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

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