Sunday, August 30, 2015

To Ornament or Not - Part III Lost Ornamentation

In this ongoing series about medieval ornamentation, we have examined some aspects of decorative styles that could have been applied to furniture. In this post we will look at actual objects which have lost all or part of their decorations, leaving us with a very different impression to that which was originally rendered.

A 14th century chest from All Saints Church,
Graveney, Kent, UK

The chest pictured above is very typical of what most people would probably picture in their mind, if you asked them about medieval furniture. This chest is raw natural wood, has some old rusty iron fittings, and only a hint of "scratch-carved decoration". Chest like this are the favourite of people who wish to make reproductions of medieval furniture as well. This chest seems very straight forward, simple, and primitive; but has it always appeared like this since it was new?

14th century casket from the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

This past week, whilst looking through some pictures of objects in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, in Spain, I came across this picture of a small box. The condition of the finish reminded me of a position which I have held for a long time; namely that just because an object from the Middle Ages, as it survives now, has no finish or ornamentation to it, in no way means to say that it never had any.

If you look carefully at this picture, you will see that the bottom edge of the box on the left side and end are bare, raw wood. There is no trace of any of the finish which is abundantly clear and visible on the remaining parts of the casket. If whatever misfortune befell the lower edge of this box had been more severe or pronounced, then it is quite likely that all of the decoration would have vanished, and what we would be left with, would be a very plain, unadorned box, like the chest in the first picture of this post.

Sometimes when items are painted, the paint soaks into the wood and it is very difficult to remove all traces of it. I recently restored an early 19th century (1805) German painted chest for a client. This chest had been painted with "milk paint" also known as casein paint, directly on the wood. Though most of the paint on the lid had worn away, there was still a 'shadow' of some of the design left behind. The key here, though, is that the paint was applied directly to the wood, as is the case with this 12th century chest, pictured below.

Lid of a large Spanish chest

The method used to paint the MAN casket, however, utilises a completely different technique. We can find a description of this method in a medieval treatise on various art techniques, which is called
Il Libro dell Arte, and was written  by Cennino Cennini in the 14th century, but encompasses many of the same techniques described by Theophilis in his late 11th century De Diversis Artibus. This method is to take glue and "prime" the panel or whatever object the artist wishes to paint on, and then to cover it with "old thin linen" according to Cennini, or with thin "animal hide" or "canvas" according to Theophilis. Once this foundation has been laid on, the craftsman then covers the object with layers of gesso until he gets a smooth even surface for painting on.

The problem with this method is that the hide glue which everything else is adhered to, is very prone to dissolving by water or prolonged moisture. If any panel is so exposed, it will ultimately ruin the entire piece as is illustrated by the altar panel pictured below. Had any more of the paint fallen off, this panel would doubtless have wound up as firewood instead of an exhibit in a museum.

Early 14th century altar front from the Bergen Museum

That furniture was painted in medieval times is not disputed by anyone that I know of, and it is not my intention to try to prove that it was. What I am trying to convey here, is the possibilities of what very plain objects might once have looked like, when new. Below is a very large armoire from a church in Halberstadt, Germany. This picture comes from The History of Furniture, by John Morley. It is a well written book, and is about the only one I know of, which points out some of the more ornate pieces of medieval furniture, and alludes to the vast range of decorative possibilities for furniture in the Middle Ages. Notice how much better the interior of the door appears than the outside, which has had more than 800 years of abuse.

Armoier in Halberstadt, Germany ca. 1200

This picture, along with the idea that objects might very well have lost all of their original decoration, gives us new information to consider when viewing another armoire, also from Germany, from the 14th century. It would be impossible to guess how this might have originally been painted, but a look at book illustration and altar pieces from the same time, might give us a clue. Notice how similar the Bergen altar panel is to contemporary manuscript illustrations. It is also worth pointing out that in the Halberstadt armoire, we see that the hinges in no way impeded the artist with his painting, he simply painted over them. Other medieval objects also bear this idea out

Armoire in the Brandenburg Cathedral, 1st half of the
14th century

Not all furniture was merely painted, however. There was a vast array of decorative techniques from which the craftsmen could chose. In the book of furniture history which I just mentioned, there is an illustration of a pair of oaken doors which came from a 12th century French armoire; this set of doors is covered in scrolling ironwork, and according to the text, was originally gilt. This is enough to blow the fuse in the notion of most people's concept of medieval furniture, such as the chest pictured below. This chest, from the Musée Carnavalet in Paris, has decorations nearly identical to the doors I just mentioned. Though it now has the rich warm glow of polished antique oak, it would not have looked that way when new, and would have been rather plain and unattractive; unless it was gilded, in which case, it would have been quite a stunning piece. 

The possibility that this chest might have originally been gilded should actually come as no surprise. There are many surviving examples of gilt chests, boxes, and other wooden objects from the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, why should there not have been, originally, such items made in the 12, 9th or 6th centuries as well? We know that gold leaf was used during those centuries, because it is preserved in book illuminations. Why should we not also assume that it could have also been used on furniture? Some furniture was covered in layers of gold foil, but there must have been slightly less expensive objects which were simply gold leafed. The fact that we have no surviving examples does not mean to say that there were none. It is also worth mentioning, that there are some ivory caskets and panels which do have traces of gold leaf on them from all periods of the Middle Ages.

Early 13th century chest from Musée Carnavalet
from the book, World Furniture

A look at the contents page of Il Libro dell Arte should give us further clues as to the vast range of decorative possibilities of medieval furniture. In Cennini's book there are descriptions of how to make "Mosaic of quill cuttings, Mosaic of crushed eggs shells, painted, Mosaic of paper or foil, Mosaic of eggshells, gilded." There are also descriptions of making figures cast of gesso to ornament chests and boxes, and how to make decorative foil appliques for panels and chests.

In Theophilus's writing, there is a most interesting description of "painting doors red". He then details how to make linseed oil, grind it with pigment, and then paint two or three coats of the colour onto the doors, letting them dry for a couple days between each coat. He goes on to finish by saying,"At last, cover them over with that gluten, which is called varnish, and is made in this manner." He proceeds to explain how to make a resin varnish, very much the same as one could find today; made from linseed oil, resin, and a mineral dryer.

One can never know for sure how the homes, castles, and palaces of the Middle Ages were decorated and furnished, but by reading, observing, and applying logic, we begin to see that people loved to ornament their possessions to the best of their financial abilities. During the medieval period, people did not have our modern sense of reserve and constraint; they did not paint all their rooms white, nor have simple angular furniture. They loved colour, rhythm, and texture, and used whatever method they could, to achieve the essence of their taste. Frankly, much of what they loved would be jarring or unsightly to our modern eyes, but to deny the existence of such ornamentation because of our societal prejudices is to rob history of its full impact and glory.  

Videre Scire

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ornamentation for Everything

In today's world, tools and utilitarian items are almost always made as quickly as possible. Part of that process also includes a lack of any sort of ornamentation or decoration. Decorative elements have been absent from tools for so long, and the trends of design have changed so much, that to our modern minds, it would actually be bizarre to see something like a DeWalt electric drill with a dragon formed into the top of the body, but such a thing would have been perfectly ordinary before the 19th century. (The concept, not the electric drill.)

In this post, I wanted to share some tools from bygone days when craftsmen took pride in everything they did, and had a sense of ornamentation completely (and sadly) lost to our generations. This topic was mostly inspired by my best friend, Steffen's recent trip back home to Germany. Whilst there, he took a side trip to Innsbruck Austria. He shared some of his photos with me, and I want to pass them on to you, my readers; adding a little context to go along with them.

Smoothing plane from Southern Germany, ca 1500
From the book; Die Geschichte des Hobels or in English, the
History of the Plane

Almost any wooden plane one finds now is simply a wooden block with a hole in it for the blade and not much else, It may have a line or two scratched onto the side, and perhaps some chamfering to the corners, by way of making the tool look a bit more appealing, or it might have all sorts of "natural" curves added to it as a way to make it more "ergonomic". This is becoming a trend with such tool companies as Veritas, but it is my own personal opinion that no matter how "comfortable" they may feel in the hand, they are down-right ugly to look at.

I much prefer the days of adding carving and figures to tools as a way of making them look beautiful, and at the same time, unique to their creator. We live in a world where a company feels they have to make a few thousand of  something or it is not worth doing. The tools you see below were all one of a kind. Each piece was made by an artist who wished to express his sense of design at the moment he crafted it. This spontaneity of ornament has been almost completely lost now.

Some 17th and 18th century try planes from

More planes here made of wood, and two of

There has been a lot written about the history of planes, and at this time, I do not intend to add anything to the subject, but if you are interested, you may visit the St Thomas Guild bog, where you will find a lot of terrific research on the topic. As I said, it is my intent in this blog to point out the long history of people taking the time to ornament and decorate items which we would call "ordinary" or "utilitarian". The very definition of these words, in our modern world, means, among other things, not having ornament. Contrary to our modern sense, however, people have been decorating their tools for a very long time, as this small plane from the end of the Migration Period (500-700 AD) shows.

A 7th or 8th century yew plane from northern Germany
(Picture borrowed from St Thomas blog)

I have shown several planes here, but just about anything that people made, used to be ornamented in some way. Below is another picture, also from Innsbruck, which show more woodworking tools. Each of these items has been enhanced by carving or turning in a way that makes them more visually appealing and exhibits the creative spirit of their maker.

A collection of various woodworking tools including turning gouges, a brace,
two irons for making a whole range of moulding, three saws, and a collection
of shoulder knives.

The group of 6 tools on the right-hand side of this picture are known as shoulder Knives. They were used to cut inlay used in intarsia work, such as in this picture below. (also taken from the St Thomas blog). They were also used for carving, such as chip carving and lettering, as the man in the intarsia picture is doing. I have not made one of these tools for myself yet, but do have a very long handled chisel, and can speak from experience to the fact that the extra length of the handle translates into a lot more cutting ability in the wood.

Late 16th century Intarsia panel depicting
the artist using his shoulder knife.

In a world of gadgets and electronic everything, it is my hope to spark a renewed interest in the concept of artistic creativity, connected with meticulous craftsmanship. I hope you too, can find an interest in a way of life in which things are made with deliberate care and passion, and not just knocked out as fast as possible, in order to get the highest monetary return for the time spent on them.

Speaking of meticulous, here is a convenient opportunity to slip another picture of some of the carving I have been doing for my 9th century box which I began working on, and featured in last week's blog. In this picture, I included my thumb because people have not been grasping the scale of things from the other pictures.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

9th Century Box - Part II; It Is Underway

It has been a while since I introduced the topic of this box, casket, or small chest (depending on what you want to call it), but work has continued on it from time to time, ever since.

Carved detail on one front leg
Much 9th century art was still following after the Roman tradition

The conceptual rendering done back in May

The first thing I did was to turn the four legs, in groups of two as can be seen below. Turning in this way helps me keep things closer to matching, since I do not bother with a lot of measuring and never use calipers to check my diameters. (Nothing wrong with doing so, I just do not have any, and have learned to do a fairly good job by eye.) Careful inspection of the few turned items which survive from the early Middle Ages suggests to me that the turners of that time period were about as cavalier as I am in just making each one look as close as possible to the original, but not fussing about it overly much.

One pair of turned legs before cutting apart

Block and divided circle used to get my flutes right

I thought up what seemed to me to be a clever idea to get the flutes set out uniformly around the circumference of the leg. I drew a circle, and divided it into 16 equal parts, then using a square block aligned with each radial line, made a mark with a pencil where the edge of the block came against the roll in the turning. It worked great.

I had taken some pictures of the process of carving the feet, but my age old trick of forgetting to put film in the camera has translated into forgetting to put the memory chip back; either way, the results leave you feeling foolish, with nothing to show. The same holds true for the pictures I took of cutting and planing the material for the box sides.

An 11th century book cover from the British

Even though it is always a shame to find historical objects destroyed or defaced, sometimes the results reveal things to us that we would otherwise have no way of seeing. Such is the case with this book cover, as it shows the method used to inset an ivory plaque into the wooden foundation. Originally, this would have had a carved panel and been surrounded by gold foil and gems, creating a fantastic "treasure binding".

Setting out the graves in the panels

Such a sunken field in a panel is called a "grave" and I set mine out with a marking gauge followed by chiseling, making a series of parallel chops along the length of the area I wish to remove. This gives me a sunken area from which I can go deeper with carving gouges, without worrying about damaging the edges of the grave.

Using a shallow sweep gouge to set the grave deeper
12th century box with carved wooden panels fit into graves carved into the
sides and lid of the box
From the book, Die Zeit der Staufer
Arca de los Marfiles
Another similar chest, this one from Spain and about 100 years older

To make a reproduction of an existing piece is a big challenge, but to make a "reproduction" of something that no longer exists poses numerous additional hurdles to overcome. One thing that I did was to observe some actual boxes from the 6th, 8th, and 9th century. Though none of them looked like the one I am making, they did have similar basic overall shapes, construction methods, and use of materials to these 11th and 12th century chests. I also observed others still constructed in the same manner from the 13th and 14th century. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a beautiful 13th century box made in this manner, in their collection but not on display; it can be found on their website, however.) I made a leap of faith and assumed that if this style of box existed over such a long period of time, so too, may the form which I am making. So far, the oldest item with this form that I know of, is a reliquary from Quedlinburg, and comes from the 11th century. There is no way to know if such a box-shape existed before this time, unless one is discovered, (There may actually be one, that I do not yet know about, as well) but I am making the assumption that this basic form of box did exist.

The next challenge was to consider how such a box might have been constructed. The answer to this, is that it would have depended on who made it, and where it was made. It could have had nailed butt joins, (such as the Spanish example above), nailed lapped joins, dovetails, or it could have had the method which I chose to use, which is a nailed vertical half lap join. I saw this method used in a tenth century ivory casket, but cannot find the picture at the moment. There is, in the MET, a 14th century box, (again from Spain,) which also has this sort of join, and can be seen below the following picture of my box.
Vertical half lap join for the corners
The same sort of join used in a box on display in the MET

One can see that this method is used by the fact that the gap is much wider at the top half of the back, after which the tear-out from the saw suddenly ends. If you were to see another angle of this, the lower half of the box end shows the same wider gap at the bottom. Looking at my box parts above, you can see how each piece looks, individually, with 'tabs' on the ends.

9th century box project;
Temporary partial assembly.

And so, some progress has been made, but a lot more yet remains. The block of wood is there to rest the box on, as only one leg has been cut out to accept the box. I also have to add a floor to it, which is the piece of pine to the left. It still needs to be planed and cut to size.

In my next installment on this topic, I will have made some of the "ivory" insert panels; I am looking forward to starting that once the carving of the legs is finished.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Eventually, most projects get completed

People often ask me what I do with my "free time". Their question assumes that I have times in which I am not in my workshop working. In truth, there are such times; for example, right now when composing this (very short) blog. I also have to go to the store to buy things once in a while, as well as seeing to other matters not related to my job, but are necessary in order to live...but these are few in number, and I spend most of my time working. I actually happen to like it this way.

My "baker's cabinet" made of elm

The question is usually intended as an inquiry into what I do for self entertainment; the answer. More work. The only real distinction about my "pleasure time" and "work time" is that what I do for "work" I  (usually) get paid for. What I create for pleasure, I almost never wind up selling, and so in essence, am making something for myself. One good thing about this sort of work, is that I get to make what I want, without worrying about someone liking it or not; because I was not making it for anyone in the first place. (This is not to say, however, that I do not like making the things my clients order, because I do. I am one of the few lucky ones who actually happens to like doing what he does for a living.)

Crest carving and marquetry detail

The downside to making things for myself is that since I am almost always busy trying to make a living, I have very little time to make anything else, so when I begin a project, it might be months or even years later before it gets completed. I am happy this week, because I managed to get one such project ticked off of the "to be completed list" (it is a rather long list, actually) Sometimes I get a boost, because I need to show someone the project, so must set myself to finishing it up. 

Lid and box-front detail

Such was the case of this hanging shelf/cabinet/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, thing which I began almost one year ago. (11 months to be exact) I am calling it a baker's cabinet, because as I see it, the box compartment is for flour and sugar, and the shelves are for oil, spice, and other things useful for baking. I hope to find someone to make some ceramic jars to use with it. I will offer it for sale at the Waterford Craft Festival in October, but I do not really anticipate anyone wanting to buy it. It is a whimsical piece which I conceived after seeing this photograph on the internet.

Original Inspiration

Comparing this original piece to what I created also speaks a bit about my sense of taste and design; namely that for me, the original was a bit too primitive and rustic looking. I decided to dress it up a bit with some veneer and edge banding. I like the hand made look, to show in the work, but at the same time, like it to be obviously well made. I also really have a hard time with simple, plain, and ordinary. Of course, the more ornamentation, and care one puts into a piece, the longer it takes to get it finished, and thus this one took nearly a year.

Several weeks ago I mentioned a 9th century box I Intend to make, that one should get its debut on this blog next week, In fact I mention it here to give myself a bit of motivation to make some more progress on it, No matter how busy one is, we always seem to make time for what we want to do, I want to make time to get this box going, and so far all I have done has been to turn the four legs and carve three of them. Posting this here will make me make the time to do what I want to do anyway. This week, anyone who wants to know what I will be doing in my "spare time" can know that I will be working some more; making something that is even more of my own soul, because I have to answer to no one for it.

This picture not available until next week

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The (long and complex) History of Medieval Chairs - Part III; Throne Chairs

It has been a while since our last discussion on the topic of medieval chairs, so I felt another one was a bit overdue. There is probably no single form of furniture in which one can get "into the weeds" (or swamps, or mud) of ambiguity, than that of the "throne chair".

As already discussed in the introduction of this topic, here, a "throne" by definition is not a type of a chair or seat, but rather, the function of a seat as a symbol of state, by the person occupying it. In this post we will try to stay out of the weeds, but give some context into the ornamentation and various forms of the 'throne chair', which I am simply defining as a high backed chair of imposing form.

Detail from the Ashburnham Pentateuch (BNF Nouv. Acq. Lat 2334 fol 44r)
In this illustration we see two men moving an empty chair of elabourate form

I like the Ashburnham Pentateuch for its myriad illustrations of all manner of furniture and interiors as they were (representationally) at the onset of the Medieval Period. Though the Roman Empire had "collapsed" some 100-150 years before this manuscript was produced, we see that the Roman way of life and styles of furniture were still very much in vogue. In this illustration, which is part of a scene depicting the preparation of Joseph's brother's return to Canaan from Egypt, people are busy cleaning, packing, and preparing for a long journey.

Other 'throne chairs' depicted in this manuscript seem to be of the plinth chair form with a separate frame for a cloth hanging which gives the visual appearance of a "back" but is not something which the occupant can lean his weight against; this chair, on the other hand, is clearly a one piece unit, constructed in a manner which is still common to this day. The rear legs are taller than the front, have horizontal cross-members forming the back, and are joined to the rest of the chair at the rear of the seat and are further stabilised by stretchers joining the front legs. Throughout the entire millennium known to us as the "Middle Ages" this same basic chair type persisted; only changing in appearance by shifts in taste and fashion for the decorative elements.

Reconstruction of an 8th century chair using fragments
 found in the excavation of the Crypta Balbi, in Rome
(see here for more information - in Italian)

There are not many pieces of furniture which remain from the early Medieval period, so whenever anything comes to light, it is of particular fascination to me. In 2001, excavation was going on in the centre of Rome, and an ancient Roman theater was uncovered. The remains of this building complex and later medieval buildings which occupied the site are collectively part of the Museo Nazionale Romano, and are known as the Crypta Balbi. According to their web page, in the 7th and 8th century this area had a workshop in the Exhedra, (an area built into a wall such as a chapel or a workshop; or even a seat if it is small) which produced luxury goods. Apparently, from these workshops came a bishop's throne; the few surviving fragments of which have been incorporated into a probable reconstruction of the chair, and are on view in the crypt.

The design of this chair is essentially the same as the remains of the so called St Peter's Chair which comes from the  time of Charles the Bald of the 9th century, on display in the Vatican Museum, It is also not so different from an 8th century BC chair found in Cyprus. All three of these chairs I just mentioned are constructed of a wooden core with thin ornamental ivory plates affixed to the surfaces. They are in form, very similar to chairs depicted in 8th, 9th, and 10th century manuscripts, so they give us a good point of reference to help us interpret the artwork.

Not all such chairs would have been covered in ivory, as gilt metal and enamel plaques were also popular methods of ornamentation. In fact, I am quite sure that the entire gamut of ornamental options were available, depending on the amount the patron was willing to spend for the production of his chair. In the 7th century account of St Elugius (a goldsmith and member of the Merovingian court) there is a story of him having made two chairs of gold, ornamented with gems and semi-precious stones for King Clotaire (ca 584-629). These chairs would probably not have looked all that different to the chair from the Sacramentary of  Charles the Bald, pictured below.

Folio 3r Sacramentary of Charles the Bald
BNF Lat 1141 ca 1169-70

This chair form had staying power throughout the medieval period. An interior designer might quibble over the similarity of some of these designs from an ornamental standpoint, and they doubtless had some technical variations in their construction over the course of a millennium, but essentially this chair remained unchanged for thousands of years. I am speaking here as an archaeologist would see things; in the same way that he would find a relationships between Neanderthal and a modern humans, not in the way that an ethnologist finds differences between the Celts and Germanic people of early medieval Europe. (They were not the same people even though many early history enthusiasts like to treat them as one and the same)

BNF Lat. 8851 fol 115v
Evangelist Portrait of St John
10th century

The form of these throne chairs could have arched, triangular, or square backs, and could have panels and arms above the seat or not, as in the case of this 10th century illustration from the workshop of the monastery at Echternach. This manuscript has been attributed to the Meister des Registrum Gregorii, but, though it is very similar to his work, it is my belief that it was not done by the same artist. I would imagine it was more likely a member of his workshop. My basis for that assumption is that the illustrations are less technically detailed, (though that could be excused away by the speed in which their production required). A second argument that I give, however, cannot be excused away so readily, which is that the faces are not treated with such precision, and more importantly, the Grogorii Meister (master) makes his figure's fingers much longer than the artist of this manuscript. 

Meister des Registrum Gregorii
This illustration comes from the book which
this unknown painter is named after; it is
added here for comparison to the above work.

Whether this illustration was painted by him, or someone of his circle of influence, is not so important as the fact that the Registrum Gregorii Meister's work was so renowned that it influenced other work for over a century. The following illustration, also a portrait of Pope Gregory the Great, from some 60-80 years after that of the Gregorii Meister, bears witness to this fact. Though this chair differs from the others in that it has no panels, its structure is essentially the same concept. Other illustrations from the 10th century are more like the previous examples, but I wished to show this example to demonstrate the longevity of ornament, as influenced by one artist or school of artistic thought. Both the centres of St Gall and Echternach, where these three works were produced, exerted a far reaching impact on book illustrations of the Ottonian world.

Pope Gregory receives Inspiration from the Holy Spirit
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 376, zt. 82
ca 1050-70 

As time wore on, the throne chair did not so much change, as adapt the various trends in fashion and ornamentation. In the British Museum can be found a lovely collection of ivory chessmen which are believed to have been created in the first half of the 12th century. Known as the Lewis Chessmen, these pieces give wonderful representational designs for chairs done in the Romanesque taste of ornament; namely interlace and foliage, known in German as Flechtwerk and Rankenwerk (Flecht means to weave, and Ranken is a vine tendril). In many of the objects created in the 11th and 12th centuries the taste for panels with enamels and gems gave way to ornament of this type. This is an oversimplification, however, as the 11th -13th century was the "Golden Age" of enamel work from Mosan and Limoges, and the objects produced in these workshops went into the decoration of just about any sort of furniture one can think of. Nevertheless, as featured in other postings on this blog, there are actual surviving chairs from this period which prominently feature this vine and weaving type of Romanesque ornament.

One of the 12th century Lewis Chessman from the British Museum

Regardless of the elements of ornament, this chair still illustrates the basic principle of square corner posts and a panel back; (it also has side panels and shorter front posts, not visible from this angle) in this case the round finials have given way to carved animal heads. This might have been a variation which had persisted throughout the Middle Ages as well. Many illustrations from every century show them as terminals on the "X Chairs" so there is no good reason to doubt carved animals could have been used on these throne chairs as well. (They are also very common on throne chairs of the 14th and 15th century, as observed in artwork and actual surviving examples.)

Shrine of St Valerie, sold on Christie's
Late 12th or early 13th century

Sadly, I did not have an odd 50,000£ lying under my mattress, so was unable to purchase this lovely champlevé shrine when it came up for sale on Christie's a couple years ago. Because it is a shrine, the proportions have been somewhat altered, but this is still our basic throne chair made of gilt bronze and enamel. This is one of those products which I mentioned, coming from Limoges. As far as I know, there is no actual surviving chair made of this sort of enameled gilt bronze, but given the host of chest fittings, reliquaries and, caskets made in this manner, it would seem very probable that such chairs were also produced. Without a doubt, plaques of this type of ornament would have been affixed to the wooden structure of other chairs, giving a very bold and glittering appearance.

Coronation Chair of Westminster Abby

Bold and glittering is certainly how this coronation chair of King Edward's would have appeared when first constructed in 1296. It was covered in gilded gesso with figures and diaper (repeating foliage or floral pattern) ornamentation; further enhanced by transparent glazes of colour to pick out certain elements of the design. Leaving off the cusps and crockets of Gothic ornament, this chair essentially brings us right back to the 8th century Italian one we began with.  Disregarding 700 years of abuse and continual use, this chair is also a wonderful testament to the degree of sophistication that existed in a period from which most people still hold the view that the furniture was of the coarsest form. 

I have brought you, century by century, through almost the whole of the Middle Ages here. We have now arrived at the 14th century and though there are hundreds of illustrations to choose from, both in manuscripts and painting, as well as sculptures and even actual chairs, I have chosen this one to hammer home a bit more, the last point I made.

BL Yates Thompson MS 21 fol 69v

Save for the baldaquin (overhanging 'roof') this chair is still basically the same as the others, having corner posts and panels to the sides and back. It comes from a ca 1380 addition of Roman de la Rose, a popular late medieval romance novel. I wanted to use it in order to contrast it with the following illustration, which comes from the same book. In the illustration above, we see representations of a fairly sophisticated and well ornamented study. The chair has carved panels, and the posts have elabourately turned elements. (One post has been omitted by the artist in order to avoid confusion, as it would have been mostly hidden by the lectern.) A highly carved and ornamented lectern stands in front of the seated scribe, and a revolving, adjustable round desk is placed to the side.

BL Yates Thompson MS 21 fol 4r

By contrast, the single unadorned (at least as it is depicted here) chest in this illustration would seem to speak of a very humble ill-furnished room. This illustration seems to be the model by which many people judge the furniture and furnishings of the medieval world, but this view completely ignores other illustrations such as the one above, and more importantly, all the actual artifacts which demonstrate that people in the Middle Ages loved to ornament their possessions. 

The richest kings, popes, and emperors would have had chairs of gold, or some other material covered in gold and gems, but other, slightly less well off rulers wishing to emulate that style, could have had gilded copper and enamel or glass. Still further down the economic ladder, one could have had gilded gesso and paint. Once any hope of gold ran out, there was still the option of bronze, and below that, brightly painted objects. 

If we look at the early modern period, when enough objects associated with a particular individual survive to give us a clear impression of their possessions, and compare that to the writings of the classical writers of Rome, (backed up by physical evidence from places such as Pompeii) we can see that people have not really changed much. The more money and power someone has, the more lavish his goods. In the will of Charlemagne is mentioned four elabourate tables made of either silver or gold; kings and emperors did not have crude unadorned furniture. People of lower social or economic situation have always striven to emulate, to the best of their ability, the tastes and fashions of their social and economical superiors. Even peasants of the 15th and 16th centuries had brightly painted furniture, why can we not assume then, that the same would have held true for the 12th or the 9th?

A 15th century throne chair and associated wall paneling in the Cluny, Paris

One thing that the study of a two thousand years of European furniture has revealed, is the slow change which took place in the basic forms and methods of construction. In a previous post, I showed a chair from the 6th century grave find of Trossingen, Germany, and how it differed very little in fundamentals from a chair of 17th century England. Museums and history books often quibble over whether such and such a piece was made before a certain date because the drool that dripped out of the makers mouth had a particular element not known in people's diets before a certain date, or some such thing. This is an exaggeration of course, but we often get lost in the forest and never see the trees. A certain design or technical element may well date a particular piece to a specific date, but this says nothing of the possibility of a very similar object existing in a much earlier time period. Throughout the Middle Ages, we can be certain, that throne chairs existed, and were not confined to the use of Kings, as thrones. They were also made for people's private use, and the degree of their decoration had as much to do with the amount the patron spent in their manufacture as to the their ultimate function or ownership.

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