Sunday, September 27, 2015

9th Century Box, Part IV - Rankenwerk

I used the German word for this because it seems to suit the design much better than the English "vine and tendrils" which is what Ranken means, werk is the same as 'work'.  Most people associate this sort of ornament with the Romanesque period, but this motif is a very ancient form which has been used continuously, in all Western and Near Eastern art, for much more than 3 thousand years. This week's blog will be about this type of ornament which I have used to decorate the left end panel for the box project. I had hoped to have if finished in time to do this blog but even after carving for 13 hours today, I did not quite finish; I just ran out of steam.

9th century box, end panel - almost finished
As the light faded this evening here was were I was with the carving
Carving dimension; 140mm x 92mm

I have not tried very hard to find the origins, or the earliest surviving examples of this type of work, but here is a detail from a 2nd century BC bronze door in Hagia Sophia, which clearly shows two versions of the Classical Greek form this decoration took on. One thing I find particularly amazing about this door is that if one were to only see the vine and leaf ornament on the extreme right of the picture, they would surely assume it to be 14th century Western European work.

Detail of a Bronze door in Hagia Sophia showing
two forms of 'Rankenwerk'

I will remind everyone reading this, again, that all the ornament for this box stems from the BNF Lat 1 manuscript in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I am not copying anything outright, but imagining myself as an artist in the 9th century who had access to this manuscript as a design resource. As such an artist, I would have, (and did) taken design elements from this work and adapted it to my plan. There is no design in the manuscript which remotely resembles this panel, but all of the various parts are there; this includes the lion, the scrolling vines, and the various types of leaves and flowers which I have used.

BNF Lat 1 fol 4v
Scrolling vines and leaves, the circular flower, and a rampant lion

I first began working out the design on paper, and once it had gotten to the point of feeling like it could work, I stopped and started drawing it on the holly panel instead. I did not feel like re-drawing the lion, so I traced him, cut him out, and pasted him on. "cut and paste" old school!

The design, drawn and ready for carving

One thing that this exercise gave a good excuse to point out, is that in laying out this type of design, one begins with circles. Some free-hand work follows, connecting one ring with the next to form spirals, but to lay it out accurately, one uses a compass as can be seen in the following picture.

Concentric circles are the foundation for this type of design

I point this out because it is an important thing to consider when viewing medieval illustration of furniture. Many examples are decorated with simple dots or circles, but as I have stated in the past, these renderings are not photographic, but merely form-representational illustrations. If one considers the set of six circles shown on the piece of timber above, and then the ultimate decoration that sprang from those circles, it gives a completely different perspective from which to view this 11th century relief carving of a bed.

Detail of a relief sculpture at the monastery in La Charité-sur-Loire, France

When I first began this box project, I was feeling apprehensive about my abilities to carve the fine details, but was willing to give it a go. As I got into the project my confidence has grown, so I felt up to the challenge of something a bit more intricate than I had originally planned. A trip to the Medieval Collection at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore also had me feeling that my attempts at reproducing medieval relief carving were actually quite pathetic. I saw things there which were much smaller than my carving, and yet a thousand times better. It is good to eat a slice of Humble Pie once in a while, and to have something to put you back in your place.

Once I got started, the carving went well, but as one might expect, it took quite a lot of time, at the point when I stopped this evening, it has 25 hours worth of work, plus the two hours to draw the design on the wood in the first place. I must still do a bit more scraping and cleaning up, as well as finish carving the moulding on the right edge; then I will give it the bleach treatment and cut it to fit the box.

10 am

5 PM
It was a cloudy day, thus the grey colour to the picture

8 PM
This is a good view because you can clearly see the intermediate stage
 of carving for the moulding

Note to my regular readers;

There will be no blog posting next week, as I will be at the Waterford Craft Fair, exhibiting my wares as well as demonstrating my craft for the audience.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Some Interesting Gleanings from "Theophilus"; Part I

A couple weeks ago, in the course of preparing different materials for my box, I picked up my copy of Theophilus to re-acquaint myself with possible medieval methods of faceting and polishing gems. I will be using some semi-precious stones as part of the box decoration, and was trying to think of how they might have been ground and polished in the early Middle Ages. I was right in remembering that he had written on that topic, but wound up reading the entire book again in the process.

At the beginning of the book, in his prologue, Theophilus makes mention of Germany producing "fine work" in many mediums, including "wood" Unfortunately, he does not elabourate on this, but there are a few very finely wrought, surviving wooden artifacts, both sculptural and furniture, which come from Medieval Germany. (Of course the same can be said of Italy, France, Spain, England and the North Countries.)

I have already mentioned, here, his writing about gluing up panels, which also includes the mention of planes; a couple of points of great interest to anyone such as myself, who is both a furniture maker and a student of Medieval History. As I went through the book, I began underlining all the passages that spoke of furniture and furnishings, and methods of applying ornament to those objects. In this blog I will share many of those passages with you; as well as a few of my own thoughts inspired by them,

12th century altar panel in the Vatican Museum
This panel was joined as described by Theophilus in his
De Diversis Atibus. The green arrows point to cracks
in the joins between the individual timbers which make
up the panel as a unit. Notice that not all the joins have
failed, however.

For me, the largest 'nugget' of information is the just-mentioned text about panels, planing, and glue. The book I have, was written/translated by John G. Hawthorn, and Cyril Stanley Smith in 1963 (available from Dover, in the States), but I have also read a couple on-line translations, looking for variations in the text. The on-line version I like best can be found here, I like it, because it has the Latin text to compare the English translation with. This version was written/translated by R Hendrie, in 1847. (the first "modern" version of this work was translated in the late 18th century; it has been a work of interest to historians for a long time.)

I do not want to get into the weeds of technical details of the book, and the issues of dating or authorship, all of which are highly subjective, and disputed, but the core text, as it has been preserved to our day, comes from a couple of mid 12th century copies of the work, as well as a few later copies bound with additional texts from other sources.

I will copy here, the version from my book, because it is the easiest to read, whilst trying to type this. The first part I will share is the much mentioned bit about gluing up panels;

"Chapter 17"

"The individual pieces for altar and door panels are first carefully fitted together with the shaping tool that is used by carpenters and vat-makers. Then they should be stuck together with cheese glue which is made in this way;
       "Cut soft cheese into small pieces and wash it in hot water, in a mortar, with a pestle, repeatedly washing it with water until it comes out clear. Thin the cheese by hand and put it in cold water until it becomes hard. Then it should be rubbed into very small pieces on a smooth wooden board with another piece of wood, and put back into the mortar and pounded carefully with the pestle, and water mixed with quick lime should be added until it becomes as thick as lees. When panels have been glued together with this glue, they stick together so well when they are dry that they cannot be separated by dampness or heat. Afterwards they should be smoothed with an iron planing tool which is curved and sharp on the inside and has two handles so that it can be drawn by hand. Panels, doors, and shields are shaved with this until they become perfectly smooth. Then the panels should be covered with the hide of a horse or an ass or a cow which should have been soaked in water. As soon as the hairs have been scraped off, a little of the water should be wrung out and the hide while still damp should be laid on the panel with the cheese glue."

There is a lot of information in this short bit, but what is interesting to me is the mention of "the iron planing tool" The authors of the version of the book I have, are letting their pre-conceived prejudices about medieval technology get in the way of their translating and put in bracket "i.e., a drawknife" but they obviously  do not know much about planing and joining, or how nearly impossible it would be to join up timbers with a drawknife, nor do they seem to be aware of existing medieval planes and plane illustrations which show that the planes often had two handles. (You can read St Thomas Blog, for a lot more information on medieval planes if you like.)

An early medieval/late antiquity plane made of ivory and iron

It is also worth noting that in order for timbers to be glued together in such a way as to stay glued, they must be absolutely uniformly mated together, as in, no gap between them. The only way to practically achieve this is with a plane. Notice in the first illustration of this post, a 900 year old panel which still has many of its glue joins intact.

Another interesting bit about planing timber can be inferred from a passage in section three, chapter 2, where he is giving instructions on setting up a goldsmith's workshop. Speaking about the workbenches, he states; "The table should be so flat and smooth that any little shavings of gold or silver that fall onto it can be carefully swept up" This sounds like a very different surface from what most people have in their minds when it comes to medieval tables. I even venture to be bold enough to say that these tables would need to either be waxed or varnished, because no matter how smooth they were planed, without a sealer, they would still trap gold filings.

Theophilus actually has a chapter specifically about making exactly that, varnish and coloured varnish, and especially mentions "making doors red" with this oil varnish. Mick Jagger could have even seen his red door in the 12th century apparently.

In later chapters of the first section, following those related to making the glue, (both cheese and hide) he speaks more about gluing and using hide or cloth to cover the timber before adding paint. In Chapter 22 he states that "Horse saddles and eight man carrying chairs, that is , curtained seats, and footstools and other objects which are carved and cannot be covered with leather or cloth", should still be covered with gesso before painting.

An interesting bit that I did not catch in the first couple of reads of this book, was a chapter on making paint with the resin of the "cherry or plum tree". I wonder how that works out? I have not heard of anyone using this method.

Still on the topic of paint, chapter 26 states;

"On wood, you should apply all pigment, whether ground with oil or with gum resin,[the just mentioned fruit-tree resin] three times. When the painting is finished and dried, carry the work into the sun and carefully coat it with the gluten varnish. [oil varnish mentioned above] When the heat begins to make it flow, rub it lightly with your hands. Do this three times, and then leave it until it is thoroughly dried out."

This brings to my mind, images of bright, gaily coloured, glossy painted panels, not the worn out battered bits of objects left to us in museums. As I have said many times before, medieval society loved vibrantly coloured and decorated objects. There are yet more snippets of information in this book to confirm that notion as well.

The third section of this book is the longest and most detailed, and is primarily concerned with the various arts of metalworking. Because of this, many historians believe Theopholis to have been a goldsmith himself. In chapter 72, he is writing about making copper foil and the things that can be done with it, such as punched work, openwork, and other types of sheet-metal decoration, both gilded and silver plate. he then says; 

"Copper plates are also made and engraved and coated with black and scraped. these are then put in a pan containing molten tin so that the scraped places become white, [silver] as if they had been silvered. Painted chairs, stools, and beds are bound with these plates and books of the poor are also ornamented with them."

This passage, to me, is nearly as exciting as the one about glued up panels. Here, he is making a distinction of less costly furniture, but it still obviously quite highly ornamented. He specifies "painted" furniture, to distinguish it from other types, unfortunately, we do not have any full record of what other types there might be, but they would obviously include furniture which was completely covered in, or even made of, gold and/or silver, furniture which was covered with ivory, and dare we think, perhaps, even furniture which was finished with "the gluten called varnish"? He does have a passage in chapter 75 which includes the mention of "precious wood" presumably this would be wood which had a beauty thought highly enough of, to not paint it or cover it with gilt foils.

It is also interesting that he states this type of work being applied to things related to "the poor" perhaps this is a relative term, but he uses it again in another chapter, this time on making foil of gold and silver soldered together. "This work has the appearance of silver that has been gilded on one side... Borders are made out of this sheet and are impressed with a die... Narrow strips are cut from this sheet and they are twisted around silk in spinning. Gold fringes are woven from them in the homes of the poor just as among the rich they are woven of pure gold."

Wow, that sound to me just like the drab grey or brown woolen clothing that is all too often seen in modern "medieval reenactment" scenes! 

Yet another passage of class distinction comes from chapter 92;

"When you have made spurs, bits, and saddle furniture for humble clerics and monks and have filed them smooth, heat them a little and rub them with the horn of an ox, or with goose feathers. For when these are slightly melted with the heat and stick to the iron, they will provide a black colour which is somewhat appropriate for them."

In contrast to this statement is the passage in chapter 78 on gilded or silvered repousse' work;

"Now gild the plates and polish them first with brass wire brushes as above, and then with burnishing tools. Colour it [gold requires some sort of treatment after being heated, to actually give it the 'gold' colour we know], fasten the gold settings, each one in its place, and insert the gems, and fasten the pearls round them. In the same way you can, if your inventory allows, make gold and silver on the books of the gospels and on missals; also animals, small birds, and flowers  [This is a distinction from the saints and angels of which he had been speaking of for the ornament of ecclesiastical furnishings.] on the outside of the riding saddles of matrons."

The last little tantalising allusion to opulence, insofar as furniture is concerned, comes from chapter 95; a short bit on working ivory. 

"Now fashion ivory handles, round or ribbed, and make a hole down the axis, Enlarge the hole with various appropriate files so that the inside is the same shape as the outside and the ivory is even throughout and moderately thin. Around the outside delicately draw little flowers or animals or birds or dragons linked by their necks and tails, pierce the grounds with fine tools and carve with the best and finest workmanship that you can. After doing this, fill the hole inside with a piece of oak covered with gilded copper foil so that the gold can be seen through all the grounds. Then seal up the hole with pieces of the same cunningly that no one can see how the gold was inserted."

Unfortunately, he does not go into any detail about what one is meant to do with these "handles", but I like to think perhaps they belong on the doors of cupboards and desks.

A 12th century French capital showing a cabinet
Though this cupboard has no doors, it is likely depicted that way for
technical reasons, and to more easily show the contents of the interior.

In all, this is a fascinating book, and there is much more to be gleaned from it than I have time to share now, but I hope you have found these bits as enlightening and informative as well. As I have said before, the "Dark Ages" were dark because no one bothered to put the lights on; that is what I am trying to do, one blog entry at a time, however.

Videre Scire

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A New Carving Commission

When I was young, my favourite style of ornament was the flamboyant rococo style of the 18th century. All the swirls, tendrils, and leaves were the epitome of carving perfection in my juvenile mind. When I studied interior design in college, it was at times quite depressing to me, because everything my instructors wanted me to do was so modern and plain; the complete opposite of what I wanted to create. Although my passions have since shifted much more toward the medieval period, (I also liked the Middle Ages, even when I thought rococo was the perfect art form) I have always maintained my love for the style of Louis XIV and XV, and the forms of decoration that were produced in Germany and Italy after that taste. I never expected, after coming to America, however, to land a job carving this type of work, as most Americans tend to have much more conservative tastes, but my fortunes took a lucky turn this summer, and now I am doing just that; carving rococo ornament.

My design for one of the wall borders which I will be carving

A run of Louis XV style border moulding for a passageway;
I will be producing 13 'panels' like this

The job is to produce some carved appliques and mouldings to create bordered panels for the walls of the passageway of my clients house in Bethesda, Maryland. There will be 10 of the narrow panels and 3 of the wide ones. It is all to be painted in an antique white with antique gold accent to it.

One of two niches and the entryway arch to the foyer

In addition, there are two niches and an arched entryway which also need my carving skills to bring them to life; I will be producing these applied column and arch panel mouldings as well.

One element of the design drawn out life size, and then glued onto the timber

The timber is then re-sawn, the shape cut out, and re-glued to the
remaining part of the timber. This gives a means of holding the piece
whilst carving it.
In doing the first piece, I was not smart enough to think about turning it over
and tracing the outline on the timber to produce the mirror image of the part,
but I was for this piece. Most of the design is symmetrical and therefore
has matching left and right components.

Since all of this moulding is to be painted, I am using linden wood; it is a rather boring, nondescript looking wood, but has been used for painted and gilded carving work for millennia. Below is the first piece I did; it is the lower centre segment for one of the narrow panels. I had never carved this wood before, and after carving so much cherry, walnut, and my latest elm and hickory, I really had to ease off on the accelerator when it came to carving this stuff. I can see why people such as Tilman Riemenschneider and Gringling Gibons liked to carve with it, but the funny thing is, it will take some adjusting to, for me to be able to carve it well.

The first segment finished, only ...heck, it is too early to even think about
counting how many more are left to do.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

9th Century Box - Part III, Bellerophon, Pegasus and the Chimera

A couple weeks ago I did a post showing the progress on this box. At that time, the side panels and the legs were finished, but I had actually barely begun, in the broader sense of all that still must be done, to finish this project. I did have some good carving sessions, and am quite chuffed with the results, and so that will be my feature for this week; along with a very brief overview of the legend which the carvings relate to.

Bellerophon and Pegasus, the first panel for the box front
(The wood seems very dark because I took the picture without flash)

In a Greek legend, coming from the writings of Homer's Iliad, are found fragments of the tale of Bellerophon and his exploits of killing the Chimera. (pronounced as Christian is)

It seems that Bellerophon had committed a terrible crime and had gone to the court of Proetus, a local king, to seek forgiveness. The king treated Bellerophon well, and he remained at court just long enough to get into some more trouble with the king's wife. 

Proetus was not willing to execute Bellerophon on account of his having been his guest, and so sent him, along with a letter, to his father-in-law, king Lobates. The instructions in the un-opened letter were for King Lobates to have Bellerophon "done away with", but the king spent 9 days feasting with our hero before he bothered to open the letter. Just as with his son-in-law, this king was not willing to execute an honoured guest, and thus sent him on what he deemed an impossible quest, namely to slay the fire spewing monster, Chimera. 

In the story, as it is told in the versions of the Iliad that we know, after Bellerophon was visited by Athena and given a golden bridle with which he would be able to tame Pegasus, he took to flight, found the monster, (said to have the head of a lion, a goat in its middle, and a serpent for a tail) and devised a plan by which he might dispatch said monster. The story says that he attached a big clump of lead to the end of his spear and was able to get near enough the Chimera to dislodge the lead down its throat, thus causing it to suffocate once the beast's breath had melted the led. 

Judging by the depiction in the BNF Manuscript Latin 1, (the source from which I am deriving the decorative elements for this box) there must, however, have been another version in circulation in the 9th century, as here, Bellerophon is depicted with a coin. 

In the artwork of this time, a coin would be a symbol with which to designate the idea of "gold" in general; perhaps the legend from which this artist derived his imagery, says that Bellerophon disguised the lead as gold, and thus fooled a greedy monster? I have no idea, but I like that idea, and clearly, in this version, he has no spear. (Incidentally, Bellerophon appears black here because he was originally done in silver foil which has since tarnished to black.)

BNF Lat 1 Detail showing a depiction of Bellerophon astride Pegasus
encountering the hybrid creature, Chimera

It is worth pointing out that most history books will tell us that all the classical writing were banned and thus "lost" during the Middle Ages, but here is a bit of evidence to suggest that that was at least not entirely true. I also read, in Wikipedia, whilst looking up this legend, in order to get the names and facts right, that "In Medieval art, although the Chimera of antiquity was forgotten...", so obviously someone writing their history, does not know of these illustrations in this manuscript.

Pegasus begins to take flight from his wooden prison
I had to carve away all the wood that had trapped him in the tree.

I did not take nearly enough pictures whilst working on these panels. I would sit down and work on it until I had to quit and go do something else. I was so absorbed in the carving that I did not stop to document what I had accomplished.

Chimera; a mythical creature going back at least 2700 years and found in
early Greek art

Once Pegasus was finished, I carved the Chimera. I had to alter the format of the monster from the way she was depicted in the 9th century manuscript because it did not fit my panel shape well. I found a picture of a crouching lion on another page of the same manuscript, added the goat body and the serpent tail, and was able to come up with a good looking beast that also fit the panel nicely. (There will be some painted decoration in the lower narrow bare section on both panels.)

After the carving had been finished, it was time to begin doing the moulding around the perimeter. Honestly, I procrastinated quite a bit before beginning this phase, as the detail and scale were a bit daunting. I got the basic design from another page of the same manuscript. Later, I found in my picture collection, an ivory panel which is in the Essen Cathedral treasury and shows some actual moulding done very similarly to this manuscript illustration.

Acanthus leaf ornament as moulding, as depicted in BNF Lat 1

Actual moulding from an ivory panel in the Essen Cathedral treasury

I stabbed, hacked, and poked around for quite a while trying to get the rhythm of this pattern. I would make two cuts and go back to studying the drawing again, trying to figure out where I was. It was a bit unnerving, as I had never carved anything like this before, and the minute scale made it that much more daunting.  (I did not have the photograph to work from, it is only in the computer.)

The first stage involves "drilling" the little holes with a 1.5mm gouge

Eventually, my "aha" moment came, and I suddenly understood the design and was able to lay out the rest of it, and carve it quite efficiently. It was quite remarkable to see the same thing which I had been looking at for so long, but suddenly being able to "understand" it, as one would discover, after being in a foreign country for a long time, that they could suddenly comprehend what others were saying.

Laying out the acanthus leaf moulding on the bottom edge

Once the lines were drawn in, I carved them with a tiny 'V' gouge and
then gave a bit more dimension to the design with a shallow sweep gouge

I did not remember to take any pictures of the last steps of cutting the leaves out at their tops, to give them their final definition. I also realised that carving the little 'V' notches on the outside edge would go much faster after the panel had been cut out, so I finished that part up after the sawing was finished.

Rip-sawing the panel off of the blank of timber

A close-up, showing the finished moulding

Once the panel was cut out, and the last bit of carving was finished, I used some wood bleach to clean it of all my finger smudges and get rid of the darkening that had taken place from three weeks of light exposure. The bleaching also helps prevent it from yellowing again, after it has been finished.

Carved plaque, inset into the front panel of the chest

One imitation ivory panel done, one nearly done, and many more
yet to commence