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.

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