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.

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