Sunday, February 21, 2016

To Ornament Or Not; Part IV - Availability of Patterns

In my ongoing series about the ornamentation of medieval furniture, I feel it useful to discuss a concept which might not have occurred to most modern readers. This is the fact that, unlike in our era of an abundance of photographs, the medieval artist had far fewer resources from which to draw inspiration. Lets all agree from the start that no artist creates anything from a vacuum, and every artist draws inspiration from other art which he sees around him. He then takes that inspiration and, filtering it through his own soul, creates a new work which is his own. This is one of the reasons that the study of history is so important, that we may realise that we owe everything we are, to those who came before.
Temptation and Fall, from the Solerno Ivories. 11th century
(photo taken from the book in my collection)

If I want to carve an acanthus leaf on the apron of a table, I first try to create it directly from my imagination, if I am not satisfied with those results, or if I feel I am not able to visualise it well enough without help, I will go to the books in my personal library and search for something that looks similar to what I have in mind. If I do not find anything that speaks to the vision that I have, I may try to go to an antique shop or museum to see if there are any pieces with something similar to what I want to carve. Failing that, I may try an 'on-line search' in hopes of finding a suitable model. From reading this, you get the idea that there are a lot of sources 'out there' from which I may draw inspiration.

Temptation and Fall, from the San Marco mosaics, Venice
(photo taken from The Solerno ivories)
It seems quite likely that both of these artists were working from the same
model, though each artist added his own touches to the composition.

What about in the Middle Ages? Obviously one could draw from nature, and every artist had objects around him, but there were also pattern books which where available to every type of craftsmen. How many of these were available, and the percentage of artists who actually owned one or more of these books or pamphlets would be impossible to tell. The earliest surviving example that I am aware of, comes from the beginning of the 13th century, known as the Reiner Musterbuch, it is a collection of drawings and alphabets, used by artists for inspiration in their own creations. Though there may be older extant versions, this is considered the oldest well known example. Many early medieval manuscript illustrations have similarities with late Roman examples, which suggests that there were probably already pattern books for artists at that time. The subject of model books is an entire field of study for someone, other than myself. What I want to discuss here is the way these model books and other sources of available images may have affected the quality of ornament of a particular object.

Photo of the early 13th century Reiner Musterbuch from Wikipedia.
On the left page are examples of leaves like those found in metal-work,
illuminated manuscripts, and carvings, among other things; on the
right are patterns similar to those carved, painted, or inlaid on
chest fronts of the period

There is quite a difference between "seeing" something, and "observing" the same. When I was in high school, many of my classmates liked to draw cartoons, patterned after their favourite style of comics. They were able to re-create very believable copies of these drawings, but at the same time, most of them were not able to draw even the simplest of objects such as a chair or an apple with any sort of noteworthy accuracy. The reason is that they were 'observing' the details of their favourite cartoons, but not those of the apple.

Much of the art created before our modern era, with its notion of the free-spirited artist, was taught and practiced to styles and tastes established by the workshops which they were employed in; overall trends and tastes in society further contributed to the look of any given period of time as well. Much like most automobiles of any particular decade before the 1990's had a very distinct style which made it readily date-able to that era, the art of  history is usually identifiable to particular periods because of the overlying styles which culture had established, and the workshops of all the various trades disseminated. The Göttingen Modelbook, from which an illustration bellow demonstrates, shows one way that this sort of period-specific universal style was spread. The basic styles and techniques outlined in that modelbook can be observed in the paintings and illuminated manuscripts from much of Europe for a period of more than a century.

Göttingen Musterbuch, mid 15th century.
(Gutenberg Project)

This style was not limited to paintings and book illustrations, as the following two pictures illustrate. The same basic leaf form turns up in the foot of a large Swiss chest from the 15th century, and a 15th century German Altarpiece. As can be seen by these two illustrations, the craftsman had a wide range of interpretation in the actual appearance these forms could take on; this was partly determined by the type of work his shop was producing.
Foot of a Swiss chest, 15th century

Detail of a German Altarpiece in the Walters Art gallery, 15th century

There are a host of factors which might determine which of these two styles was produced by the artist making a piece of furniture; these could include the amount of time, and or money, that the client was willing to spend, the type of material that the craftsman was using, the level of skill he had, but most importantly, what sort of examples he had at his disposal for his models.

I often come across things written about this painting or that sculpture which "clearly shows the work of more than one hand", as in, the writer is assuming, based on the skill demonstrated, that two or more individuals were working on the same piece. This may, and probably is, the case in many instances, as a workshop setting would inevitably lead to multiple persons working on any given project. However, there is also the possibility that one artist had two separate sources from which he was relying on as his model.

My own carving, inspired by the casting shown below

This scenario occurred to me in the process of my own ongoing project. When I began my carvings, I was primarily relying on some small, not clearly drawn, illustrations from a 19th century book. I was not completely satisfied with the quality of my carving, as I felt I should be able to do better. I found a few castings taken from existing old work, which was available for purchase, and ordered them for the purposes of more diligent study of the techniques employed by the craftsmen who had originally made them. The difference this made in the quality of my own carving was remarkable.

A commercially available cast from a 19th century copy of a
16th century work

This observation of my own work led to further conviction that my earlier notions of the quality of ornament, throughout the Middle Ages, was as much influenced by the creating artists' proximity to urban centres and good sources of quality work, as to any other factor, such as skill, or financial incentive. Most of the time, when we see a work that is not "well executed" we assume that a lack of skill on the part of the artist is to blame, but perhaps the fact that he had nothing more than a simple stylised drawing to go by, and all the other carvings in his region were also of similar quality were equally contributing factors.

Two ivory panels depicting the same scene, and clearly
inspired by the same source, but what was the source,
and what other carvings did the first artist have to go by?

Compare the above depicted carving of mine, with the quality of one a did only a couple months earlier, but with no three dimensional or photographic example to go on, and you will see how important the quality of a model is to an artist. No matter how skillful the artist may be, if he generally cannot go far beyond the things he has surrounding him as model sources.

Videre Scire

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