Sunday, August 21, 2016

Reflections On My Visit to the MET - A carved 6th or 7th century panel

It has now been twenty years since I came to the States, (where does the time go?!) and until two weeks ago I had never been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, known colloquially as the MET. A few weeks ago I decided to remedy that shortcoming by giving myself a birthday present; a trip to the museum. One of the things that had prevented me from visiting earlier was that I knew it is a huge museum and there would be no way to take it all in in one day, thus I would need to stay overnight, a rather costly investment in New York. In fact, the museum is so vast, that even in three days I did not see half of what I wanted to see. (And to think that I had also planned to visit the Cloisters which is another whole building devoted to 12-15th century European art, located in a different part of the city.) I spent all of the opening hours of the Museum inside it for the duration of my trip. A fact that had the native New York cab driver incredulous, he could not fathom someone coming there to visit a museum?!

I could gratuitously post a bunch of photos which I took there, (I managed over two thousand, and am still sorting through them.) but just about every object in the MET is online, and some of them have thousands of renditions posted by others. I do not feel the need to add to the noise. What I decided to do, rather, was to post over the next few months some of the pieces that particularly impressed me, and to share some of the inner workings of my mind, in seeing, appreciating, and comprehending them. In short, I will be curating them into a broader medieval context than what the museum has time or space to do.

A carved wooden panel from the 6-7th century

Before I even went to the museum, I knew there would not be time enough to see everything I would want to, and so determined to stick to what would be the most important to me; namely late antiquity, and early medieval. Thus my tour began right inside the entrance, to the left of the ticket takers. (20+$ per day for three days is an investment in itself). The first few rooms are filled with a mix of objects from all over the Roman world, spanning a period of the 3rd to the 7th century, perfect hunting grounds to help understand the state of the arts at the onset of the Middle Ages.

I had not been there for more than twenty minutes when I spotted this object, hanging on the wall, and knew that my trip had not been wasted.

I was studying this lamp stand when I first spotted
the panel. I enjoyed seeing this lamp as well, and
was very happy that the museum placed it in front
of a mosaic which has an almost identical object
represented; touching on one of my key themes-
that objects portrayed in the artwork are always
much simpler that the actual things they represent.

I said that nearly every object in the museum is online somewhere, and this one is no exception, but I had never come across it, and so was delighted to "find" it. Wooden objects from the 6th and 7th centuries are extremely rare, so it was very special and moving for me to see this remarkably well preserved piece. Before reading the description, I thought perhaps it was a back panel for a bench, or a crest from a cabinet. There are holes in the bottom of the panel, however, which most likely held spindles or balusters, that making the cabinet scenario much less likely.

When I take a trip to a museum, I always try to take pictures of the descriptions either right before or right after photographing the object, so that I will be able to remember what it was I was looking at later. With 2000 plus photos, this was extremely useful! Here is the description for the above picture as provided by the MET.

Museum label for the panel

The museum inventory numbers allowed me to look it up online and find out more information about it. For example, I now know that it is 223mm high, 927mm wide, and 19mm thick. (Interestingly, even today, this is the most common thickness for basic timber stock.) I also learned that it was discovered in and is presumed to have come from Egypt. Because my studies are primarily confined to European Medieval culture, one might wonder why I would have much interest in this, but I will address that shortly. First, however, I wish to discuss the part which the museum mentions as being its likely function. ("The crest of a piece of furniture or a barrier") I am not going to say I have a more precise answer than that, because I do not, instead, what I want to do is examine a few applicational possibilities.

As I said earlier, my first thoughts, upon seeing it were that it could be the back of a chair or bench, but that was partly influenced by the fact that I had just been studying the Utrecht Psalter. Thus my mind recalled some of the benches and chairs depicted in that manuscript.

A bench depicted in the Utrecht Psalter; note the crested back.

This bench depiction represents a much larger piece of furniture than would have been possible from the MET panel (4 occupants), but thanks to an image which I have borrowed a few times already, from St Thomas Guild, we can see that smaller benches, suitable for two people were also produced.

A short bench from Sweden, purported to be from the 12th century, but in style
it could have come from any time of more than a thousand years prior to that,
based on Celtic and Migration Period grave finds and early
(8th-11th century) illuminated manuscripts.

In the late antiquity,and early Middle Ages large chairs were produced which were meant for a single user, and intended to impart a sense of importance and power associated with the occupant. This panel would be large enough to suit such a purpose as well.

A throne depicted in the 9th century Stuttgart Psalter

In looking through my manuscripts I came upon another possible application; that of a headboard. The manuscript pictures I have are less convincing, but when one factors in the Migration Period bed remains which have been found in Germany, Switzerland, and France, this increases the possibilities.

A bed depicted in the Ashburnahm Pentateuch this shows the way balusters
would have been inserted into the bottom of the crest panel
Remains of a 6th century bed (cut down to be used as a coffin) from a grave
find in Baden-W├╝rttemberg
(You would not look very pretty after you were buried for 1400 years either!)
Detail of a sketch made in the mid 19th century of a bed found in Oberflacht
a grave site in Baden-W├╝rttemberg. This sketch also shows a plan of the bed as
it was found within a sarcophagus. Based on these proportions, one can see
that a panel the length of the one we are discussing would fit such a bed.

As I said, I have no intention of trying to establish what this piece was actually used for, I just wanted to point out some possible applications so that you could visualise it in use on an actual piece of furniture. I have not found any depictions of screens or room dividers, but that could also be another function, as suggested by the museum. The fact that this piece comes from Egypt as opposed to Europe causes me little concern. There are many early medieval ivory artifacts from Egypt which are nearly identical to European examples of the same types of objects. These include Boxes, book covers, and mirror cases, there is no reason, then, to suppose the same might not be true of wooden objects.

The Roman Empire had a very homogenising effect on the arts throughout the area of its control, and we find items of furniture from Spain and Morocco to Iran and even India which had the same basic forms and methods of ornamentation. Small regional influences gave some level of distinction, but the overall Roman-ness of these pieces is almost always undeniable. Part of this was because the Romans incorporated and dispersed design elements from all of the regions in which they held control and allowed the craftsmen from those areas to continue to ply their trades in far flung parts of the empire. The result was a give and take in which both "sides" influenced one another. The classical Greek influence had also been absorbed by Rome, which itself had grown from diverse areas of Europe and the Near East.

In going through some of my collection of illuminated manuscripts in preparation for this blog I found some remarkable ornamentation which very much invoked the style and spirit of the carvings on this MET panel.

The artist who painted this manuscript stuck mostly to the Roman
tradition, but he used some of his native Germanic motifs in the border
and other ornamentation. The spirit of Christ's chair is very much like
that of our panel. The ornamentation surrounding the IHS XPs is even
closer. (This is the latinised  abbreviations for the Greek words
"Jesus Christ")

At first glance, this crest of a Cannon Table from the Soissons Gospels
(BNF Lat 8850 ca 814) has nothing to do with the panel we are discussing, but
look closely, and you will see the same rounded edges interspersed with leaf
points. This is a motif which is found throughout the Roman world at least as
far back as the 3rd century; predating "Byzantine".

Sometimes the influence went the other way as well, and forms of "barbaric" ornament made their way into Greco-Roman art. (or it had been there from the time that these people were also "primitive"). I pointed out the decorations in the above portrait of Christ; these sorts of decorations can be found all over the western world going back millennia before Christ. Here are a couple more examples.

This photo is from the MET website. It shows a basic form of universal
ornament shifted  a bit to give a deliberate emphasis to the cruciform form.
(Notice the dark areas, stained by the minerals used as paint pigment; this
piece would have originally been painted.)

Also from Lat 8850, this little scrap of a border shows the same basic motif
as it might be drawn in a simplified manner relevant to the scale

BNF Lat 9427 fol 145v This letter 'D' from the text, "Diebus Illis Maria"
(In those days Mary... but I cannot read the rest of the script, so I do not
know what the text is) has a somewhat similar motif but the same
design for the border of the roundel. The stem of the 'D' is similar to the
bottom border of the panel. This Frankish manuscript comes from right
at the turn of the 8th century (ca 700)
Even more impressive, however is this little gem, from about the same time, but in a different manuscript.

BNF lat 12048 fol 40v. I think it would be hard to find a closer example
from anywhere than this to the carved roundel in the MET panel. This manuscript
was produced in France at the beginning of the 8th century.
Please notice, also how well painted the cock is.

Thus I conclude that this panel, though it comes from Egypt, can still give us valuable clues as to how a 6th or 7th century piece of European furniture might have appeared.

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