Sunday, August 7, 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight; Cabinets in Medieval Artwork

This posting will examine the existence of cabinets in the early and high Middle Ages.

From abot 700 AD comes this
two door cupboard with intarsia decoration
Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, fol 5r
Back when I first began studying artwork in search of illustrations of furniture, I primarily focused on paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries. This was mostly due to the fact that it is almost the only "medieval" artwork on display in the museums. This is also why most people, when it comes to medieval reenactment, tend to focus on these two centuries, the information from earlier is just so rare, and there are relatively very few objects from earlier centuries to base recreation on.

A "Giebelschrank", which is German
for a cabinet with a pointed top.
ca 1200. Notice that it was
originally painted and is missing the
edge trim on the top.

As a furniture maker by profession, I have always been particularly interested in finding examples of "case goods" type furniture, Especially cabinets. The usual line, when it comes to cabinets in the Middle Ages, is that there were very few of them, and that they were very heavy, immovable objects. In fact, there are existing examples of this type of furniture which supports that idea. An example of that would be a late 12th/ early 13th century cabinet in Halberstadt which is constructed of timbers large enough to make a house with. but there are other less publicised examples which prove that this was not always true. The single door armoire from the Bergen Museum, pictured above, proves this.

Relief carving of ca 1330, depicting a very fine cabinet, doubtless this was
once one half of an Annunciation scene

As I studied the artwork though, I did come across examples of furniture which seemed more 'ordinary'. In particular, Giotto painted several desks and cabinets between the 1290's and 1337, the last year he was alive. All of these pieces of furniture seem little different to ones made in the 15th and 16th centuries. I also came across Several similar depictions of furniture in relief carvings by Andrea Pisano, and a splendid sculpture by Giovanni da Balduccio, of about 1330, pictured above.

The question might then be raised, "Were cabinets invented in the 13th century, and if not, why do we not see cabinets in earlier work?" The answer to the first part is 'no', and the second part is complicated. First of all, we do not have all, or even more than the tiniest fraction of all the artwork that was produced between the 6th and 13th centuries, so we have no idea of what may or may not have been portrayed, we only know what is portrayed in those artworks that yet survive. Second, there actually are a few illustrations of cabinets from earlier times; one example also in stone, is from a capital in the Basilica of St Mary Magdalene in Vézelay.

A capital in the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine à Vézelay,
created in the first half of the 12th century
It is obvious that the objects in the illustrations I havegiven are cabinets, simply by the modern recognisable form they take. I mention this, because several years ago, whilst going through the images from Royal Manuscript 16 G VI in the British Library. I came across the following two illustrations, and a "light bulb" came on in my mind.

Folios 85r and 112v from BL Royal 16 G VI 2nd quarter 14th century

In the first illustration, we can clearly see that a cabinet is represented, because it has shelves full of gold vessels, but in form, it is just the same as the buildings in the next illustration. My moment of realisation was twofold; some of the "buildings" in medieval artwork are actually meant to be cabinets, and a possible reason that more cabinets were not portrayed, was because in the context of simplified representational artwork, a building and a cabinet look just the same. Perhaps to avoid confusion, artists did not usually portray cabinets.

Part of this revelation was that I had recently seen the cabinet illustrated at the top of this blog posting. I realised that a typical medieval portrayal of this cabinet would not really be any different from an illustration of a doorway or a building. After this idea occurred to me I went back through a lot of illustrations to see if there were more examples to support my theory. I was delighted to find that, in fact,there are. 

BNF Lat 1 fol 3v , so called Bible de Vivien, or
the first Bible of Charles the Bald, ca 845

I had actually pondered this image earlier, and thought that the object on the extreme right of the centre register was some sort of cabinet, but had no way to prove it. Most discussions of this picture would say that the object represents a church in which the writings are stored. In fact, the lower register does show books being transferred from one church to another, but on careful examination, we can see that the artist did make some distinctions between his buildings of the first and third register, and the cabinet of the middle one, In the following three details, I have pointed out these differences,

Three details from the above illustration. I have added notes
to point out the differences between the buildings and the cabinet.

The first thing that I noticed was that, unlike the other buildings in this painting, the "cabinet", as I am sure it is, has no representation of stones to its walls; all the other buildings do. The next thing to note is that nearly all of the windows in the buildings are represented as having mullioned, glazed windows, as illustrated by their lighter colour and the white bars in the windows; those that do not are arched. Neither is true for the openings that would be interpreted as windows, were the cabinet actually a building. Speaking of those openings, they all have doors painted in various stages of being open, unlike any of the windows in the other buildings. Lastly, our cabinet has a frieze moulding above the door of the first tier (above the lower doors), and a plinth base to it, as one might expect a cabinet to have; none of the other building shapes from this illustration do.

Here is another illustration from the end
of the 10th century which shows essentially
the same principles. This time, the door
is closed and the cabinet has no windows
in order to distinguish it from the building.
Cabinets seem to have been an integral part of a scholars studio from the beginning of the medieval period, a carryover from classical Greek and Roman society, actually. (see illustration toward the end of this post)

A cabinet for theatre masks, from a book of Greek plays
BNF Lat. 7899 fol 2v 9th century
(So much for the notion that Classical literature was
"lost" in the early Middle Ages!)
BSB clm 14000 fol 97r 879

These two pictures help support each other, clarifying the intent of the
artist in portraying writing cabinets; in the first example, they are built into
the wall of a stone paneled room like one would have found in a palace.
St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 371, zt. 2  11th century
In case there are any die-hard skeptics, here is another illustration ca 1330-40
which shows the same notion, just in the garb of 14th century ornamentation.
BL Egerton MS 2781 fol 71r
And another from the 1st quarter of the 15th century
BL Royal MS 1 E IX fol 63v

All of the cabinets illustrated thus far have very distinctive characteristics which they share with contemporary architecture. It should be no surprise that so much furniture of the Middle Ages had architectural elements to it,  This seems to have been a trend since Roman times. There is a much celebrated remains of a charred cabinet in Herculaneum, which had columns, capitals, and a frieze. All very much like contemporary Roman temples. I already mentioned that cabinets and architecture tended to be nearly indistinguishable in form in the medieval artwork. Below are a few pictures which are buildings, but look very much like the examples of cabinets we have seen; in other words, were one to add some shelves, these would be cabinets not buildings.

This is neither a cabinet nor a building, but a baldaquin.
Notice that it is nearly identical to the Norwegian cabinet.
BNF Lat 6(2) fol 88r 10th century.
The object to the right is most likely a doorway, or a representation of a building
but add a door and a few shelves, and it would be a cabinet.
BSB clm 23631 fol 24r 1V 9th century

There is probably someone reading this who still is not buying into my argument, but that is fine, I have one more card to play. I already showed the Bergen cabinet, which is very architectural in form, as pointed out by the above illustrations. This cabinet is what came to mind when I saw the cabinet in the British Library manuscript and set me on this line of investigation. Another fact that added weight to the notion, however, were the many 13th and 14th century sacristy and chalice cabinets still found in various churches and monasteries around Europe, especially in the Germanic lands; which are all built very deliberately to mimic architecture.

Schrank in the Brandenburg Cathedral
Originally this would have been painted and gilded.
A ca 1300 cabinet in Bad Doberan Münster, made to store 20
chalices and their respective patens.
Notice the painting on the inside of the doors which is
reported to be original to its construction.
Also from the Bad Doberan Münster, this is the left wing
of the high altar, completed about the same time as the
Minster, ca 1300. The entire building project was completed in 15 years.
This altar has been restored, but with the same colours and
gilding, as originally crafted. The cabinet above would originally
have looked like this as well; traces of the paint and gilding
have been left as time has aged them.

I am not saying that most people had cabinets in their homes, and it would be impossible to determine how prevalent they were. The point of this article is to counter the notion that in the early Middle Ages, the furniture was all, or nearly all "six board" and dugout chests. Many writers will tell you that the "hutch" (another name for a tall chest with legs) "originated" in the 12th or 13th centuries, implying that post and panel construction did not exist before that time. My research shows that throughout the medieval period, all sorts of post and panel "case-goods" type furniture was being produced, including cabinets and armoires.

All of the basic forms of furniture were already established in Egyptian and early Grecian civilisations, and the Romans continued those traditions. I have just returned from a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, where I spent three days studying medieval artworks. I will be sharing more in future posts, but here is one photo from the Late Antiquity/Early Christian period (roughly 250-500 AD). According to the museum information card, it depicts a doctor sitting in front of a cabinet containing scrolls, a basin, and medical tools; though it is inscribed with Greek letters,it comes from Rome, around 300 AD. 

A Roman cabinet from around 300 AD, from a sarcophagus now in the MET

This cabinet is very much like several depicted by the Ottonian artist known as the Meister des Registrum Gregorii, and others of his circle of influence. It would be totally absurd to think that whilst continuing the practice of making timber framed buildings, siege engines, and weaving looms, European society as a whole forgot how to make cabinets, but after several hundred years, again took up the art in the very same form.

BNF Lat 8851 fol 115v depicting St John in his Study
10th century
Just a parting note on a mostly unrelated topic; unlike many people will tell you, the chair in which St John is sitting does not have a two sided back "to keep out the draughts". The fact that it appears that way to us is simply the result of a common problem of medieval artwork, where the artist is trying to combine two points of view in one illustration. From the side, he knows that the back of the chair is 'behind' the sitter, but he also knows that from the front the back is visible on both sides of the occupant's body, thus he attempts to combine a 'side-view' and a 'front-view' in one picture. See my earlier article on interpreting perspective in medieval art.

Videre Scire

1 comment:

  1. I like this 1300 cabinet in the Bad Doberan Münster!