Sunday, December 24, 2017

Early Depictions of the Nativity

Last Year at Christmas time I posted some examples of the "Three Wise Men ", as depicted in artwork from the first half of the Middle Ages. This year I thought it would be good to make another post about a different part of the "Nativity" Story; the birth of Christ, and how it has been portrayed through the ages.

A Carolingian Era Nativity scene from the British Museum

Art historians will often try to show evolutions and trends of certain themes or topics in art, and how they originated and shifted over time. When it comes to early art, this is not easy, and is sometimes impossible, because so few examples are left. We can take one image and compare it to another and see the differences, but since there would have originally  been hundreds, if not thousands of examples, it is impossible to deduct any meaningful or conclusive trend from the differences seen in the few surviving examples. All we can safely conclude, is that the subject being depicted is the same, and the imagery is different.

Having said that, however, change did occur, and the nativity scene, as we see it in front of churches today, is very different than it was in the early Middle Ages. As time marched on, some elements were dropped, others added, and still others took on different forms. Somehow, however, the basic core has remained constant, and we are easily able to recognise the earliest scenes for what they are even if many aspects of the iconography have changed,

Three stone relief carvings depicting the Nativity from the 4th and 5th centuries
from the Vatican, Athens and Palazzo Massimo, respectively. All of these
relief carvings are from before the Middle Ages,
and are technically "Roman" art. (often referred to as "Early Christian")

The Christmas story is at the very beginning of our modern era, so much so, that that event is the basis for the dates that we use today. As I am writing this, it is 24 December, 2017; that 2017 represents that many years since the very first Christmas, even if it was no actually celebrated as such in the year 1. Somehow, between that year and the 4th century, Christianity had taken hold as a major religion, and the artwork and iconography associated with it had come into full bloom, although the period we know as "medieval" was still another 200 years in the future. There are many representations of the Nativity on 4th and 5th century stone sarcophagi, which come from the regions under the influence of the Roman Empire. I have pictured a few of them here so that the similarities and differences with early medieval artwork can be seen.

Part of an ivory panel in the British Museum, depicting a 6th century
version of the Nativity (the 6th century marks the beginning of the
medieval period.)
Panel on the back of the "Throne of Maximian" in Ravena, 6th century

Not much had changed (at least as far as these examples are concerned) by the 6th century and the "dawn of the Middle Ages". No one had told the people of the 6th century that they were entering the "dark Ages" so they kept right on doing what they had been doing before the so-called "Fall of the Roman Empire". (meaning there is no distinction between "Byzantine" and "Roman" before the Middle Ages; Byzantium and Rome were one and the same) People who had been under the influence of Rome kept on being "Roman" and doing as they had done, and the Germanic tribes kept on with their "Celtic" roots and continued doing what they had done. A gradual fusion of those two styles eventually gave us the "Romanesque" style of the 11th through 13th centuries, but the clash of the two traditions gave us "Early Medieval" art, which incorporated distinct elements of both. There is much more of the Roman influence in most of the surviving early medieval artwork depicting the Nativity.

The one change that can be seen, in these 6th century examples, lacking in the others, is the inclusion of Mary lying on some sort of stuffed matres type bed. Doubtless this is not the first example which depicts this element of the scene, and it is impossible to say when it might have first appeared. - Even if we have an object depicting a particular element or event, and it is positively dated earlier than any other artifact portraying the same event, the only conclusion we can positively draw is that it is the oldest one we know of, not that that was the first time that event or idea had been represented.

Coptic styles mixing in with the fading Roman traditions;
the Nativity as portrayed in a possible 7th century icon
from St Catherine's (?) Egypt.
(if anyone has positive proof of date or location please let
me know)

I am not completely certain if the above pictured object is actually from the 7th century, I found it on the internet, and supposedly it comes from the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, but I was unable to verify that. It does look very similar to other artwork from that area and era, so until dis-proven, I will go along with the notion that it is. Here we can see elements of Egyptian art creeping into the Greco-Roman style, but it is still basically the same forms, just represented in a different medium, and with a colloquium influence to it.

In this painting, we have the Three Magi, but they have been around since at least the third century, though not always portrayed as "kings", as can be seen in another Roman sarcophagus, pictured below. Another element that is new, at least to the images we have looked at, is the "manger", here portrayed as a piece of carved furniture. Another element added here is the announcing angels; these guys became very prominent by the 9th century, after which one hardly sees a nativity scene without them, though in most of the early examples we have seen, they are nowhere to be found.

The Three Magi make an appearance in this sarcophagus

In fact, the one element which is constant throughout the entire narrative, but which, interestingly, has no biblical reference, is the "ox and the ass". These two characters are so wrapped into the tradition that were we to see a scene without them, we would doubtless not recognise it as being the Nativity. None of the gospel writers, however, mention anything about them, they are only a logical conclusion from the fact that he was, according to the stories, born in a manger, in a stable. (There is also an ambiguous passage in the book of Isaiah, sized upon by early theologians, referring to an ox and an ass, which was linked by them as being a prophetic reference to the birth of Christ)

Once again, the Ox and the Ass; not Mary, Joseph, shepherds or Wise Men,
only these two animals inform us of the intended meaning of this scene.
Also, like two other, out of eight images we have seen, no star.
My favorite part of this is the two birds eating fruit from the baskets ,which
have absolutely nothing to do with the Nativity, and everything to do with
ornament, for the sake of ornament. (4th century sarcophagus in Sant'Ambrogio)

Moving on to the 9th century, as we saw in the first image of this post, not much has changed yet. There are some slight stylistic changes that art historians can pick up on, which identify it as being 9th century, not 4th, 5th, or 6th, but essentially the scene remains unchanged. In this version, the manger is back to being made of stone, not a carved piece of furniture, but that is a decision of the artist, either as he wanted it, or as the model that he worked from had it portrayed; there are numerous variations in the portrayal of the manger and its style and composition by this time.

A 10th century ivory panel from Trier, still very much following the now
700+ year old Roman models; things changed much more slowly in the
Middle Ages than they do now.

Though this example looks very much like it could be from the previous century, that is perhaps a deliberate choice; much as people are still ornamenting things in the styles of bygone eras. The imagery had not changed very much, but the style of art had been shifting a bit more than one would guess from this picture. The trend for copying earlier decorative tastes goes back at least to the early Roman era, continued through the Middle Ages, and has never really gone away.

This one comes from just the other side of the 10th century, and is now in
the 11th, whereas the previous example was from the end of the 10th. Not
really a lot of time difference between the two, and still much the same, so
far as elements of the story are concerned, but this one is more in keeping
with central European artistic trends of the time.

the first real shift that I can find from Roman era depictions, to those of the Middle Ages, is the shift from the depiction of Mary lying on a matres to one of her lying on a wooden framed bed. The picture below is an example of this, but interestingly, shows an hybrid Greco-Roman era/ western style bed, as opposed to a purely Western European type. (the canted upright supports at the head of the bed) This tells me that there might be, or had been, earlier depictions of the Nativity with Mary on such a bed, and even this idea is not new to the Middle Ages. However, from this point on, one finds many more examples of Mary lying in a bed made with legs and sides, yet still into the 13th century we also see examples of the formless matres type bed repeated. (which is, incidentally, shown on top of this bed frame)

A late Ottonian depiction of the Nativity, from a manuscript in the Getty
Library. (1025-50 AD)

One can see the shift that this scene has taken from the original Roman period models, but to this point most of that shift has been purely in the style of art. Only later, toward the end of the medieval period do we find nativity scenes which begin to resemble those we are accustomed to seeing now. At the core of it all, though, one thing that has never gone away is the lowly Ox and Ass, the central un-credited characters of this story.

Thus concludes the second year of this blog. Thanks to all the readers and fans who have helped keep it going.

Videre Scire

Sunday, December 10, 2017

9th Century Furniture Ornamentation

Several years ago I came across the website for the Bibliothèque nationale de France and discovered a vast online collection of manuscripts. I spent months going through nearly every available 8th through 12th century work looking for images related to my field of the study of furniture, interiors, and decorative objects. I found a wealth of information which both confirmed my suspicions of the complexity and variety of objects and designs from that period, as well as providing a few examples to prove that things I expected had existed, but had never seen any examples of, were in fact in existence .

A few weeks ago, I was looking for an image that I knew I had, but could not locate in my files. After awhile, I decided the fastest way to find what I was looking for would be to go back to the source and look it up again. A lot has changed since the first time I visited the site, and I was delighted to see that, for many manuscripts, the website has been updated so that one can "zoom in" to even larger formats than had previously been available. This was great because in some pictures, one can now see details that were previously invisible at the resolutions in which they used to be displayed. A good example would be the details now revealed in this scene of St Mathew from folio 17v ('v' is for "verso" which is Latin for the back side of a page, and where we get the words 'obverse' and 'reverse' from)

St Mathew, from BNF Abeville MS 4 fol 17v ca 790-800 AD

The above image is as detailed as one was previously able to view, You can see that there is a chair with its ever present foot bench, a lectern, and an ink stand, you can also deduct that the  stand is made of metal, and the lectern seems to be made of part metal and part other materials. The decorations of the chair appear to be some sort of gold strips. The fact that the picture was painted on very expensive purple dyed velum does not actually help us in discerning the details, because at this resolution, areas where the paint has flaked away makes it difficult to distinguish between scratches and deliberate decorations.

Scrolling vine and bead decorations revealed in high resolution; this is from
the middle section of the left side of the plinth chair, near the hem of
St Mathew's robe
Acanthus leaf and other details of decoration on the chair and the lectern

One cannot download images at these higher resolution, but it is great to be able to view small details at four or five times their actual size. This helps greatly in compensating for more than 1200 years of wear and tear to the pictures. At this resolution, one can see that the stripes on the chair are actually moulding, with dots and gold scrolling vine decorations. The top moulded edge of the chair has an acanthus leaf design to it, and the bosses, or knobs of the lectern have five white dots; a "shorthand" way to indicate that these junctions also have carving or some other type of ornamentation to them.

As I sat studying these details, it dawned on me the type of ornamentation the artist had in mind when he painted this picture. I realised with that information, and comparing it with surviving objects made with the same techniques I could go a lot further than one typically can in visualising the actual appearance of these objects.

It must be made clear that any sort of hypothetical recreation is exactly that, hypothetical. Any time one sees a reconstructed drawing or model of anything from a car accident, 2nd Dynasty Egyptian temple, or a "3D" image of a dinosaur, the artist can only do the best he can with his knowledge of the subject and the information he has to hand. I am therefore not going to attempt to make a chair and claim it to be what this illustration represents, but I do wish, in this post, to point out actual objects and design elements from the same era, which will help you to get a better idea of what such a chair may have looked like for yourself. I also want to stress that usually artists were not trying to represent any particular chair, but rather they were illustrating the general appearance of a particular chair type. I strive to bring to life, in your mind, the complexity and sophistication available in a time that was supposed to be "crude" and "dark", and help you see what might have been since it no longer exists.

In studying these high-resolution details, the first thing I realised was that this image of St Mathew's chair represents a metal foil covered chair. Metalworking was one of the favourite mediums of ornamentation for many early medieval craftsmen working in several divers types of craft. This was a carry-over from the Celtic and Migration Peoples who had exploited the medium to phenomenal degrees of design and quality. The museums are full of bits and bobbles of every description, demonstrating the skill that early medieval artists had with the manipulation of sheet-metal. Most of what survives, though, are small items. This medium was used for larger objects too; everything from altars, buckets and crosses, to doors and chairs, were covered with punched, embossed, and repoussé work.

Metal covering from a Migration Period Chest (6-7th century)

I believe the above picture is an object in the Cathedral Treasury (Schatzkammer) Musem in Köln, but cannot remember for sure. I do know that I saw it on my trip, but I do not have a picture of it; pictures were forbidden in that museum (they take your camera and lock it up until you leave), so this must have been the place where I saw it. The above picture is one that I found on the web six or seven years ago, with no information about it, and have never seen any other picture of it since then, but when I saw it myself, on my recent trip, I recognised it at once. Wherever it is, it shows a metal covering for a small chest of a form seen in many 8th and 9th century manuscripts, as well as several Roman era mosaics and wall paintings. Though the ornamental style is different from that of our chair, it is based on the same sort of decorative scheme (an ornamented metal foil covering). Most of this sort of work survives as book covers and on small reliquary caskets, but there are enough of those to show that this sort of work was quite common, and like every other art form, there was a vast range of quality of workmanship as well as degrees of ornamental sophistication employed in their creation.

9th century Gilt copper casket in the Diözesanmuseum Ellwangen
The fundamentals of this sort of furniture begin with a wooden core. In the case of this sort of plinth chair, that core would be a basic box with  mouldings either applied or carved out of the solid. One of the things that would have historians all abuzz over such a chair, were one to have actually survived, would be its method of joinery. Based on that, they would try to establish a date for the object, but in principle, a chair like this could have been made at any point throughout the Middle Ages, and the only thing that would give it stylistic changes, would be in the manner of the decoration on the foil.

As I said, metal foil ornamentation was a very popular method of ornamenting things from pre-Christian times, well into the 13th century. This was so much so that it influenced the style of carving in other mediums at the onset of the Middle Ages. People often compare the flat low relief carvings of the early medieval period with the very three dimensional work of the high Roman period and dismiss it as, "crude" "primitive" and "unskilled". Some of it certainly was less well-executed than others, but overall, if one thinks about it, it can clearly be seen that this was a deliberate choice of sculpting stone to look like metal. Just as artists of the 1920's made a deliberate shift in the carving style and created the Art déco style, a deliberate shift was made away from the classical Roman styles, to create a new style that more suited the tastes and culture of the people who were the new dominating force of Europe. In all likelihood, the stone panel pictured below, which was part of a chancel screen in an Italian church, was either gilded or painted gold, giving it almost exactly the same appearance as the  foil-work decorations that the metalworkers were producing at the time.

A carved stone panel in the Musei Civici di Pavia
In a ll probability, this panel was originally gilt, or gold painted
giving it almost exactly the same appearance as embossed foil work. 

Below are a couple details from some 8th and 9th century work. I chose these two pictures because they show scrolling decorations similar to what the artist of St Mathew's chair had in mind. The first also shows the very popular use of a beaded border, which is also represented in the manuscript illustration. The second piece is much less accomplished than the first, but no apology is needed for it, not every work produced in any time period is of the highest quality. One should also, when viewing such items, bear in mind that they have usually been taken apart and put back together over the years, due to damage or deterioration of the wooden core, and that any piece of metal which has been continuously handled for 1200+ years will have inevitably suffered from dents, scratches, and crushing.

An embossed silver border around an ivory panel;
part of a 9th century book cover, and a wing of an embossed
foil-covered cross of the 8th or 9th century.

One of the methods employed in this sort of decoration was the use of dies, or "matrices" used to create repetitive designs in the metal. The scrolling border design as well as the central branching elements to the arm of the cross pictured above were created with these sort of ready made stamping dies. The artist tried to get creative with the die he used  in the centre by adjusting the spacing and over-stamping successively in order to get the design to narrow as it went towards the centre of the arm. The simplified acanthus leaf decoration to the book cover moulding is also created with these sort of  dies. 

Below, is an illustration of a piece of cruciform gold foil which has stamped design work on its entire surface. There are many of these gold crosses found in museums all over the world, and seem to have been popular from the 4th century to the 9th. They were apparently made as offerings, to hang in churches, and to place with the dead, in tombs and cemeteries. Most of the examples we have were recovered from burial sights. I show this object to illustrate how important ornamentation was to people in the Middle Ages, for any sort of object. It seems that a plain, flat sheet of metal would not due, and so some sort of design was stamped onto them. The workmen producing them were not interested in creating a magnificent work of art, they were just suffering from the "horror Vacui" syndrome, which is a dislike of blank, flat, or empty space, and felt the need to decorate these objects in a thrifty way. Unlike modern taste, medieval people did not like blank empty flat  surfaces, and spaces, and therefore, they decorated everything. This cross was made almost willy-nilly by a single stamping to each of its arms with a die that was much larger than the arm. The result is that the centre of the cross is a jumble of over-stampings of incoherent design. As I said, the point was to decorate a basically disposable object, not to make a 'work of art'.

No two arms of this cross were stamped with the die in the same position,
the result is that we can see much more of the pattern than would have been
visible had it been carefully made.

Enough about stamping; on to scrolling vines.

A section of relief carving an the wall of  Santa Maria de Lara in Spain
8th century

Some Columns, now in the Cluny Museum, from
the 6-7th century Notre-Dame de la Daurade.
Compare the capitals with the lectern of St Mathew.

So far, we have looked at several metal objects, but none of them seem to have the same sort of vine decoration that is suggested in the illumination of St Mathew. I am sure there are examples that exist, but I like showing a variety of materials in these blogs, to illustrate how the same sort of ornament was used in various mediums. I believe the above two illustrations capture the essence of what the artist had in mind even if the material happens to be stone.

The top edge of the chair is painted with a red-orange colour as its base. This is different from the gold of the main body of the chair, but that does not necessarily indicate anything more than that the artist wanted to add another colour to his painting. It could also indicate a different material, or a different coloured metal, if the edge is also to be interpreted as being made of metal. If that is the case, then copper foil would be a good guess. (There are several examples of 11th and 12th century altars made of bi-coloured gold and copper-foil in the museums of northern Europe.) This change of colour could also indicate that the seat of the chair is made of carved and painted wood. This would make practical sense, as the nailed on foil decorations would probably not stand up very well on the edge of a seat and the nails would easily catch on clothing. However with no surviving examples of such a chair, the best we can do is speculate. 

A carved acanthus border of a 9th century ivory panel from a box., now
on display in the MET. (Originally the birds and flowers were gilded.)

Regardless of the material that it is made of, the artist has clearly indicted, as can be seen from the supper magnified image above, that he wanted his chair to have an acanthus leaf decoration to its upper and lower mouldings. Wooden 9th century acanthus leaf carving is hard to come by, but there are numerous examples carved in ivory, a much more durable material. 9th century art consisted in a large part, of a contrast and/or a mixing of Classical and Migration Period styles. The illustration of St Mathew holds firmly to the design elements of the classical tradition, as does the decoration of the above pictured box panel, and the following picture, which is a detail of a comb from the 2nd half of the 9th century.

Detail from the so-called St Heriburt Comb, Cluny

We have mostly been focusing on the chair, but I did mention the similarity between the carved capitals pictured above, and the one illustrated as the support for the lectern. I also mentioned at the beginning that the little white dots represent ornamentation to the bosses, or "knobs" of the lectern. At the scale of the painting, it would have been nearly impossible, as well as completely pointless, for the artist to have painted more detail, he was not trying to give a photo-realistic representation of a chair and lectern. Perhaps something like the cup boss pictured below, could be what the artist envisioned in his painting.

The boss of a chalice, from one of the Attarouthi Treasure objects; these
were displayed at an exhibition at the MET

There is no way we can ever really know how plinth chairs of the 9th century looked, because there are none which have survived. Even if one or two had, the vast variety of ornament which was employed over the entire continent doubtless rendered tens if not hundreds of thousands of chairs, each one different to the next, but at the same time, all conforming to contemporary stylistic trends and regional variations. We can speculate endlessly on how any one of them might have looked, but careful examination of other objects produced at the same time will give us a much better starting point for that speculation.

Videre Scire

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter; Part VI

It has been awhile since we had a visit with the Utrecht Psalter, so I thought it was about time for the next installment in this series. This week's post brings us to the letter 'R' which is for Round Table. I did not do 'T' for table, because there are two types of tables and I wanted to cover each one of them separately.

Round Table from the 9th century Utrecht Psalter

I have counted 22 individual round tables in this Psalter, and they can be subdivided into three subcategories. The first are three tables which have been depicted with no visible legs of any sort. When this practice first began is not known to me, but there is a 3rd century BC painted Greek vase in the MET which has a scene with a table completely covered in a white cloth, leaving no visible legs to support it. This became an exasperating (for someone interested in furniture design history) trend in the 11th and 12th centuries, to the point that it is hard to find any depictions of tables from that era actually illustrating the legs. They are almost always shown as a top with an elaborately draped covering cloth, seemingly floating in space, as if by magic. (This is simply another example of trends in illustrated fashion, much like the overly elongated legs of female models in fashion illustrations of the mid 20th century, meant to exemplify an illusionary ideal.)

This represents a round table, but there are no details, to indicate anything
about construction details or ornamental decoration.
A round top table, again with no support depicted, but showing the fashion
for covering the table with an elaborate drapery.
This illustration comes from a 9th century book cover in the BNF.

Coming back to our 9th century Psalter, it is interesting to note that none of these tables are shown with a cloth covering. This should not be interpreted to mean that people did not cover their tables with cloths at this time, several 9th century ivory carvings show tables draped with cloth, completely obscuring the details of construction, just as with the 11th and 12th century trend that I mentioned. (see above) There was a lot of regional and artistic variation, and anything one sees in medieval illustrations should not necessarily be applied to the whole of Europe. In fact there is so little left to study, from the first two thirds of the Middle Ages, that any glimpses we see are like trying to watch a football match standing 2 metres behind a picket fence. Those glimpses, however, are enough to wet the apatite, and give people such as myself, reason to try to keep watching in hopes of seeing something fascinating.

There still exists one other very well illustrated 9th century Psalter, known as the Stuttgart Psalter, which could not be more different from the Utrecht Psalter. None of its illustration bear any resemblance to either the images used, or the driving concepts behind their inclusion in the manuscript. This shows us the wide range of style, and the variation which existed throughout Europe during the 9th century. (and nothing changed, on that note, for the rest of the medieval period) Of interest, insofar as this discussion is concerned, on that point, is the fact that whilst the Utrecht Psalter has no fewer than 29 tables depicted, (among more than 200 illustrations) the Stuttgart Psalter only has one, from more than 300 illustrations.

From our manuscript we find that the second sub-type of round table depicted is one with straight legs; there is only one such example of this type however. Since these illustrations are merely sketches, with almost no details, it is impossible to say whether the artist was intending square or turned legs, but they do seem to have a bit of taper to them. The truly unusual detail, however, is that unlike all of the other round tables depicted with legs, this one has four legs, whereas the others all have three. Given the level of detail in this manuscript, this table is no different from a dining table that might have been made in the 17th 18th or 19th century. There are a scattering of other medieval illustrations of round, four legged tables from the various centuries, and we can probably safely conclude that such tables existed, in the guise of the ever changing period decorations, right through the medieval period.

A four legged round top table. Would these legs be turned? It is hard to say.
This illustration does seem to suggest that the legs are applied to the outside
perimeter of the top (as apposed to being mounted underneath)

The third, and by far most common form of round table depicted in this Psalter, is a type carried over from Greco-roman times; this is a tripod table with lion mask and paw feet. There are 18 such tables in this manuscript, which probably doubles the number of extant illustrated examples from the whole of the 9th century. One example was given at the top of this article and another is pictured below. Both are of the same type, but this second illustration suggests that such tables could be made quite large to allow many guests to be seated, calling to mind the Arthurian legend of the "Knights of the Round Table".

A round tripod table large enough to seat many people, yet still made in
the same style as the smaller ones.

Anyone paying attention will note that all three legs seem to be on the same side, but this is a stylistic representation, and has a tradition probably as old as the actual design of this type of table, a point illustrated by the following 5th century BC Etruscan representation of one of these tables.

When I was in MET I spent time searching for origins of medieval furniture
design, this 5th century BC Etruscan table tells us that when the 9th century
Utrecht Psalter was illustrated, this table design had already been around for
more than 1300 years.

When one speaks of "the Middle Ages" most people will conjure up some mental image of what that means to them; inevitably, this image will have much more of a resemblance to life in the 13th, 14th or 15th centuries, than to earlier periods. The fact is, that styles and tastes evolved over the course of history, and by the time the 13th century came around, there was very little which resembled life of the 8th or 9th centuries, much as 1970 had very little to do with 1920. In a broader sense, the "medieval" world of the 9th century bore much more of a resemblance to the Roman period (at least in regions once included in the Roman Empire) than it did to the "Middle Ages" of the 14th century. The following six illustrations will quickly point this out.

Roman town, from a Pompeian Mural in the MET 

9th century depiction of a town, from an ivory panel in the V&A

Roman Soldiers from Trajan's Column

9th Century mounted soldiers from a mid 9th century Psalter,
St Gall, Switzerland
The helmets are still very much the same, as is the length and form of
the clothing, one change which has occurred is the more prevalent use of
chain mail armour.  

Another of the 18 round tables from the Utrecht Psalter. This one is of a
smaller personal size, such as the following charred remnant found in
Herculaneum, buried in the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius
A very rare survivor (almost a survivor) this is the charred remains of a
Roman era table, very much like those illustrated in the
Utrecht Psalter

I have read so many references to medieval tables being "planks set on top" of "crude" trestles, or "tree trunks" that it makes me want to scream. The medieval artwork tells a very different tale to that notion. It is also interesting to note that the earliest example I have found to date, of a "trestle table" is from the 13th century. This is not to say that they did not exist before that time, but most pre 13th century depictions of tables are round, demilune, or rectangular on turned or square legs, with an occasional 'X' frame or pedestal base to round out the selection. Most early illustrations of tables clearly indicate some form of decoration to the supporting members, wherever any support is actually indicated.

In centres of commerce and industry and places of education, where society continued to thrive, the Roman style of art melted away much more slowly. In Aachen, the capitol of the Carolingian realm, we find a pair of lion masks on the cathedral doors (I believe these are actually cast copies made from the originals) which were made in the 9th century, Here we still see a lot of classical influence on the design, including the panel construction of the doors, the egg and dart moulding, the acanthus leaf wreaths, and the lion faces, (they originally held rings, used to pull the doors closed), but we can also see that the changes of artistic trends have left their own period stamp on them.

One could easily imagine these lion's faces carved on the terminals of
lion-paw legs and then we would have a 9th century version of
this sort of table
A 1st Century AD table from Pompeii, This is another example
of a Roman table, but in principle it is much the same as those
illustrated in the manuscript. To get a 9th century version, we
need to add 9th century style lions, such as those pictured
in the previous illustration

To sum things up, there is so little of anything left from the early medieval period that it is impossible to recreate that world, but little hints and fragments, and a bit of logical deductive reasoning can fill in a bit more of the void left by the destruction of so much of what once was. This Utrecht Psalter gives us some tantalising glimpses, and informs us that certain stylistic trends, such as lion shaped tripod tables were very slow in dying out and continued into the 9th century

Last minute addition, just in case someone gets the idea that the tables
depicted in the Utrecht Psalter are an anomaly. This is from a manuscript
known as the Drogo Sacramentary, which is found in the BNF and was
created in the middle of the 9th century.
(BNF Lat. 9428)

Videre Scire

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A New Box

Sometimes I get the urge to work on Something different, even if I have not yet completed a project I am currently working on. Because of this, my friend Steffen has dubbed a couple of my projects, "Century Project" by way of saying he thinks, at the rate they are going, they will take a century to complete. I Have completed a couple of those 'century projects', but others are still in the works, such as my 9th century box. I enjoy working on it, and want to get it finished, but I realised, once I began working on it, that it was growing into a much larger project than I had first envisioned. Meanwhile, I would like to do something that I can get finished faster, and I also feel the urge to work on something different, for a change of pace. In fact, there are a thousand projects that I want to do, so if there are only three underway in my shop at once, then obviously I have been employing great restraint on my impulses. I once had 11 paintings in various stages of completion in my studio; it is just the way I work, and at 50 it is not likely to change.

Inside view of the new box

My latest project, then, is another box. (I like making boxes) I am calling this one the "Turn of the Millennium Box", because it will be decorated in a style of circa the year 1000. I have chosen a couple manuscripts of that period which will be the basis of the decoration for it. One of these manuscripts even has a little "historiated initial" (which is what a letter with a picture in it is called in the realm of illuminated manuscripts) which depicts a box like the one I am making.

Kölner Diözesan- und Dombibliothek MS Cod 141 Fol 53v M. 11jh

An historiated initial showing God giving a reliquary (box) to a priest 

What follows are some pictures and a brief explanation from the progress of the build.

Cutting box sides 
The sides were all cut from a piece of timber that was left lying about when I sliced 15mm off of a 38mm thick plank that I needed for a different project years ago. It seemed like a waste to plane it all away so I sawed it off on the band-saw. 6 years later, I finally found a use for it.

Planing box sides
Putting the 8th century style plane, that I made this spring, to work. It works nicely. For anyone new to my blog, all sawing, planing, and any other work required for the making of my pieces is done entirely with hand tools, from whatever stage the timber that I choose is in, when I begin. 

Cutting dovetails

I always cut the tails first.

Truing up the inside ends

Years ago I made this device for getting very clean and accurate tenons, it works good for dovetails as well.

For anyone who might want to take issue with my using dovetails on a medieval box, thinking that they are not "period correct", I counter, that in museums, I have personally observed boxes from the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th through 15th century all made with dovetail joinery.

Beginning the top

As I said, whatever state I find the timber in when I start, I begin from there with hand tools. In this case, the lid will be made from a chunk of firewood left over from last years batch. (so two years since it was cut) This is a chunk of beach and I think it will make a great lid. It had a bit of a twist to it, so the first task was to make a flat face to work the other two sides from.

Roughing out the shape. You can see the box at
the top of the picture

I split a chunk off of the side with hammer and wedge, then went at it with the axe. A bit more axe-work went into it after this picture, as you will be able to see in the next. The axe is used because it takes off material much faster than a plane, even a scrub plane.

From the axe to the plane

In this picture, the first side (which will be the bottom) has been planed true, and now I am ready to begin one slope of the lid.

Ready for side three; this is the right-hand face on the axe picture above

A nice triangular block of wood

About two hours later, I had something that resembles a house. In fact, in German, the lid for this type of box is called a "Giebeldach Deckel" which means a gabled roof lid.

Carving out the inside

A lot is made of "dugout" chests when it comes to histories of medieval furniture. Generally the implication is that they were crude and primitive, and were made because it must have been simpler to do so than to make one from flat timbers. It is also usually implied that they were made in this way because the makers did not have the tools and or skills required to make one by any other method. Most histories of furniture were not, however, written by anyone who ever made anything themselves, and therefore the writer was just assuming things. Perhaps the mental image of neolithic man making objects by burning the insides and scraping away the ashes stuck too fast in their minds and they assumed the same method to have been employed by medieval artisans. I cannot speak for what was in the mind of the authors of such texts, but having made this "dugout" lid, (for that is exactly what it is), I can assure you that it is not 'easier' to make in this way. Well, perhaps the lid might be, because all of the acute angles would be difficult to get right and then it would be a big challenge to hold the pieces together whilst attaching them by any means of joinery. A square box, on the other hand, would be much harder to make in this method, and it requires just about every tool that one would need to make a box with cut timbers. It is more difficult to true up the sides to any degree of accuracy, in this way, for sure, and the time and energy it takes to carve all the waste material is staggering.

The finished inside (except that it was not, because I wound up changing
the angle - compare this with the first photo)

I mentioned the challenges of holding parts whilst trying to make them, and that is one of the  fundamental challenges of creating anything. In order to work something, one must have a way of holding it stationary or most of the effort will be wasted and the results will not look good. I just said that it is easier to carve out the inside of this lid than it would be to join together all the separate pieces, but it was much more difficult to hold the block of wood to be able to carve it out than it would have been to make flat pieces to join together. Either way, making a box with a lid in this shape is not "easy" and anyone who wanted to make an 'easy' box, would not have undertaken one of this form. 

Actually, working on this lid left me to ponder what method the medieval artist employed to hold the lid stationary whilst working on it. For sure, as I did, the ends had to remain square to the face in order to be able to hold it to chisel out the inside. This means they needed to have had some sort of vice or cramp large enough to do this. Most medieval illustrations depicting anyone carving anything, be it wood or stone, simply show the object laying on a table, but anyone who has carved anything knows that one must cramp or nail the work down in some manner before it can be carved. I have no idea how the medieval artist worked the tens of thousands of such boxes that must have been made in this form, but here is how I held mine.

Cutting off the ends

Once the inside was carved out, the lid could be turned over and the ends cut to the same angle as the sides. My cuts were accurate enough that it was not necessary to do any planing.

The cut off end, just as it came from the saw

With medieval (and later) workmanship, any work that would be concealed by further stages of work was not made any more perfect than it would need to be for the next stage. If this box were covered in gesso for painting, or covered in enamel or metal plates, there would be absolutely no reason to plane these very faint saw marks away. The same is true for the few worm holes in the wood; they will have no effect on the finished product and will not be visible.

Carving the moulding for the base

Scratch-stocks and moulding planes existed in some areas at some periods of the Middle Ages, but to what extent, it would be impossible to say; there simply is not enough surviving work to make any sort of assessment. A third method to make mouldings, which is still employed in Asia, where there is much more hand tool work still used in making furniture, is simply to carve it with gouges. This is the method I used to make the moulded edge to the base of the box. At some point, the box will get cast metal feet, but that is the very last stage of the project.

Snipe hinges

I opted for the simple snipe hinge, something that has been around for millennia.

The back view, showing the hinges. The base has a shoulder to it and the
thickness of it fits up inside the box; the nails are for securing it to the sides.

At this stage a modern person would be forgiven for thinking I am just about finished with the box, but in fact, from a medieval perspective, I have just begun. People of the medieval period liked things to be ornamented and decorated, and no one would have stood for anything so simple and unfinished as this. In the next blog-post we will examine many ways in which such a box could have been finished, and then I will show you how I intend to finish this one.

Step one; make a box. Step two; decorate said box...
to be continued