Sunday, August 20, 2017

Return From My Trip

As I mentioned in my last blog, I went to Europe for two weeks; I just returned last night.

In a nutshell, it was a whirlwind tour, I visited three countries and passed through two more, but I was primarily in France and Germany. I stayed the first week in Paris and used the Metro (Underground) to get around, a system that worked very well and was always on time. The second week I hired a car and did all my traveling; 2431km worth of it, to be specific. I walked more than 150km and nearly wore the soles off of my shoes in museums and city streets. I also took lots of pictures; 9705 of them, to be exact. It will take me months to sort them all and I am sure at least 10 per cent of them will be thrown out, maybe more. Taking pictures with no flash in a dimly lit room can be a challenge. There were a few closed museums, or collections, and buildings partially, or even entirely wrapped in scaffolding that I had wanted to visit but was unable to, which was somewhat frustrating as well, but on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and felt it was very much worth while.

Johann International and St Thomas Guild meet for some museum hopping;
pictured here in front of the Köln Cathedral
One of the highlights of the trip was that I got to meet Marijn from St Thomas Guild in the Netherlands. We met in Köln, (known in English and French as Cologne) to tour the St Maria im Kapitol church. This, and visiting some other museums were my reason for going to Köln in the first place. I also have wanted to meet Marijn since I first came across his blog about seven or eight years ago, and this seemed like a perfect place, as he had also never seen these doors. (The St Thomas Guild blog was actually the primary inspiration for me figuring out how to make a blog of my own).

St Maria is an important pilgrimage sight for anyone interested in medieval woodwork, as it houses the "oldest carved wooden doors, north of the Alps" (there are three older doors or parts of doors in Italy) There are older wooden doors fro Egypt and Syria, in the Louvre so this is referring to European doors still in their original buildings. These two door leaves that we saw were produced ca 1060, pre-dating them by a few years, to the Norman Conquest of England (1066) and just after the middle of the 'Middle Ages'. Aside from the lower section which saw the most weather and wear, these doors are in remarkably good condition, owing to the fact that less than 100 years after they were made an enclosed porch was added to the entrance where they stood, and in the 17th century, they were repainted, giving them additional protection. These doors stood in place and were used until the 1930's when they were taken down and the 17th century oil based paint was removed, revealing traces of the original resin based paint, visible in the pictures.

There is an iron gate protecting these doors
so no picture like this can be taken by the
public, this picture was scanned from a

It is important to consider the various things that this single unit of medieval artwork can actually teach us. First of all, no one does work of this nature and scale unless they are very proficient at it, and one cannot become skilled in such work without having done a lot of it. These doors, then speak of an entire career of artisans (more than one worked on it, and doubtlessly an entire workshop of artists was at work at it). Though there may be no other carved wooden object surviving from this workshop, it tells us that once there would  have existed all the work produced in the lifetime of that shop, concentrated in and around whatever region these were originally crafted. Furthermore, since medieval craftsmen learned on an apprenticeship basis, these doors speak of yet another artist's workshop and all of its products as well. 

Though much battered from nearly a millennium of age,
missing some pieces, and much of its paint, these
doors still bear witness to an almost entirely vanished
world of technically sophisticated and accomplished
medieval woodcarving of the highest order.

There are several carved wooden boxes and chests from the late 12th century which survive in various European museums, all of the carving on these are very similar in quality and style to this 11th century door; this informs us that woodworking of this calibre was an ongoing and regular feature of medieval life at a time when most people assume anything made of wood to have been "crude" and "primitive". These doors look to me anything but primitive.

It is a fortunate fact that some of the original paint has remained on these doors, enough to show us the colourful method of ornamentation utilised by medieval craftsmen. It may be more popular or fashionable to have simple clean unadorned things at the present, but this was not the taste of our fore-bearers, they liked things to be highly decorative, even if it was only with a simple two colour scheme. This door, however, has multiple colours in use, and doubtlessly, was originally partially gilded with gold leaf, as are illustrations in books from this period. The best guess would be that portions of the moulding, accents on the clothing, and the backgrounds to the scenes would have been gilt and in addition some areas would have been done in silver leaf (for example the halos on the two figures in the illustration below - the part which is now grey could have been silver). The yellow background colour is very much in keeping with the yellow under paint used in items which do still have their gold leafing.

This picture, scanned from a postcard; shows in clear
detail the crisp and spirited carving, and the remains
of some of the colour used to ornament it.
Though some 50-70 years after the doors, this painting
from the Bavarian State Library, shows a figure on a
gilded background. This painting is very much in the
spirit of the painting of the doors, as they would have
appeared when new. Even the moulding on the border
is not completely unlike the carved round sections
of the door frames.

Looking at all of the details on this door, it is evident of skilled confident artists at work, but nowhere more so than in the carving on the moulding and the round bosses at the corners of each panel. There is some variety in the carved borders around each panel, and the nearly round moulding framing each door leaf into a single unit is a bit different on the right, as compared to the left, but the round knobs or bosses are each different to any other. That in itself is a feat, that someone could come up with so many variations on a theme, but still giving a uniform look, yet having no two alike. This speaks further of a well established and skilled workshop, confident in their craft. All of the carving is crisp and clean, done by a person or persons who were very comfortable and familiar with their art.

Turned sideways, this picture shows two sections of round moulding, a
segment of the flat moulding, and two of the knobs. In addition it shows part
of the inside border which accompanies each panel, which had text explaining
 the scene. I suggest that this informs us that there were people who could read,
 which also goes against the generally held notions of this time.

I visited several museums on my trip and I saw an amazing number of artifacts, but logic tells me that there would have been more items produced in one year of work in one city, such as the city where these doors were created, than the amount of woodwork which now remains in the entire world from this time period. It is therefore safe to conclude that we have no real idea what the interiors of homes or palaces actually looked like in the 11th century, yet from this one miraculously surviving piece, we can get a glimpse of a rich history and the amazing workmanship that must have been present in the 11th century.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Johann International Goes To Paris

Yesterday was my birthday and as it is one of those "milestone" years, I decided it was a good excuse to treat myself to a little European tour. It has been more than 33 years since I left Germany, (I will be going there next week) and the last time I was in Europe was 2001 (Amsterdam). I have not been in Paris since I was 12 (things have really changed!) In other words, it has been way too long since I have been back.

"one of the oldest Churches in Paris" the first church on this site was built in
the 6th century, but sadly, almost nothing is left of any of the various stages
of its incarnation. What is visible here is mostly a 19th re-creation
The church, as it was in the early 19th century; a tower had been built over
the apse to serve as an observatory. Notice there is no bell tower.
(picture from Wikipedia)

My agenda for this trip is to try to find anything left of the Middle Ages, (a feat surprisingly hard to accomplish in a city as old as Paris), and to see furniture and woodwork of the 18th century.

To that end, today I took a long trip out of the city of Paris to visit an early 17th century chateau which had been extensively remodeled in the Louis XV and XVI periods.

Chateau Breteuil, built in 1604

I wanted to see woodwork and furniture in the rococo manner and I was not disappointed. An added bonus was a lovely walk in a very mature and beautiful forest of (mostly) beach and oak.

Carved oak paneling, left unpainted

A gilt console table with lovely carving details and an unusual cetre
upright in the back

Gilded carving and faux painted marble.
This is the stuff I came to see

Stay tuned for future posts of more of my discoveries in the coming weeks.