstones, a cruciform central motif and a large central focal point.This seems to be the basic layout of all book bindings for most of the Middle Ages. Sadly, because of their obvious value, most of these bindings were destroyed for the value of their materials, I know of only three surviving objects which are contemporary with this manuscript, but each of them has the same overall format. This binding in the Bavarian Library is said to belong to the "Carolingian School" but it is some 50 to 100 years after the time of Charlemagne. As far as I know, there are no surviving covers from books which actually belonged to him, though his will states that he had a "vast quantity of books" in his "library". A few books, sans original covers of his, have come down too us. Some of these books are lavishly illustrated and show borders and frames which are also painted representations this sort of gold and jeweled ornamentation.

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 433, zt. 44
3rd quarter of 9th century

Here is another illustration produced by a different artist, but of the same time period. Again, the illustration show us a book, but although it is even more simplified in its execution, it still gives us the impression of the same sort of cover. In fact, most illustrations of books from this period (and for several hundred years after) use this basic formula of a central lozenge and four 'teardrop' shapes at the corners. I have used the power of a photo editing program to quickly demonstrate how this basic formula compares to an actual book cover.

Lindau Gospel Cover with schematic
overlay drawing
Morgan Library
3rd quarter of 9th century

Lets look at some of the other objects in this illustration, which I believe, is a representation of a scribe giving a gospel book to Pope Gregory the Great. Even if I am wrong about who is illustrated, the man in the chair is obviously a more important person than the one giving the book. Look at their clothing and shoes; in the case of both figures, their shoes are identical, and the only distinction between the seated figure and the standing one, as far as clothing, is the stole which Gregory wears. The last time I checked, popes wore a bit fancier clothing than scribes, even if they were well paid. In this illustration, the artist is only showing us form, the rest of the details are left out, thus, a pope's shoe which undoubtedly would have had embossing, fancy stitching, gold leaf, and even jewels for ornamentation, would have had the same form as the scribes, who may have only had a little stitching or embossing on his shoes, none of which is represented here. 

Nearly every object we can find from the Middle Ages, shows us that the people at that time loved ornamentation. Even simple objects had some form of decoration. We have seen two lavishly decorated book covers, but surely not all books had such covers. Happily, there is one surviving book found in the tomb of St Cuthbert, which was produced in England in the late 7th century. Here too, though the book is very small, (palm sized) it shows a very finely wrought, decorated surface.

Nearly any book produced in the early Middle Ages was important, but as the state of books were then, this was an 'ordinary' sort of book; a personal copy of the Gospel of St John, intended for the private reading of Cuthbert. (He was not a yet "saint" when he used this book.) Yet even with its very ordinary status, it is a fine example of skill and craftsmanship. Notice the careful linking of the gilt interlace lines to the central field, the neatly done embossing to the border of the cover, and the finely formed central motif. (Someone needed to do a bit of wood carving to make a mould for this first as well.) In all, this gives a nice hint at the level of craftsmanship available even in a remote north English town in the early Middle Ages. I am sure that St Cuthbert would have had other objects, including furniture, which reflected this same level of skill and craftsmanship.

St Cuthbert's Gospel
found on Tumblr

Lets not just dwell on books, however. What other things from medieval illustrations might also help us understand the relationship between depictions and actual objects?

Valenciennes, Bibliothèque Municipale, MS 99 fol 30r
beginning of 9th century
(but in a style going back to the 7th)

This is a page from an Apocalypse book, and shows the first of the seven angels pouring out his plague onto the earth; the other six angels also stand ready with theirs.  There are many early medieval horns preserved in museums, some are made of horn or ivory, others of metal, and still others of glass as this example from the Met. All of the existing horns, however, show us that they were finely wrought objects. Perhaps this is the sort of horn which the artist illustrating this book of Revelation had in mind. 

Lombard Drinking Horn
6-8th century

Though the angel depicted in the act of pouring seems to hold a 'horn' shaped object, the other 6 angels, appear to be holding objects less 'horn-like' and more 'cone' shaped; that sort of object existed in the early Middle Ages as well. Here is a glass "cone shaped beaker" from The Cloisters in New York; it shows us yet again, a very skilfully produced item. From this object we can also make the observation that the transition from 'Roman' to 'medieval' was not a sharp or abrupt one, as this is quite similar to much Roman era glassware.

Merovingian Cone Glass
The Cloister

I have a personal preference to the first half of the Middle Ages, but many medieval enthusiasts are much more interested in the latter half of the millennium, so perhaps we should see if the same trends can be observed in late medieval artwork as well. A vast quantity of illustrations from the 12th century onward are very small, and thus extremely abstract and devoid of detail. Even when we find larger works, though, they still demonstrate the same degree, with few exceptions, of the iconic nature of objects. At every period of the Middle Ages, we find the same characteristics in the artwork; namely that there were artists of more and less skill, but by and large, regardless of the quality of their work, they show us basic forms with (usually) only suggestions of ornament and decoration.

Christine de Pizan in her Study
BNF Fr 835 fol 1r

In this illumination, we find several objects depicted, including a ewer, or Wasserkanne as it is known in German. This type of object existed throughout the medieval world, and illustrations of it show us the evolution of its form, as dictated by the tastes in fashion. We can see this played out by comparing depictions of them with actual objects in museums and private collections. This illustration is from the beginning of the 15th century and shows us that by this time, the neck was tending to become more elongated and the top to have a more pronounced dome shape than in the preceding century. (A trend which continued into the 17th century and can be found in many Dutch Still Life works.) In this particular illustration, along with showing us the general form that the artist had in mind for the object, there is also the suggestion of gold ornamentation which shows us this is not a plain or simple object.

Jasper and gold ewer
15th century

This is not exactly the shape of the ewer pictured, as it has a shorter neck, but it shows a level of decoration to such objects which one will never find in an illuminated manuscript. Just as with the shoes in one of the earlier examples we saw, it was the shape or form of an object which was portrayed, and not its level of ornamentation. Here below, are two more 15th century ewers, much more simple than the above illustrated one. The key to determining which one would be appropriate to the artwork in question, is to consider for whom the object is intended. If the object is shown at the table of a king and queen, then probably it would be more like the above example, if not even more elaborate, (last time I checked, Kings had a marked preference for lavish objects) If the object was intended for a merchant or minor lord, it is much more likely that his object would be as those depicted below. Even the farmer's ewer would have the same basic shape, it would just be made of clay or tin. In the case of the above illustration, Christine de Pizan spent her life in the court of at least three dukes and King Charles VI of France, so it would be safe to assume that her surroundings would have tended toward the sumptuous.

Brass ewers from National Museum of  Nürnberg
15th century
(Messing means brass in German)

I could not find an example of a 15th century ewer made of a silver metal with gold inlay, except for Middle Eastern objects, (many of which would have been imported to Europe, however) but inlaying one type of metal into another is an ancient technique and was used throughout the Middle Ages in Europe as well. Here is a picture of that type of work, used in armour. I am not the least bit interested in war and military objects, but can appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that went into these suits of armour. This is doubtless the type of work which the 15th century illuminator had in mind when making that representation of a ewer.

Late medieval armour, found on a Pinterest
(click image to see in better detail)

In the same early 15th century illustration, we see Christine sitting in a barrel backed chair, and just as with the ewer, this object only shows us the most fundamental representation of its basic form. There are a couple such objects in the Met and the Cloisters, in New York, Daniel Diehl featured one in his book on constructing medieval furniture, here is another, in the Met collection. but not on display.

15th century Barrel backed chair

As I said, the 15th century is way too modern for me, but I saved the following illustration several years ago because it so perfectly demonstrates this point which I have come to realise. In this miniature, we see several figures before an altar; on the sides of the altar are hanging curtains and at the back is a gold panel. The curtains are depicted with tassels and gold ornament, so surely this is a more realistic depiction, right? Wrong.

The panel at the back, is an altarpiece, which, in the Middle Ages, was the focal point of the altar. On it would be depicted one or more religious scenes, a depiction of the Crucifixion, or a Madonna and Child. (This is an over simplification; entire volumes have been written on medieval altarpieces.) It shows us a basic, North European form of an altarpiece from the late Middle Ages, Objects such as the Werl Altar and the Miraflores Altar have this basic form as well, but perhaps this one is not such an elaborate example as those. 

BL Royal MS 15 D III fol 82v
1st quarter 15th century

Even though this illustration gives us the impression of realism with the details to the hangings, and some on the clothing, there is very little further decoration to anything in the illumination, Since we know that an altarpiece, by purpose of function, must have had some sort of scene painted on it, then we know that the artist has left out a lot of detail in this picture as well. Please observe that there is absolutely nothing painted on the altarpiece.

Stadtpfarrskirche Deichsler altar,
Death of Mary

I have chosen a rather simple altarpiece here, because I am in no way trying to suggest that all objects were ornamented to the taste of emperors. This is a simple altar from a small church in an out-of-the-way town. Large churches with larger budgets would have much more elaborate altarpieces to match their status and those of its wealthy parishioners. Many illustrations of the 14th and 15th century however, simply show a blank panel as in the above illustration when they intend to show an altar.

In addition to the altarpiece panel, above the altar, the altar itself would also have been ornamented in some way. Elaborate altars were covered in gold, gems, enamel plaques and so forth. Slightly less expensive ones had gilded metals formed in low relief embossing; the next step down would have been carved and painted relief, and the lowest level would have been painted panels such as this one from Norway. (I wrote an entire paper on this sort 12th to 14th century painted altar frontal; examples of which can be found throughout Europe from Norway to Spain, and all points in-between.)

Painted wooden altar Frontal from Norway.
14th century

Such altars were built of wood and had paneled sides with additional wood base and top moulding in the form shown in the above miniature. In principle, they were cabinets, and in fact, the earliest examples (4th -10th centuries) had a door or opening in the front. Their construction was of timbers joined and glued together, then covered with gesso and painted. Examples of these altar panels can be found in such diverse places as Bergen Norway, Barcelona Spain, Essen Germany, The Met in New York, and in the Walters in Baltimore Maryland. As I said, these were usually of the simplest sort of altars, found in small churches, more ornate altars such as the following one  were common in larger churches and minor cathedrals. This altar would have doubtlessly been painted just as the panel above, the difference being that this one has more embellishment in form along with its sculpted figures.

Altar in Terragona, Spain

Notice the similarity of the form of this altar to that in the manuscript illumination. (One difference is that the base of this example is not as heavy, however.)

Finally, what about the hanging draperies? As I already pointed out, they seem to have some detail depicted in them, but again, this is only representational. Here is a sample of a late 14th century blue and gold brocade fabric, which I believe would be something along the lines of what is represented here.

14th century brocade
Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York

Yet again we touch on another point that I keep repeating, which is one of personal taste of the artist. This artist seems to have a fondness for textile designs, (as do I) so he spent more time on this aspect of his work than any other; nonetheless, as previously stated, it is still only representational. In this manuscript he had neither the time nor the dimensional space to allow him adequate justice to the fabric; he did give it a nice go though, enhancing his artwork in the process.

Next time you look at illustrations in a medieval manuscript, painting, or even a relief sculpture, try identifying objects which you can find or have seen in museums, then compare those objects to the detail of the furnishings in the same illustrations. You may be surprised at the possibilities of ornament this concept presents.

Videre Scire

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