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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