Sunday, February 26, 2017

Something is Missing...

Last March I tried to watch the movie Macbeth on a flight from Bangkok, but the director had chosen such a bleak, drab, crude, grey setting for the movie, that I was not able to enjoy it, and after about 20 minutes, gave up watching. The problem, as I saw it, was that it was so inaccurate to the reality that my research has shown, insofar as the clothing, furnishings, and architecture were concerned. It was not enough that nearly everyone in the film was wearing black, brown, and drab grey, they even reduced the colour saturation in the outdoor settings to make the vivid, beautiful green Scottish landscapes appear drab.

My research has shown that medieval people loved colourful and highly decorated surroundings and objects. Modern people go into museums and see plain, dry, grey and brown wooden furniture, drab unfinished stones, and unpainted plaster and assume what they are looking at must have been how things were when they were made. Almost any reenactment setting you will see supports this by exhibiting unadorned unfinished wooden furniture as well. To me, this contrasts greatly with the fact that almost anything we find with even a hint of its original finish, shows us that even among the most remote and primitive communities, some form of coloured ornamentation was used. Wealthy people had gold, silver, jewels, and a wide range of dyes and paints to chose from, but even simple people used the natural colours around them to create yellows, reds, greens and browns, in combination with black and white to achieve a lively degree of colourfulness.

A nice example of a 14th century chest? The wood is all there, but what
about the way it was finished?

I think I borrowed my first picture for this post from my friends at St Thomas Guild, taken at Cloister Isenhagen or perhaps Ebstorf. (I forgot) It shows a "clamp-front" type of chest, probably from the late 13th or 14th century. Any medieval enthusiast, including myself, would be thrilled to own such a piece of furniture even though it is very rough and worn. Though it is a fantastic piece of furniture, I believe it looks almost nothing like it did when it was newly made.

Here, posted below, are two pictures which illustrate my point using modern objects. (It was not easy to find two pictures of the same vehicle taken at the same [almost] angle.)

1931 Studebaker Dictator, now
A 1931 Studebaker as new. 

Whilst the form and most of the basic components are still there, obviously there is a huge difference between the cars appearance, as it currently sits along the famous "Route 66", and what it looked like when it rolled off of the assembly line in 1931. Might the same not be applicable to something which has been used and abused for 600+ years? I would venture the answer is, "yes".

I mentioned St Thomas Guild a moment ago; they recently posted a link to the Norwegian University Museum's photoportal. In this website you can enter a variety of words (in Norwegian) or museum numbers and see a vast array of medieval objects, mostly from Norway and Sweden. This site was of interest to me for the purpose of finding high resolution images of some of the altar panels which I know to be in abundance in Norwegian museums. (I was a bit disappointed in this regard, as there were not that many in the database.) My search, however landed a few other gems, both real and figuratively, which I found interesting.

Door from an "altar cabinet" 13th century. The original
yellow of the robe and halo has faded to a dull colour, but
enough of the ornamentation remains to see that this was
once a very finely decorated door.*

The picture which primarily sparked the inspiration for this weeks blog post was this cabinet door from an altar shrine. It comes from the early 13th century, and is very reminiscent in style to the drawings of Villard de Honnecourt; quite firmly grounded in the Universal Gothic style of the 13th century. The sad part is that the rest of the cabinet which the door belonged to seems to no longer exist, but the good part is that the door itself is in a very fair state of preservation, considering its age. By comparing the painting at the top with that at the bottom, we see that some of the subtle details which gave the illusion of depth and form to the vegetal elements have worn away, and there is some chipping and flaking to the paint, but we can well see the beauty that was achieved by the use of paint on what would otherwise have been a dull, ordinary, flat wooden panel. Modern taste is perfectly happy with plain flat wooden panels (or even plastic ones - horrors!) unadorned white walls, and bare stone, but we should not try to project our modern taste onto history.

I have mentioned in previous blog postings about the way paint and ornament can be erased by time through the debonding of the gesso undercoat, so this post is a bit of a repeat on that theme, but also an expansion on it. As I said, nearly every medieval object which has any semblance of its original character shows us that people of the Middle Ages loved colourful things. Here are two very different artefacts which help to illustrate that. The first is a shard of pottery from the Norwegian database. It shows that the pot it came from was decorated in earth-red, yellow, green, white and black. Very different from the ubiquitous drab grey crockery we usually see in settings such as the previously mentioned movie. The second comes from a manuscript in the library of Engelberg, (Codex 3, folio 157v to be exact) This manuscript was written in the middle of the 12th century, and is very interesting for the fact that several of the parchment sheets used for it manufacture had tears in them; rather than discarding these pieces of velum, someone very creatively stitched the slits together with various coloured silk thread. It is evident that the repair is contemporary with the book because the writing avoids these areas. On the portion of a page I have reproduced here, there are yellow, copper-orange, green and wine (rose madder) coloured threads, one other colour of red, another of green and two of yellow are found elsewhere in the manuscript. This shows both a level of creativity and the love of colour which I have mentioned.


Two very different types of objects found thousands of kilometres from one
another, but both showing that even comen objects were enhanced
with colour even if in simple detail

I mentioned the way that a gesso ground can dissolve and leave a completely blank surface to what had been quite a vividly ornamented object. The database revealed many other objects which illustrated this problem to a greater or less degree. Below are a few more examples, and my commentary on them.

Another altar cabinet, this time from the late 15th century. Note the
simple use of stars and lines to enliven the blank areas and the frame to
the doors. Observe the bottom to see what remained once the woodwork
became damp and the paint flaked off.*

This detail comes from a late 12th century sculpture. It shows a section of
Mary's chair. I included it because we can 'almost' see how this chair would
have been decorated. The pale yellow-green paint has a dark layer over it
which would have been painted in such a way as to make foliage; the lighter colour
showing through. There is a band left plain, which has been enhanced with black
'dots'. Below the knob can be seen the remains of a blue-grey and a black stripe.*

Notice the areas where dampness has entirely obliterated any
trace of the paint to this altar frontal. Scroll-work like that seen
in the spandrels could very well have been used to enhance the
decoration of chests, boxes and cupboards,*

The Borre Cross
Arm of a crucifix which has lost its Christ figure and most of its decoration.
Enough remains to reveal that it was brightly painted, as well as partially
gilded. (the carved vine scrolls and the lion which is missing its wing). The
carved lozenge shapes were also gilded and probably originally had
coloured glass inserts, imitating gems. Red, green, blue, yellow and black
were used to decorate this, as well as gilding; in all, it would have been
a very vivid object.*

Not all objects from a given time or place were created equally and there have always been more and less ornate things created. Another cross from about the same time period and geographic location illustrate this variety. This cross relied much more on paint than it did on carving for its ornamentation, and so would be much less interesting were all of its paint gone. Happily, enough has survived so that we can envision its original condition. It also illustrates the way what now looks like a plain unadorned object could have originally been very elaborately ornamented.

Base of a crucifix showing the loss of paint due to moisture*
Left arm of the same cross showing better preserved decorations (again, the
original yellow has faded to a dull buff colour) Red, black, white and
blue-grey were the other colours used on this piece.*

Not every object was so highly ornamented, whilst others were even more so. The determining factors would have been geographic location, money invested in the project, and the value the user placed on the intended object in the first place. On a whole, Norway would have had less highly sophisticated objects than things produced in Rome or even Köln, at any given period, but that is not to discount the quality of created objects in the former mentioned country. Even though Norway was remote and had less contact with the rest of Europe, it was not altogether left out, as the styles of ornamentation on these objects clearly demonstrate. 

On the other hand, Norway was a remote place, and historically, one often finds much more primitive conditions there. Subsequently the objects from these regions are also often much more "crude" than one might find in more urban areas of Europe. Regardless of the remoteness of an area, however, the same basic principle still applies; people did not like plain, unadorned objects. Here are two more objects which illustrate this point.
A section of paneling from a wall. It is only decorated
with black spots on a white ground, but still clearly
shows that no matter how primitive, people still wanted
ornamentation to their surroundings, not bare unfinished
wood and stone.*
Thousands of this sort of enameled shrine were produced in various centres
of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. Normally they were much more ornate
than this (though this is the back, which was usually less ornate than the front)
but it shows yet again, that even if expenses were to be spared, ornamentation
was nonetheless employed.*

With this information, let us come back to the chest at the beginning of this article. There is no way to know with any certainly exactly how it would have been decorated, but it is a safe bet to assume it was painted in some manner. The degree and quality of that painting would mostly have been determined by the amount that the owner wished to spend for the project. By studying other artwork and objects of the time period in which it was made, we can make some educated guesses on its original ornamentation. The stiles or "legs" might have had some vegetal or floral ornamentation to them, perhaps as on the inside of this Italian chest dated 1290.

A chest from Venice, dated 1290 shows again the destruction that time has
taken to a formerly very ornate piece of furniture. Incidentally this chest
was not first prepared with a heavy coat of gesso, which has allowed some
degree of the painting to survive as it was not thick enough to all scale off.

Most probably the arcades would have been filled with figures; if the chest was used in an ecclesiastical setting, they would have doubtless been saints, apostles, or the Virgin, and the Christ, or a combination of all of them. Given the proportion of the arches, there would most likely have been two figures beneath each. If the object was for secular use, it could have had figures from a romance, mythology, history, or contemporary persons.

Depending on the quality of the painting employed, the columns and arches would have been painted to represent architecture, either simply or with multiple colours, patterns and shading. (Notice how the above door panel achieved dimension to the drapery of St Peter simply by the use of black lines of varying thickness; more like a drawing than a painting.) Surely the semi-circular shapes at the bottom of the columns would have been filled in to represent a column base, and the usual method of doing this was to paint it with some sort of acanthus inspired design such as this cross terminal from an altar baldaquin of one of the Norwegian stave churches. (This is now in the Bergen Museum). Variations of this sort of base were used in paintings, sculptures and illuminations since at least the 8th century, and were extremely popular motifs in the 12 and 13th century artwork throughout Europe.

An acanthus terminal to a cross arm. This sort of terminus was very popular in
Romanesque and early Gothic artwork.*

This leaves us to ponder the detail of the remaining area of the chest. Again, the quality of its decoration would have had a lot to do with the end result. On the simplest level, it would have been a solid colour with dots, circles, stars or other simple ornament, (or it could have had some sort of grid pattern like the reliquary casket pictured above). Below is another example of this sort of simple work, from a 13th century baldaquin over a sculpture of the Virgin. (again, from Norway)

Stars and simple floral shapes painted in a single colour add decoration to
an otherwise plain area *

Were a more ambitious programme employed in the decorative scheme, perhaps thin scrolling vines like those seen in the altar panel depicted above would have been used. Another possibility could have been a geometric pattern like that in the background of the picture showing the detail of the cross arm. This was a very popular design based on interconnected circles which leave a nearly square area in the centre of each. This pattern can be found in everything from floor tiles, to wall ornamentation and jewelry; as with everything else, simple quickly executed examples exist along side of very carefully worked, multi-coloured versions. Below are more examples of fill work, used to ornament blank or flat areas of design. 

Fleur-de-Lis, and leaves from an early 14th century
chest in the MET. Notice the colour change on the recently
exposed areas of blue.

From another Norwegian altar frontal, this shows painted gems and an
imitation of figured wood. Note also the wavy two-tone green, and white and grey
 borders. This was a popular enamel technique which was also often imitated
on painted surfaces. The buff coloured areas are gilded though this picture
does not very well reflect that fact.*

More vine and scroll infill design, Also an acanthus roundel (damaged)*

This is a border from an early 12th century Spanish wall fresco and shows
another popular border treatment which could also be used on uprights such
furniture legs and columns.

Two colour ornament; the relatively thick scale is due to the size of the
ornament; this is a very small area in an illuminated manuscript.

Another fragment of an object, again a baldaquin from a Madonna sculpture.
This exhibits once more the use of colour as well as quick line ornament to
enhance an otherwise plain flat field. Green and gold originally trimmed the
arch, bordered by a thin line of black. Once again the yellow has faded to buff.

Until now I have been discussing painting as a means of enhancing furniture and other wooden objects, I do not want to give the impression, however, that I believe all wooden objects were painted in the Middle ages. Late medieval artwork by painters such as Van Eyke and Campin clearly infer that furniture could be left unpainted (though it says nothing about varnish, wax or oil). To what degree this was true cannot be determined, only that it existed. Furthermore, These paintings mostly show the possessions of the Flemish bourgeoisie in the first half of the 15th century, and therefore cannot speak for the remainder of Europe nor the rest of the medieval period. Other painters of the 14th and 15th centuries, painting in a somewhat "realistic" style, such as Master Theodoric of Prague, usually depict their furniture as being painted or gilded. Even one of Van Eyek's chairs, in the same basic form as all of his others, is depicted as gilded, because it is occupied by Mary, "Queen of Heaven" not a merchant class person. Some wooden objects were made with intarsia, marquetry, and veneers, and obviously they would not have been painted, so a balance of many sorts of finishes including natural wood, would be the most probable conclusion. 

Furthermore, though paint was a very common treatment for wooden objects, it was not the only means of ornamentation. Cenion Cennini mentions using eggshells to ornament (think low cost mosaic); cloth, parchment, leather, gold leaf and even beads were also used. Another type of ornamentation, used in connection with gesso and paint, was the art of applying moulded low-relief (usually) ornaments, also made of gesso, to the object before painting and gilding it, as is seen in this detail of a sculpture in the MET (and found in hundreds of surviving Italian "cassone" and picture frames and altars from all over Europe).

Red, yellow, and two colours of blue, along with three dimensional gilded gesso
originally decorated this French sculpture chair from the mid 12th century,
 now in the MET

I mentioned intarsia as another means of decorating wooden furniture and the Museum database did not disappoint in that regard either. Here is a 14th century (?) wax tablet, "booklet" which was originally decorated with a geometric intarsia pattern. It was a shame that I could find no coloured photo of it, but I know of other objects made with this technique from the 12th and 13th centuries. Once again, moisture damage could entirely erase any trace of such ornament from a wooden object.

A multi-leaved wax tablet (with its last writing still visible) shows the remains
of a very nice intarsia pattern. I have no idea of the precise date of this object,
it was only listed as "medieval", but other work like this exists from as early
as the 12th century.

Last of all, many wooden objects were covered in metal foils. There still exist, examples of this type of work from every century of the medieval period, in which all or most of the metal has been ripped off for its scrap value, (copper with gilding or silvering). We can usually know that the object in question was covered in this manner because some of the foil was carelessly left on, or by the shape and context of the object. (a shrine in a church) but how much private furniture would have also been ornamented in this manner? It is impossible to answer the question, but I feel confident there would have been such items, especially from the earlier part of the Middle Ages. Charlemagne had, according to his will, four tables "made of gold and of silver" with scenery and ornamentation, but surely these were wooden objects with foil coverings.

Once again, the ornamentation of the object completely transforms the
wooden object, It is surprising how little the nails effect the wood. An object
originally covered in gilded foil which no longer had its covering might be
hard to detect, and nearly impossible to distinguish from one which had been
covered in cloth or leather.*

In closing, it is impossible to recreate an accurate reproduction of something in which you have no original to go on, however, it is still important for the sake of history and those looking for answers, to be aware that the dark ages were not nearly so "dark" as modern popular culture (largely influenced by 18th and 19th century notions that everything before the present was "crude" and "horrible" -  A quick example comes a story concerning the famous Bayeux Tapestry which was used to cover military wagons during the French Revolution. Mark Twain is also reported to have commented that it was made by rank amateurs.) would have us to believe. Certainly there were many things that were crudely made, but that fact neither began nor ended with the middle ages. Crude things have been produced in every age and in every country right up until this very moment. One thing, however, that we should be sure of, was that regardless of the crudeness or fineness of medieval objects, they were highly decorated in some manner (even the smallest and simplest of objects), and above all, colourful in a natural organic way.

* All photos marked with an asterisk were sourced from the Norwegian University Museum's website though most have been cropped and all have been re-sized. They are used with the intent of education and research for the enlightenment of the general public.

Videre Scire


  1. I totally agree a lot of colour has been lost from medieval times. This is also the case with the outside of the French cathedrals. I have seen the colour projection on Amiens cathedral at night, which is based on the traces of colour detected on the sculptures during the restoration work. It is am amazing explosion of colour - The cathedral nowadays is dull without it.

    By the way, we are now making a coloured travelling altar for our guild Saint Thomas.

  2. I have seen photos of the cathedral illuminated at night, an it looks nice, but two things are still missing from this display, the first is all the painted ornament which is completely lost. (Plain roll moulding would have had zic-zacs leaves, or other repetitive designs painted on.) Even more important, though is the actual colours, most paint in medieval times was derived from minerals and very few of them have the bright vividness that lighting will give it, making the colours look much more modern, and less 'natural' I still applaud them for the effort, however, it helps a bit. Also, of note, stone walls were nearly always plastered and the stones did not show unless they were some sort of coloured marble, such as what the Italians were doing in the 13th and 14th centuries. By the time of the renaissance, a lot of architecture was left with exposed dressed stones.

    Very much looking forward to seeing your altar. I have been intending to mix some egg tempera and do a bit of painting myself, but it has not happened yet.