Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Mystery Solved

A few years ago as I was studying some pictures from the vitraux de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres or, the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral for those who do not understand French, I came across this picture of two workmen making chests. I was immediately drawn to it for several reasons. The first was because I noticed that one of the craftsmen was using a plane. This window was made at the end of the 12th century, a time when most people tend to believe the only tool used by furniture makers and carpenters was an axe. I have even read books that postulated the idea that the plane had been “lost” and was only re-invented/discovered in the 13th or 14th century. Finding this picture, portraying a plane very much like those in use in the 15th or even the 19th century adds weight to the idea that the plane never actually “disappeared”.

A scene from an end of the 12th century Chartres Cathedral window.
The workman on the right is clearly using a plane with a front tote,
what is the man on the left using?

Another reason that I was drawn to this picture was because it shows the form of one type of a chest made in that time period, (and for millennia before then) and seems to indicate a degree of ornamentation to the chest as indicated by the parallel lines on the legs and another line below the top. Though the end of the 12th century is actually “late” in the history of the Middle Ages, most anyone referring to furniture from this period would call it “very early” for the simple fact that almost no furniture from any time before that survives. Finding a good depiction of a piece of furniture from this period, then, is exciting for anyone interested in the history of medieval furniture. Finding a picture depicting the making of that piece of furniture is even more exciting, and rare.

As I studied the picture, I noticed an unfamiliar tool in the hands of the man on the left. Over the weeks and months, after first seeing this image, I pondered the tool, its actual form, and its use. I began to speculate that perhaps it was some sort of moulding shaper; i.e. a type of scratch stock, based on the parallel lines along the edge of the piece he is working. I began to think of how this could be fashioned and how it might function, and even got as far as holding a moulding plane blade at a scraping angle and trying to use it by pulling it towards me. The one thing I had not yet worked out in my mind, was how the tool’s handle might have been attached.

Fast forward a few years, and on the 30th of November of last year (2015) I read an article posted by Peter Follansbee on his blog about traditional Hungarian chests. In this article, I saw a picture of Mr Tamas Gyenes using a tool to make grooves or rebates on the legs of his chests. I had an instant “aha moment” of recognition. I was busy then, though, and did not have the time to pursue this notion further. This past week, however, I looked up Mr Gyenes’ website and then contacted him about the tool he was using. My suspicion was that it was the very same tool as that pictured in the Chartres window.

A picture of Tamás using the "hornyoló",
this picture made me instantly remember the picture in the Chartres
Cathedral window

The next day I was delighted to receive a reply from Mr Gyenes, expressing equal conviction that the tool was indeed the same in both the window, and that used by the traditional Hungarian chest makers of the Carpathian Valley; the last survivor of which he is. His words were, “Yes, it is true! It’s AMAZING! You are a very good fellow! There is a craftsman depicted on the cathedral’s window who is working with the same tool as me.
There is only 800 years between us...”

Three extremely nice chests crafted by Mr Gyenes, usig
only traditional hand tools and green timber.
Though the decoration is firmly 19th century
the form of the chest is thousands of years old.

He then sent me another more lengthy email a few days later, explaining about the tool and how it works etc. In Hungarian, it is called a hornyoló. It seems that the cathedral window artist even got the detail of the cutter on the tool right, as it is a ‘U’ shaped hook on the end of the tool. By holding this tool with both hands, one on the iron part, the other on the wooden handle, the artist pulls the tool through the wood, repeatedly removing strips as is done with a plane, until the desired depth is achieved. I assume that only skill and practice render straight and accurate rebates, as there is nothing, save the craftsman’s dexterity to guide it.

A close up view in which you can see the curved hook
of the cutter end

Mr Gyenes works with green timber, and apparently that was the tradition as practiced by the makers in the period which he studies. In fact, working green wood was the tie that connected him, and Mr Follansbee in their initial exchange. There seems to have been a tradition of working green wood in the earliest period of American Colonialism. The traditional carpenters of Germany are also known to have worked “green” timber, and even Vitruvius mentioned that the timber should be worked from trees that were felled in the autumn and winter, whilst the sap was down in the wood. One could assume, then, that in medieval times, green wood was also worked, and thus the craftsmen depicted in this window may well have been doing exactly the same work as what Mr Gyenes is doing today; keeping alive a tradition that is actually thousands of years old.

Three views of an antique tool, as provided by Tamás,.
in these pictures you can see how well the window artist
portrayed the important details of the tool.

This chest tomb of 13th century BC origin, comes from the island of Creete
but can now be found in the MET in New York; it clearly represents the
same fundamental design to the chests pictured above.

From St Martin's Church, Hindringham, Norfolk, UK comes this chest
made about the same time as the French window illustration.
According to a note of information on the church in Wikipedia it is "thought
to be one of the oldest chests in England"

Incidentally, Mr Gyenes was completely unaware of the picture in Chartres Cathedral, and so was absolutely delighted to see it and learn that the tool he uses was much older than he had previously been aware of. I was very happy to be able to share such a find with him as well as finding the answer to the mystery which I have pondered for some time. The fundamental design of the type of chests he makes is much wider than the Carpathian valley. Although there are elements of the chests of that region which make pieces from there unique to that place, the general form of that chest can be found in clay coffins of the 13th and 14th century BC Minoan culture. There are also some of these found in the UK and many more from Germany. Doubtless this design is nearly as old as time; I wonder if this humble tool of Mr Gyenes and the one pictures in the cathedral window share an equally lengthy heritage?

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Short History of Early Medieval Capitals

This blog is about many things, but my work, my art, and my research regarding the Middle Ages, take up most of the subjects covered. Regarding my research, I often come across things that run glaringly contrary to the discoveries I have made in my studies. I then feel compelled to write an essay to counter the offending notion; such will be the case with this blog posting.

I had intended to write something (and still plan to, in future), tracing the development of the acanthus leaf through the centuries, from The Roman Period, to the Rococo. In my initial inquiry into the origins of the plant as source material, I read the Wikipedia article on "Acanthus as Architectural Ornament", and came across this statement. "After centuries without decorated capitals, they were revived enthusiastically in Romanesque architecture, often using foliage designs,including acanthus."(underline supplied)

A Visigothic capital  from the National Museum, Catalonia
showing stylised acanthus leaf decoration.
7th century

Statements like this really "get my goat" as they promote the too-oft repeated notion that most of the medieval period was a dark wasteland of crude, unadorned objects and architecture. Nothing could be further from the truth. actually. Though the evidence could fill volumes, I wish to give a simple overview which will put enough light on the subject to make anyone paying attention realise the error of this sort of notion; but more specifically, disproving the statement that there were "centuries" of unadorned capitals.

I suppose this statement is not entirely untrue, because in every century, simple buildings, were built with unadorned capitals, however, this statement seems to imply that there was a period in which no ornamentation was used on any type of building. I know this statement to be untrue, but for me to simply say so, without presenting evidence, would be pointless. Therefore I began at the "beginning" (6th century) to investigate what buildings had been built at that time, and what, if any, period ornaments from that construction still remain. I then moved through the centuries, up to the 10th, which is the "most generally accepted date" of the beginning of the Romanesque period.

6th century capitals from Ravena. Two distinct churches, both built by the
same bishop at about the same time; notice the difference in style, however.

The first thing that one might find surprising from this approach, would be the number of identifiable buildings which were constructed in the 6th century. In a time when the Roman Empire "was" or had "just collapsed" there were no less than 9 important churches built (some of them major renovations) in Rome alone. (For anyone who really wants to check, I have named them; Santa Balbina, The Basilica of Sts Cosmian and Damien, The Basilica of Saint Mary in Cosmedin, San Pancrazio, The Basilica of St Lawrence Outside the Walls, Santi Apostoli, San Teodoro, Santi Vito, Modesto e Crescenzia, and San Nicola in Carcere) Many other important churches and dozens of monasteries were also built in every country of the former Roman Empire during the 6th century as well.

This trend continued into the 7th and 8th century, in which there were scores of buildings built, whose remains are yet identifiable. Wikipedia lists no less than 100 abbeys which were built in the Merovingian area of control (roughly most of France, Western Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg) in the years between 500 and 750.  After these came the "Carolingian Renaissance", which continued on into the Ottonian period; the foundation of the Romanesque style. Looking at the artifacts and artwork of these periods, I am still scratching my head, looking for those "centuries" of  "undecorated" architecture; they simply do not exist.

Capital from the crypt of Jouarre Abbey in
southern France, 7th c

One of the problems which gives rise to the notion of nothing having been created in this period, is a scarcity of surviving evidence. Though hundreds, if not thousands of important and significant buildings were built during the first four centuries of the Middle Ages, very few of them retain even the slightest trace of their original form. We have hundreds of examples of Greek and Roman buildings preserved in some form which allows us to note fairly accurately at least some general sense of their style of ornament. We seem to assume the same should be true for early medieval architecture as well. The fact which is not generally considered, in taking on this line of thought, is that most of the Greek and Roman work we have was either abandoned or buried. The country of England was well populated with a Roman society and all of their accompanying cities, towns, villas and fortifications, yet there is not one intact Roman building left in the country. It is only from abandoned and unwanted buildings in (mostly) dessert regions, that we have such a large collection of in tact Roman architecture.

By contrast, in the Middle Ages, most buildings which had been built were destroyed and re-built again and again throughout the medieval period (and beyond). St Martin's Church, in  Canterbury is generally considered to be the "oldest church in England"; it was "built" in the 6th century, yet even this building was both actually a 're-build' of a fourth century church, and incorporated a Roman tomb. Today, there is nothing save a few courses of brick and tile work from any of these earliest structures. The same can be said of the 7th, 8th 10th or 12th century renovation work done on it. The present building looks thoroughly 14th and 15th century with absolutely nothing to give a clue of what any of the previous incarnations of the building or its decoration looked like. The same can be said for nearly every other building built before the 12th century (and most later medieval ones as well)

Though built in the 4th century and re-built in the 6th, then again in the
8th centuries, with several subsequent renovations, this church retains
 no ornamental characteristics from any of those construction programmes.

Continuous reworking, alterations, and fashion changes, (even if we discount all the destruction from war, earthquakes, and fire) have nearly obliterated all but the faintest hints of the complexity of decorations and architectural ornament from 1000-1500 years ago. Reading through the history of nearly any documented 6th - 10th century building will demonstrate how true this fact is. Just two examples of the thousands which could be cited, follow. The original 6th-century paleo-Christian church on the site where the Cathedral of Naples now stands, ... was rebuilt and incorporated into the [present] cathedral when it [was] built in the 13th century. And this, concerning Santa Maria ad Nives, Faenza; Founded outside of the city walls, likely in the 6th-century,...Some of the construction still dates to the 15th century. (Emphasis supplied by me, as if the author of that statement considered the 15th century to be ancient work.)

There can be found, however, hints of what was. By examining the few remaining objects, we see that there must have been a vast array of ornament in each of the earliest centuries of the Middle Ages. These ornaments, included decorated capitals, some examples of which are shown below.

This is rather like most people's view of early medieval arts; a flat simple
 relief capital from the 5th or 6th century, now in the Louvre
Also in the Louvre, and also from the 5th or 6th century, this capital
comes from the 6th century Notre-Dame de La Daurade in Toulouse.
This church was an important building, and thus its decoration
was more lavish; nothing to do with craftsmen's skills or lack thereof .

From the Musee du Moyen Age, come these two capitals, both
from the same church, and both of the 6th or 7th century St Denis
Church .

I mentioned earlier that most of the Roman ruins which yet remain, come from dessert places or abandoned towns or areas. Actually, we can also find early medieval architecture in similar situations, mostly in southern France, and in Spain. These are not examples of the finest work produced in the time period, because they were created in remote areas, but they do, nonetheless give solid examples of the creative spirit of the early medieval cultures and the general stylistic trends of the time. The fact that they were in unimportant places was actually their saving grace, as no one had the funds to bother updating them.

Another Visigothic capital  from the 7th century, compare it to the first

I have no idea what part of history the person writing the cited statement in the Wikipedia article was thinking of, but there certainly was never a period of any duration, in medieval Western Art, when ornamentation was not used. In contrast, the people of that time loved to ornament everything. This becomes even more compelling when one studies the few surviving illuminated manuscripts from the period and realises that they loved bright colours as well. In all probability this plain grey capital pictured above would have been painted, giving it even more decorative impact than it now has.

Though faded from 1500 years of time, this manuscript from the University
Library of Würzburg, (M p th f 68 fol 2v) demonstrates the bold colours
and patterns used by 6th century artists.

Because I am a furniture maker, I cannot resist including another dimension of this topic, which is the same ornamentation used in non building type objects, but yet retained the use of columns and decorated capitals as decorative elements. These could include Altars, tombs, tables, and cabinets, as the following 6th or 7th century pair of wooden doors, now in the Walters Art Museum, demonstrates.

A beautiful, small pair of 6th or 7th century cupboard doors.
I have examined these doors myself; they retain traces of red,
green, white, and black paint. Sadly, someone has sawn off
the relief carved eagles in the centre medallions,
leaving only their basic outline. Perhaps they were gilded?

Videre Scire