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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Another Project completed

This project has been going on for the past four months. I organised and designed it, but got other people to help me with the work.

My friend, Steffen, of Meisterbuilders Inc. Helped with the computer, rendering my design for the floor and fireplace, (I am no good at computer designing). He also made most of the wooden parts for me to use to build the mantle. My friend, Jon-Joseph, from Studio Russo did the marble fireplace surround, Alfonso and his crew did the floor, and my new friend, Edward, and his helper from Studio 33 worked with me to realise my vision for the walls and columns. In all, it was a big team effort, and I appreciate all the time that everyone put into it. This blog post is for them.

Lots of plaster and milk paint went into making walls and columns that are not just plain boring flat things with rolled on paint.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

You Can Always Discover Something New

Last Weekend I finally made it to the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I have been wanting to go there for the 20 years I have been here in America, and had intended to go last August when I was at the MET, but realised there would not be enough time. It was a good thing I did not try, because it took me the entire day to see almost everything. They were shutting for the evening as I was making my way through the last gallery.

The Mérode Altarpiece in the Cloisters, New York

One of the highlights of the Cloisters, as far as artwork is concerned, is the Mérode Altarpiece. which was (probably) painted in the second half of the second decade of the 15th century, (1425-30) and is most often attributed to Robert Campin, though this is not a universally accepted fact. Sadly, the painting bears no artist's signature so we will probably never know, with absolute certainty, who painted it.

This pieces is important for those, like me, who have an interest in furniture and interiors from the medieval period, I have poured over pictures of it in books, for more than thirty years. Once pictures began to be available online, I studied more close-up pictures via this medium. There are remarkable details, and lifelike representation abound in this triptych, causing people to jump to the conclusion that it is a 'photo-representational' image of an actual interior. It is not.

This is still artwork, just as much as the Easter Island figures are, and it was made for much the same purpose; namely an artist giving expression to what he wished to convey to his audience by utilising his skills to the best of his ability. In fact, there are several details in the painting which demonstrate that it is not a photographic representation, as some details have been omitted or are not properly represented, such as the fact that the teeth on the saw are much too large for the scale of the other objects on the floor. If one were to take everything at face value in this image, the saw would be what is termed in modern tools as a 2.5TPI rip-saw, in other words, it has about 2 and 1/2 teeth for each inch (25mm) of length. This would be on a scale of a very heavy rip saw for large timbers, not a carpenters saw for cutting the sorts of things that he is seen working on.

Although this is not a representation of an actual setting, many of its details were obviously observed first-hand by the artist, and thus give us some valuable glimpses into 15th century life. One of the things that I was most interested in, was the towel bar on the back wall. This represents a very nicely carved and painted object. My interest in it is primarily because it clearly represents a glossy painted finish. Most people assume medieval paint to have been dull and flat, but this clearly shows a high gloss finish on this object.

Whilst the details to the carving and metalwork are very clear, the means
with which it is attached to the wall remains ambiguous.

My second new observation from a in-person study of this painting came in a happy observation of Saint Joseph's shoe. I have long suspected that respectable people's shoes would have been polished, but until last week, had no clear evidence for it. On studying this painting, however, one can see the clear representation of a well polished wax finish to his shoe. There are a surprising number of shoes from throughout the medieval period preserved in museums, but they are predictably in very shabby condition, and thus not an accurate representation of their original appearance. This detail in the Mérode Altarpiece gives us a wonderful glimpse of an early 15th century shoe in good condition.

A fine shine on a well formed pair of shoes
The shoe is inside a patten, which was a wooden sole one wore over their
shoes when going out of doors in poor weather or on bad streets; it was
intended to keep the mud off of of ones shoes

This is about the best condition one could hope to find of a medieval shoe,
but it was no match for the ravishes of the intervening 600+ years.
(late 14th century shoe on a special exhibit at the MET)

Lastly, as a tool enthusiast, I cannot pass up on mentioning the well used, but well cared-for condition of the handles of the tools pictured on St Joseph's workbench. These are tools which have been carefully crafted and well oiled with a soft glowing luster to them. I recognised the look at once, because many of my own tools have that same look. I am happy to see this, because most medieval tools one sees are too badly deteriorated to give any indication of their original finish and most modern reenactors leave their tools unfinished and raw, which gives a false impression of how they would have originally been. Tools were expensive, and people who owned them would have taken care of them; they were the means of their very existence.

Well made and well cared-for tools on the bench. Because the artist was not
a cabinetmaker, he failed to properly observe the bevels on a sharpened
chisel; to someone who sharpens and uses them almost daily, this has the
look of an un-sharpened chisel ("fishtail gouge" beneath the hammer)

Some of my own tools, with handles made by myself, save the antique cramp.
When one knows his business it is easy to spot those same details in a painting.

Videre Scire

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Through the Eyes of a Medieval Artist

Some readers may recall the post I did on the end-panels of my 9th century box of about a year ago (plus a little). After I made them, I got the bright (or not) idea to make a mould from them so that I could cast plaster copies to sell at my shows. (Almost no one looked at them and no one bought any). I was intending to make 50 of each one, but only wound up making four of each. I am intending to give one to a fellow medieval enthusiast as a gift, but got another bright idea right before shipping it off.

The process began with a gilded plaster copy 

The idea was to decorate it with gold and paint to give the look of something that would combine medieval enamel work with illuminated book letters, which were often painted to look like enamel work. The purpose of this exercise is to show how bright and decorative medieval societies liked to have their possessions.

This blog shows the results, and a few pictures documenting the train of thought which transported me to this particular station.

The original carved wooden panel (not quite finished in this picture)

After gilding, I began mixing oil colours to give the look of enamel. The idea is that the light is able to penetrate the transparent medium and reflect off of the gold behind, just as with the glass which makes up enamel in the real pieces. Not all colours were transparent, however, so my white and yellow were mixed opaquely. It is not known how long the practice has continued, but since at least the 10th century people have been covering bright metal with pigments in oil, to give it a different colour. Theophilus mentions using saffron yellow to make tin look like gold, for example.

A beginning; to see how it would look. I liked it, but the colour is too thin and
looks like 15th century enamel, not 9th.

I chose the colour scheme from a late 9th century manuscript that I have been studying. Some version of nearly every colour was available in the middle ages, but not all colours were always used, or available to a given artist in a particular place at a specific period of time in history. Furthermore, a yellow which could have been available as a paint for a book may not have been available as a glass powder for making enamel, or vice versa. Even though I chose the colour scheme (two different greens, violet, white, yellow, and "red") from this manuscript, I consulted my files of  early medieval enamel work for the actual glass colours used.

Two colours of green, (most of the darker one has faded but you can still
see some of it in the segments of the letter) violet, white, red, and yellow.
The yellow has faded to almost white, except for in the top right-hand corner.
perhaps a different pigment was used in this spot? This letter (part of a 'B'
was painted to look like the enamel work of its day.
(from St Gall Library, Cod. Sang. 22, ca 880-900)

Not all colours, as they were originally used, had the same appearance as they do now. Reds and yellows were especially susceptible to fading, but depending on the pigment or dye used, any colour could fade or have a chemical reaction of one sort or another which might completely alter its original appearance. (for example, silver gilding in books has almost always turned black) Sometimes, however, artists were able to get good quality materials that have stood up very well to the ravages of time, allowing us to glimpse things as they were at the time of the artists' creation.

This manuscript still retains its vivid reds, blues and yellows.
A manuscript now in the J. Paul Getty Museum, orignally
created in Montecassino, Italy in 1153.
This is an example of a manuscript illumination imitating
contemporary enamel work as well. 

On my recent European trip, I visited the Minden Cathedral Treasury, in Germany, and took this photo of an early 11th century reliquary which has a 9th century enamel medallion in its centre front panel. The entire object is quite small and the lighting in the room made it difficult to get a good clean photo. I had to rely on a picture from a book for a close up detail of the enamel.

This enamel plaque has the dark green (not clearly discernible) red, yellow,
 white and violet (though it looks sort of
blackish in this picture) but not the light green.

I was able to get one close-up picture of this medallion which clearly shows the colours, but unfortunately, it is blurred, so that is about all one can see. (I have no idea why I did not take more than one close-up, to guard against that problem as I usually do.) Below is another object, (also taken from a picture in a book) of another enameled object showing more variety within the same basic colour group. This object is on display in the Vatican.

Multi-coloured enamel and gold reliquary box,
here one clearly sees the bright opaque yellow

This was the sort of look I wanted to give to my panel, and I believe it is very much in keeping with the manner in which it might have been ornamented in the 9th century. For the most part, modern taste would prefer the undecorated version, but a medieval artist would have seen it as unfinished business.

The finished piece, now I have no more excuses for not posting it off
There is silver leaf on the bosses of the vines.
Johann International Monogram used to sign all original creations

Do not ask how many hours it took to get to this point because I do not know, nor would I tell if I did.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Studying at St Denis Cathedral

As those of you who regularly follow my blog know, about a month ago I went to Europe for a study tour of some cathedrals, palaces, and museums. One of the places I visited was St Denis, an important historical place for much of the history of the French people, located in the suburbs just north of Paris. This basilica is noted for its importance as the "birthplace of Gothic Architecture", as it is the first place where "all the elements of the Gothic style" first came together. (There is a 9th century manuscript which depicts a "Gothic" type pointed arch; the importance here, is the "all the elements" bit.)

One of the capitals in the south-west of the choir depicting a pair of dragons

This basilica was rebuilt (for at least the third time; its origins as a chapel go back to the 4th century) by Abbot Suger, beginning in 1135. The choir of his newly renovated structure was complete by 1144, from which the capitals discussed here, originate.

When I was studying these capitals in the rather dim light, I saw traces of red paint on some, including this one. (the camera sees things more clearly than I could; it was a cloudy day). If you look carefully, here, you can see some hints of red on the moulding of the capital and on the tips of the dragon's wings over their heads. (it looks like reddish highlights) I asked an attendant if it was OK to use a flash, and was told that it was. (in some places it is forbidden, so it is better to ask permission if you do not want to get told off by someone) I then went and took more pictures of the capitals knowing that once I looked at the photos the colours would show up much better even if I could not see them at the time. They certainly do, as you can see from the next photograph. (you must enlarge it to see any real detail)

A similar capital, taken using a flash, showing green, red, gold, and
a hint of dark blue or purple along with lots of traces of the lime used over
the stone in preparation for the painting. (the white areas)

It is important for people to realise that these buildings were never intended to have bare grey exposed stone walls. When a church was first built every surface would have been covered in a layer of white plaster and then paintings would be done on the walls, the moulding and ornaments would have been painted,  and frescoes would have been done on important areas, such as the ceiling, and nave. The degree and quality of the decoration would have been determined by geographic location, its patron, and the amount of money those involved were willing to spend on the project. (not based on the time period in which it was built!) An important place such as St Denis would have had lavish decorations to it, incorporating lots of gold and silver along with a wide range of available colours. I have supplied another shot of part of this same capital below, with coloured arrows corresponding to the same colours, pointing to some of the areas where that colour is discernible.

The yellow areas point to places which were covered in gold leaf. The white
areas point to some of the places where the lime under-layer still remains
(much more of that is still visible in the preceding picture)

Basically, this capital had green dragons with red shading, and gold wings and it had leaves of red with 'highlights' of green, a term refereed to by medieval artists as being "shot". The idea was to give a look such as is seen in the Caladium (elephant ear) plant, (this plant is originally from Asia, but has been known in Europe since the Roman era) or iridescent silk fabric, which shows two colours and has been used since ancient times. (Bellow is an example of a man wearing such a garment from a 10th century Italian manuscript.)

A caladium plant, green leaves "shot" with red

Depiction of an iridescent silk garment, 10th century
The fact that this is a deliberate colour contrast to imply
iridescent silk is demonstrated by the fact that the blue
cloak is not shaded and highlighted in the same manner.

Here is a bit of silk showing what the artist had in mind.

Iridescent blue and red (fuchsia) silk

Think that is far fetched for 12th century art? Think again. That is why I am going to the trouble to mention and demonstrate this; because so many medieval enthusiasts and even scholars are unaware of the technical sophistication that existed in many parts of medieval society. 

There is a small collection of medieval writings on the various disciplines of art which have survived in various forms to our time. Two of the most well known are Cennino Cennini's Il Libro del'Arte (the book of art) and Theopholis' On Diverse Arts, but there are others such as Heraclius, and an unknown compiler who's work is called Liber Diversarum Arcium (book of various arts). All of these books, and a few more, either complete or fragments, have material compiled of information known to the writers at the time of their work, and spanning many preceding centuries. Some of the passages in these books have even been handed down since Greek and Roman times, as has been shown by the relation to certain passages from surviving works of those eras. Most of these works deal with the topic of "shot" drapery in their chapters on painting fabric, as is shown here, from Il Libro del'Arte. "If you want to make a shot drapery for an angel in fresco, lay in the drapery in two values of flesh color, one darker and one lighter, blending them well at the middle of the figure. Then, on the dark side, shade the darks with ultramarine blue; and shade with terre-verte on the lighter flesh color, touching it up afterward in secco" (dry). In other words, here, he is making a pinkish silk which is "shot" with blue colours, but on the lighter parts of the blue it becomes aqua coloured. He also mentions adding highlights to the flesh tones with white to further model the drapery. This is not something new from the 14th century, as many scholars have proposed, but is probably nearly as old as silk weaving itself.

I am mentioning these things because, for one, there is some bit of evidence of this type of work done in St Denis, (some figures on some of the altars have evidence of this type of painting technique as well as the already mentioned plant leaves), and secondly, I want people to be aware that the bare stone walls, and unfinished wooden furniture so much on display and in film and television was not the reality of the Middle Ages. In writing this, I am giving the hints, as I have found them, of some of what used to be.

Back to the capitals, which are the topic of this post, bellow are given a few examples from contemporary manuscripts of similar dragons. These will demonstrate, in a two-dimensional way, how artists would have seen dragons such as these, and give an idea of how they might have been painted. Medieval artists were using a combination of work they had seen in other places and pictures they had in books as reference for their own work, (no different than what artists do today) so images such as these would have influenced the way three dimensional objects were decorated.

Gilded dragon, enhanced with blue, red and green; before 1056.
Part of an initial "Q" from a manuscript produced in Freising, Germany.

A gilded dragon with blue and (formerly) silver leaf accents. (the grey colour
used to be silver leaf; most of which has corroded away.) Another initial "Q",
also from Freising dated to 984-94

A yellow, and two tones of green dragon, from an early
12th century German manuscript.
In this less expensive manuscript, yellow paint stands in for gold leaf.
Three intertwined dragons in gold, green, blue, red and white forming the
top of an initial "P". This manuscript comes from Rochester, and dates to
the first half of the 12th century as well.

I chose to first show two earlier examples of dragons of a similar design to those in St Deinis to demonstrate that whilst the construction of the choir might have been new in 1140, the designs for the capitals certainly were not. One example is from some 150 years earlier and the other from around 85 years earlier. I also deliberately chose examples from other countries, (Germany and England) to show the wide-spread range of these designs. Art styles and techniques evolved much more slowly in medieval Europe than it has since the 15th century. These days, it is possible, due to the rapid changes in style, to date most things within a few years, but for most of the middle ages, much of what was produced cannot be positively dated closer than within a couple centuries unless a date or event is somehow attached to it.

It is sad that so little of the paint is left on these capitals, but the fact that any at all survives is actually the real wonder. One must consider that, although they are indoors, and therefore not exposed to rain, wind and snow, they are certainly not protected from all of the elements. Every year in the spring and autumn, and sometimes during the winter, there are cold days followed by warm ones; on these occasions, a stone which was cold, and then is exposed to warmth begins to "sweat", as the condensation in the air accumulates on the surface, as seen in the picture of a piece of slate, bellow.

All the bright spots here are water drops caused by a cold stone exposed
suddenly, to much warmer weather

All of this repeated heating and cooling with the accompanying moisture will ruin almost anything over a period of 900 years. Cennino Cennini mentions this problem in his book, whilst treating the topic of painting and gilding stones, by telling the reader to prepare a special buffer of varnish and charcoal (which he calls a "mordant") to be applied to the stone before the gilding and painting occurs. " In explanation of the purpose of applying this mordant, the reason is this: that stone always holds moisture, and when gesso tempered with size becomes aware of it, it promptly rots and comes away and is spoiled: and so the oil and varnish are the instruments and means of uniting the gesso with the stone, and I explain it to you on that account. The charcoal always keeps dry of the moisture of the stone". This method probably helped to some degree, but the fact that so little paint on stone is left, testifies to the fact that even this method did not last forever. It is also likely that, as with all good ideas that are more time consuming and expensive, people often dispense with the implementation of said methods in favour of expedience or cost savings.

Also in St Denis was an altar retable from about 100 years after the completion of the choir, which retains considerably more of its paint. This can be explained by reason of the fact that an altar would have been given more care in its original preparation, and thus had a greater chance of surviving, coupled with the fact that it would probably have been given a little bit of cleaning and maintenance which would also have helped it to survive. In this piece, we can again see the use of colours, how stone carvingss were originally painted, and the use of gold as a key part of the ornamentation.

A 12th century altar retable showing scenes associated with the birth of Christ
Much of the paint has been lost, but with the aide of the flash, one can still
discern enough of the colour to get an idea of how it originally appeared

There is much to be learned by visiting and studying ancient places, but it is also important to study other sources of information to get a broader overall picture of what it is that you are actually looking at. By studying artwork, and written material, we can gain a broader sense of the environment in which the remains we are studying originated. It is good to go into a church and take a few pictures and appreciate what is left, but it is better to study and try to understand what it would have been like when new and realise that all that remains is a shadow and a hint of the former glory and splendor of that place.

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