Sunday, July 24, 2016

9th Century Box - Beginning the back

When I began this project a year ago I had no intention of it taking so long, or being so involved. However as I began working on it and my confidence increased, I have continuously pushed myself to higher levels of detail an complexity. As originally planned, the back would have had two cheetahs facing each other with a tree in the centre. Once the front panels, were finished, though, I thought that I should make more panels for the top and back which portrayed the entire story of Bellerophone and the Chimera, much like the many religious narrative scenes that one finds on medieval ivory panels and boxes.

As far as I know, there are only two extant medieval caskets with secular scenes on them. Perhaps there are a few more, but no matter the exact number, they are extremely rare, so there is not much to go on in trying to design a programme with a 9th century interpretation of a 12th century BC Greek myth. The fact that the story of Bellerophone and Pegasus was known to 9th century artists is proven by their inclusion in the mid 9th century Bible of Charles the Bald, as I demonstrated in my article covering the topic of carving the front panels for the box. (one scene from this story is also included in the Veroli Casket, in the British Museum) The illuminator who did those original drawings was most likely working from Roman or Late Antiquity (3-500 AD) illustrations or relief carvings that still existed in his time. I do not have the luxury of seeing what he had to work from, so I had to do what many medieval artists did, which was to look at the material I do have available, and adapt them to suit my interpretation of the story whilst making them fit the format of the panels which I am using.

Five scenes from the beginning of the story sketched out and ready to begin
carving; besides all the time for research, the actual drawing took
more than ten hours.

In the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (Württemberg State Library) is an early 9th century Psalter (known to medieval scholars and historians as the Stuttgart Psalter) which has a host of very fine illustrations. I chose this manuscript as my primary source of figures and inspiration for all of the remaining scenes which I will use for this box. In the first scene, Bellerophone approaches Proetus, who was the king in Tiryns, as told in the Iliad. He had just murdered someone, and came to the king for forgiveness. The second scene is King Proetus, and the third shows the king hosting a banquet in which Bellerophone is a guest. There is a break in the story, as the next scene will be on the lid, but the king's wife made advances on him which he rejected, and feeling scorned, she accused him of attempting to use her, (an oft repeated story very much like that of Joseph and Potipher's wife from the book of Genesis). King Proetus sent Bellerophone to his brother-in-law who was the king of a neighbouring country and asked him to "remove the bearer of these tablets from this world" for the crime of attempting to ravage his sister. That king also wined and dined Bellerophone before he bothered to read the message from his fellow king and thus was not willing to execute him, having shown him the hospitality of an honoured guest.

It is for this reason that I have chosen to include the two kings bracketing the banquet scene as it actually stands for both events in the story. Medieval illustrations are not nearly so linear and scene specific as what we modern readers are accustomed to in comic books and newspaper strips. In the first scene, behind Bellerophone, we see some buildings which can represent both the city of Tiryns, as well as the king's palace. Bellerophone is not depicted as "entering" the doorway, but rather gesturing to the king, as a way of progressing on to the next event in the story, thus multiple "events" and settings are often part of the same 'scene'. This is very common in medieval artwork as the following detail from an ivory panel demonstrates.

Scene from the Passion, depicting Judas attempting to return the 30
pieces of silver and hanging himself from a tree.

In this detail from an ivory book cover now in the Milan Cathedral's treasury, Judas seems to be looking at himself hanging from the tree as he attempts to return the "blood money" which he took in exchange for betraying Christ. This 'multiple events in a single scene' was a very common phenomenon in art throughout the Middle Ages.

I chose a picture of King David from the Württemberg Psalter as my Bellerophone because he had the general stance and sense of movement that I wanted in my panel. The hands had to be adjusted, and the mantle was shortened a bit so as to accommodate the format of the scene. 

Detail from folio 24v of the Württembergische Landesbibliothek
I did the carving over the period of about one and a half weeks in my "spare time" (This is what I do for fun, when I am not "working") Here is a picture about 5 or 6 hours into the work.

One has to constantly redraw or work from memory when carving, as the lines
are immediately cut away the moment one begins carving. I put the paper
over the next scene because my hand was smudging the drawing.

The buildings were mostly inspired by those in the Milan panels and another 9th century panel in the Louvre, a detail of which is below.

Inspiration for my buildings from a 9th century ivory panel in the Louvre

The style of the modeling for the figures was drawn from the Milan panel as well, as is shown below.

Trees and figures as inspiration for my panel

Even though this holly that I am using is about the same colour as ivory, it is not ivory, and does not carve like ivory which is rather hard and can be scraped and polished to great detail. Holly is wood, which is fibrous; no matter how sharp the tools, it still will not produce the crispness which is achieved with ivory carving. I was feeling pretty good about my carving when I finished for the day, until I saw it enlarged on the screen. If you are viewing this on your laptop the image will be about one and a half times the actual size of the panel. looking at this picture I can see a lot of details which I need to try to refine a bit. Once the whole thing is finished and has a coat of blonde shellac on it, it will hopefully look a little smoother and more polished.

One scene (sort of) finished; four more to go.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Utrecht Psalter, and its Furniture, Part I

In the Utrecht University library is housed a very important Carolingian manuscript, known as the Utrecht Psalter. Years ago, when I first learned about it, there was some debate as to whether it was from the 9th century, or the 8th, but it seems that for the most part, the argument has settled on the early 9th century side. The manuscript is a typical medieval Psalter, which is a book of the psalms plus other liturgical content, intended to be used for private devotional reading, Psalters were the most widely owned books by the upper levels of secular society in the early Middle Ages.

This particular Psalter has an illustration for each psalm as well as a few illustrations related to the non-Psalms part of the text. All the illustrations are done in either brown or brown-black ink and were produced by several artists, judging by the variations in style. Some illustrations are much more expressionistic than others, but they are all rather loose and fluid. It is my own opinion that the illustrations were originally intended to be painted in, but someone never got around to doing that bit. Some of the artwork has been gone over again with darker ink, making them much easier to discern. The fact that this was done later than the initial brown ink drawing can be proven by the fact that some illustrations are partly intensely-inked whilst the rest of the same illustration is still light brown. In at least some of the images, the artist who did the dark ink did not work as loosely as the one doing the original light brown ink drawings.

Folio 1v of the Utrecht Psalter,
this page is approximately  25cm wide
St Mathew from the so-called Ebbo Gospel (fol 18v)
The similarity in style is very strong. Perhaps the
original plan for the Utrecht Psalter was to colour
it in as this one was?

The University of Utrecht has put the entire manuscript on-line for viewing by the general public. Years ago, this was in a low resolution format, but not long ago, wanting to reference one of the illustrations, I discovered that they now have it available in extremely high resolution. I applaud this decisions highly as I feel that every ancient manuscript aught to be accessible to the public, not locked away or kept as a treasure to be horded by whatever institution holds it. These manuscripts belong to posterity, and should be available online for anyone who wishes to study them, because for sure 99.99% of the population will never get a chance to actually see the original work, even if they pay to visit the museum or library where it is held. (Some institutions are making their collection available, such as BNF, [some works in] the British Library, and several others. However there are scores of other works which one will only read of the existence of in some scholarly paper and no images therefrom are available anywhere.)

There are a host of subjects illustrated in this manuscript, and whomever was in charge of the programe for each Psalm seemed not always to have followed the most logical or main idea of the text. On the website dedicated to this manuscript, one can click on any portion of a drawing and see the "relevant" passage from the accompanying Psalm, sometimes these are very vague and ambiguous at best. An example would be the annotation for a group of warriors (there are lots of groups of warriors) which says,"They are bound, and have fallenbut we are risen, and are set upright" As with most medieval illustrations, many subjects and episodes are combined in a single 'picture' In general, one gets the impression of a very violent world, based on these illustrations.

Because not all of the images were created by the same artist, some are much more 'legible' than others, due to the intensity of the ink, the quality of the work itself, and the fact that some text has bled through from the opposing side of the page, making it difficult to distinguish the drawing from the text. It is also interesting to note that one artist might have given more attention to the details of the figures, another, to that of the landscapes and yet another to the architecture. I first noticed this phenomenon because one artist was extremely loose and even more suggestive than the others with the furnishings in his illustrations, but at the same time, gave more detail to the architectural elements than any of the other artists. One of the easiest ways to note the differences in the artistic style of the various illustrators of this volume is to examining the foliage on the trees; at least five different hands seem to have been at work based on the variations in the styles used.

It would seem that at least five different artist were
at work on these illuminations based on variations
in style. These trees give a good example of that.
Before these illustrations were done in ink, they were first drawn with a silver stylus or an even weaker ink; some of that initial drawing was not inked in later, and one can still see remnants of the first sketches.  A couple examples of that can be seen in the edge of a building in the upper left side of the third tree depicted above, and in some rocks beside the fourth tree.

Obviously, since the primary aim of this blog is on furniture, that was the main focus of my attention in studying this manuscript. I went through the entire Psalter, one page at a time, in full magnification, scanning for any objects of furniture, and then making notes of each item I found. An alphabetical synopsis follows: (In the interest of not being too long-winded, this will be covered fully in three blog postings).


This might surprise some as being included in a treatise on furnishings, but an altar is furniture for a church. many were constructed of wood, and their form is essentially a large cabinet.

All of the altars had this same basic shape. This form
is also found in the Classical period for "pagan"
altars. The cruciform ornament on the roof
indicates that this is a church.

This is the only altar which gives any indication of being made from
anything other than a block of solid stone. This alter represents
objects made of panels with mitered corners to the stiles and rails.
This sort of construction is indicated on various early medieval
furniture including chairs, cabinets, and doors; it offers an argument
against the generally held notion that panel construction was
an invention of the 13th/14th century.

In this manuscript, all 45 altars depicted are nearly identical. The artists made no distinction between the form of an altar used in a biblical setting, for the purpose of an animal sacrifice, and a Christian altar in a church, used for the celebration of the sacraments. The two main distinctions are (sometimes) drawn by the use of fire on an Old Testament type of altar, and the use of a crucifix on top of the representation of a church building, denoting a contemporary structure and altar. There are a couple of altars which seem to indicate panels to the sides, and about 40% of them are draped with an altar cloth. The most interesting point for me, is that they have exactly the same form as the plinth chairs, (more on these later) and the former can often only be distinguished by an absence of the accompanying footrest.

A Mithraic altar from the Romanian National
Museum (via Wikipedia). This altar is some 500
years older than our manuscript of this study, but
this was one of the earliest forms for an altar and
continued in some form or other for centuries after.


This example seems to represent a metal frame model. it is similar to examples
found in "late antiquity" (3rd-5th centuries) illustrations.

The most detailed bed drawing; perhaps this one indicates a wooden
construction. Here is an example of a partially re-inked drawing.

The Romans seemed to have had various types of beds for different functions, the main two types were flat beds, and beds with a raised headrest, similar to what is now called a "day bed" The Germanic tribes seemed to have preferred sleeping in flat box type beds however, (as proven by early grave finds). There are 16 beds illustrated in this manuscript, 13 of which are of the Roman reclining bed form. Due to size variations, and the artists attention to detail, some are more elaborate than others, but the illustrations seem to indicate both metal and wooden versions; some plain and others ornately designed. In addition, there are two flat beds, but these are little more than suggestions, and no real design information can be discerned from them. The last bed seems to be of the box type, and is important because it is the only one which gives any suggestion of the medieval practice of a fabric canopy over the bed.


Not a very clear drawing, save for the right rear post, this seems to be a bench
made of turned front and back posts with ball finials and a flat gabled backrest.
An actual bench with a very similar form from 12th century Sweden,
some 350 years after the above illustration. (thanks to St Thomas Guild
for the photo)

A more ornate bench, this one is reminiscent of the jewel encrusted coronation
chair of Charles the Bald, as depicted in his Psalter of ca 850-60 . This image
seems to indicate a bench with ornamented square front and back posts with
an inset panel to the sides.
Coronation of Charles the bald, from a
Psalter ca 850-60

There are ten benches in this manuscript, and it is this form of furniture which exhibits the greatest variety of style, as well as some of the grandest suggestion of ornament. nearly half of the benches are just plinth chairs which are long enough to accommodate two or more persons. Two benches seem to be constructed of a plank with square legs attached, one is of a turned construction, similar to the few extant 12th century north European benches, two of them are more massive, and elaborately carved and decorated, and one has turned back legs, but carved lions for the front supports, in a manner reminiscent of the Dagobert Chair from the 7th century.

Again, very difficult to discern, but this bench has cabriole legs with lion's
heads and feet as the front support columns. Notice also the arcaded
footrest. This is an example of the text bleeding through the page.

Box or Casket;

The only small casket or box depicted in the Utrecht Psalter.
A small "purse" casket and a larger rectangular one, both made from gilt-
copper alloy and originating in the 9th century. The larger box is very much
in the form of the one depicted in the Psalter. (Elwangen treasury)

There is only one box illustrated. It is depicted with an open lid and is held by a woman who seems to be offering the contents thereof to a king who stands next to her. Other than its form and size, no information can be conferred from this illustration. (There is one other illustration of a man crouched down, either hiding behind, or pushing a cube shaped object, but since no frame, lid, or other distinguishing features are included, I have omitted it from any category.)

A back panel from a 9th century ivory box, now in the MET.

The illustration of a small casket from the Utrecht Psalter demonstrates a key point which I continuously wish to reinforce. Medieval artwork was primarily representational and never meant to accurately portray anything. The accompanying photograph shows an actual metal box of the same basic form, but there were also ivory boxes, and presumably wooden ones. Just as in later medieval times or even in our own, there were nearly as many ways to decorate a box as there were boxes to be made. There still exist from the 13th and 14th century, boxes made of metal, ivory, bone, and wood, which are further decorated with foil, gems, beads, intarsia, straw, paint, and even coloured eggshells. I see no reason not to assume that similar practices were not carried out in the 9th century as well. The only real information we can glean from illuminated manuscripts are form and sometimes general style. Some may even give glimpses to construction methods and type of ornamentation, but none will ever give an accurate representation of an actual anything.

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