Sunday, March 20, 2016

9th century candlestick project

Last summer I found a piece of elm in the woodpile; I felt it could be useful for turning something from, so I put it in the lathe and began turning. I had no idea what it would turn into when I began, but wound up making a candlestick from it. It is based on the design elements of various 6th through 10th century designs.

The piece of wood that I used was large at one end and smaller at the other, so the flared top and stem came from this piece. As a shape began to materialise, I realised what I could do with it, and that I would need to make a base out of a separate piece, (which I made from poplar because I did not have a large enough elm piece). At the time, I had recently been looking at the image below, and this is no doubt influenced my hands in coming up with the shape that appeared out of the blank of wood.

Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden MS VLQ 79, fol 72v ca 816
This is an image of a brasier (metal instrument for containing
live coals, used for heating a room) from a 9th century MS.

I have not found any 9th century candlesticks with this form, but there are many surviving chalices with the same basic design; a fluted base and or top and a flared knop on the middle, there are also many manuscript illustrations of this form used for many types of objects.

A Merovingian chalice and paten from the 6th century

10th century chalice with fluted bowl

The Tassilo Chalice, from the third quarter of
the 8th century. This one has no fluting
but has the knop and beading.

Detail from BL Harley Gospel 2788, fol 108v (the "Harley Golden
Gospel") of ca 800. Here we see a flared column base (other illustrations show
the fluting) and a flat section beneath with beaded decoration.
Ivory carving in the MET, showing fluted and knopped

Incorporating all of these elements, I came upon the idea of carving the fluting, beads, and banding into my turned piece and making a candlestick out of it. Unfortunately I cannot locate any pictures of this object taken as I was turning it, I think they must have been on that card that gave out on me.

This is a picture with the two sections joined (just
above the base) and having two coats of glue sizing

In the business of recreating medieval objects, people often get hung up on their own sense of taste and style, as informed by their culture. This can, and often does, lead to a warped perspective of what actual medieval objects might have looked like. Because I love wood, my personal taste would be to leave this piece as it is in this picture, however, any object carved to this degree, in the 9th century would doubtless have been gilded,or at least painted and partially gilt; that is precisely my intention for this piece.

I was only going on memory when I carved the feet into this base (by turning
a profile and then cutting away most of the material. I then carved the feet)
but I wound up making them too skinny at the bottom, so I had to glue on
some little pieces and try again for the outside toes.

Any recreation one might attempt of an object that does not exist, will by nature, be very subjective and speculative. The best one can hope for is to find as many examples of technique and style as he can, to support the design and decoration he wishes to use. In all probability an object like this would have been made of copper or bronze and then gilt, but I believe that there could also have been objects made of wood and then gilded as well. The closest gilt objects I know of from the time period, however, are items made of ivory. This, and the fact that many illuminated manuscripts have gold foil gilding shows that this technique was widely practiced; there is no good reason to believe that it was not used on wooden objects as well. In all periods of history, man has tried to make cheaper imitations of more expensive objects, and a gilt wooden one would certainly be less costly to produce than a similarly decorated cast metal ones.

In his 11th century treatise on various crafts, Theophilus mentions the use of gesso to prepare wooden objects for painting and decoration, including gold leafing. "Horse saddles...chairs...and other objects which are carved...should be rubbed with shave-grass' (still trying to determine exactly what plant this is) 'as soon as they have been scraped with an iron tool; then covered with two coats of white [gesso] and, when they are dry, smoothed again with shave-grass. After this, measure them [lay out] with compass and rule and arrange your work, namely, figures or animals or birds and foliage, or whatever you want to portray. After doing this, if you want to embellish your work, apply gold leaf..."

Much of what is written in Theophilus has been traced by scholars to be much older than the 11th century. Some text in this work even comes from BC Greek writings and early AD Roman manuscripts. At present, I have no way of knowing if this passage has foundations older than the 11th century, but given the descriptions of the level of ornament achieved in the 9th century, I find it highly probable to have been a practice already in play at that time.

Very hard to take a photograph with one's left hand, using a camera made
for the right hand!

Using a file and a scraper made from an iron-saw blade to smooth the gesso

I have no "shave-grass", but do have a fine file and some scrapers. I find that the scraper works best for the concave surfaces and the file does very well on the convex areas. This is the second layer of gesso, so it will be ready to apply the gold leaf after this. I had planned to apply bole over the gesso, but on re-reading Theophilus, I find no mention of it in this passage, I will have to do some more reading, and check a couple other sources. It may well be that bole is a latter technique. I find that using it looks better, because any place where the gilding does not cover or where it might be chipped or scratched shows dull orange-red underneath; much less glaring than bright white. However, as I just said a few minutes ago, it is not about one's personal preferences in taste that should dictate when attempting an authentic looking medieval object. Therefore, unless I come up with some evidence of bole being used in the early middle ages, I will have to apply my leaf directly over the gesso.

Ready for gilding (?)

I will begin gilding this candlestick the next time I have some free time from my work, and will post pictures of the process and the completed object once I have finished; stay tuned.

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