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.

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