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.