|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)
|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.