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.

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