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.  

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  1. Muy interesante. Muchas gracias, Mónica

  2. The Medieval period was definitely more colourful than most people think. I have also seen many examples of painted furniture.
    But not only the furniture was decorated - walls and ceilings of castles and churches (and likely houses) were painted as well. Even the statues on the outside of cathedrals were painted, see for example Amiens or Chartes cathedral, where they project the colours on the cathedral each summer night. They discovered the colour remnants during restoration/cleaning work on the building.