Sunday, January 21, 2018

Oh, The Possibilities

Before the artist, stands a blank canvas; he is a creator, and the worlds, places, or events which he might bring to life are endless. His only limitation are his skill and his time; what will he create?

Back view of my 10th century box; ready to begin... what?

The same held true for the medieval furniture maker, there was an almost infinite range of possible ways he could ornament a box, trunk, or chest and we cannot always appreciate that from the few remains that we might encounter in museums, or from the limited details in the iconographic depictions found in illuminated manuscripts or paintings. (this blog is generally referring to the pre-13th century medieval world)

A modern person would be completely satisfied with some paint, varnish, or perhaps some veneer or at best some marquetry to this box, but in this blog I will show, from actual surviving examples, some of those endless possibilities just mentioned.

Some of the pictures are my own, some came from the websites of the museums where the objects are found, and others from image searches on the web. I have tried to list the source of all the photos for this post.

A painted box, in the MET
(own photo)

It would be nice to list the types of potential finish organised by the cost of work which went into the making of them, but there are not enough records to know how much workers were paid for the various types of work done, also there are so many degrees of quality and skill level, so that a very finely painted casket might cost more than a quickly done bone laminated one or a finely wrought repoussé chest might cost more than an ivory one. Because of the huge amount of grey area, after a few obviously less expensive examples, I will just try to group them by type.

(Incidentally, this casket which I photographed at the Cloisters is labeled as being early 13th century, and supposedly depicts scenes from "the capture of Orange" a specific incident in 9th century French history. However, I see nothing of particular on this box to identify it as such. To me it looks like a generic box with stock period decorations, done purely for the sake of ornament. I have sent a message to the museum to inquire about any supporting evidence for their theory, but as yet have not received a reply. In addition, I take issue with the dating, because, based on the style of artwork and the costumes, it could come from any time between circa 1100 and the early 13th century. [See another chest below, from the late 11th century which has a very similar style of artwork in a different medium.] I much prefer when Museums give the whole range of possible dating unless they have specific evidence to point to a particular date, in which case they should state that evidence.)

Early 13th century casket covered in embroidery

I am only making a guess that a chest covered in silk embroidery would be more expensive than a painted one, but it is only a guess. Silk is, and always has been, expensive, but the work of covering the box in linen and then applying and scraping the gesso smooth also consumes a lot of time before the painting actually even gets started; it is probably impossible to say which one would have actually cost more?

13th century bead-covered pyx in the Schnütgen Museum, Köln
(own photo)

I have not encountered any box with the form such as those we are discussing, covered in bead-work, but the fact that there are a few surviving small boxes finished in that manner, and the fact that bead work was a means of ornamenting numerous objects, I find it highly probable that this was a viable option.

Leather covered coffret in the Germanischen Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

Another similar type of covering to cloth would be leather. This was a very popular medium for finishing boxes, cases, and satchels. It could be flat and punched, or, as this example, highly embossed and worked. In addition the leather would have been painted and gold or silver leaf could, and was, used to further enhance the more expensive examples. (Yet another form of ornament known only from writing, would be mosaic made of crushed eggshells. Perhaps the finished result would look something like the bead-work pictured on the pyx, above.)

12th century casket covered in silver leafed gesso
St-Servatiusbasilika Maastricht

Speaking of metal leaf, here is a chest which has been coated in thick gesso and then ornamented with a punch to trace out a leaf and vine motif, it was then covered with silver leaf. Similar work was done in gold leaf as well, another variation on this idea was moulded gesso, referred to as pastiglia.

Carved, painted and partially gilt wooden casket from the 12th century
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Probably the single most common form of ornamentation for boxes, chests and caskets would have been carving, which would have almost always been painted or gilded before the 14th century. (The only exceptions would have been something carved from a "precious [i.e. figured or box] wood" There are a handful of surviving carved boxes in various states of preservation going back to the 9th century and they exhibit a wide range of carving quality which has nothing to do with the time period in which they were made, and everything to do with the amount of money someone was willing to pay for them,

German casket with inset carving 12th century
(from a book)

As with every other art form, there was an endless variety to the style and quality of carving. Some carving was done in the solid body of the box, but more expensive pieces had carved filigree work. This allowed for cleaner details on the sides of the carving and facilitated quicker and neater work in the painting or gilding of the background. The oldest chests of this type that I know of are from the 12th century, but there exist many ivory examples of this type of work going back to the 7th century and there are wooden examples from Egypt going back at least to the 4th century which suggests that such caskets probably also existed throughout the entire medieval period in Europe as well. (The dry climate of Egypt allowed many more artifacts to have been preserved there.)

Painted Italian ivory casket, 11th century in Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Köln
(own photo)

Because it is a more durable material, as well as being more valuable, there are many more ivory caskets which survive, than wooden ones; except that most "ivory caskets" are actually wooden, with ivory or bone plates laminated to them. Because there are more of them which have survived, we can see a much wider range of technique and quality to this type of box. The simplest are made up with thin smooth plates which have been painted, partially gilded, or both, as is the case with the one pictured above. Other examples used simple geometric incisions to form decorative schemes, and could also be enhanced with colour and gilding. Moving up the cost scale, there were carved bone and carved ivory, and then ivory carved and enhanced with gold and gems. As I said, the potential is nearly infinite.

A line incised carved casket of the 11th century enhanced with colour
and gilded copper foil visible through the openwork design.
The style of this artwork is rather similar to the painted casket at the
beginning of this article

Early 12th century bone casket with colour and gilded copper foil, its
original lock-plate would have been gilded

Carved ivory plates overlay another gilded foil backing on this  12th century
reliquary shrine, now housed in the Cloisters.
(own photo)

The red and green colour has been infused into a resin (probably glue) which originally filled the incisions left by the tool used to make the circular geometric ornaments to this piece.

9th century ivory casket from Metz. The metal hardware is a later addition.
The ornament of this casket has traces of gilding to parts of the carving

For some curious reason, a workshop in the city of Köln, in the 12th and 13th
centuries, seems to have produced a large number of pieces done in an archaic
style. The work of this group of carved ivory containers, reliquaries, chests,
boxes, book covers, and game tables, is much more in keeping with the 10th
than the 12th and 13th century. This piece is now in the Cluny Museum -
the corner braces are a later addition.
(own photo)

Although from the standpoint of an artifact, it is sad to see this piece half
destroyed by thieves stealing the gold foil and gems from it, it is nonetheless
very informative for the study of such objects. Here we clearly see the method
of construction on such a piece. Several of the examples we have just seen
 had the gold foil behind the ivory, but this one employs it as framing.
This Spanish box is dated to 1059.

This brings us to the next type of decorated casket, which is variations on a metal covering. As we see with the last example, there is not always a clear line of distinction between various mediums and metal coverings were often further enhanced by other techniques.

Embossed silver foil casket ca 1150
(Chicago Art Institute)

Insular style metalwork over a wooden core.
This is not a very pretty example and there are similar objects in a much better
state of preservation, but this clearly shows, once again, the wooden chest
which is at the core of all of these objects.
(Norwegian University Databank)

This type of decoration is based on gilt cast metal ornaments, applied over
gilded metal foil, on a wooden core. This one is from the 13th century and is in
the Cluny Museum
(own photo)

I chose this particular casket because of its legs which are in keeping with the
style of box that my "9th century box" project is based on. Caskets with post-
type legs persisted through the medieval period and (perhaps) originated in
Egypt, from which numerous examples survive going back 4000 years BC.
The Champleve enamel work adds yet another layer of ornament.

Yet another variation on metal ornament, is engraving. This sort of work led up
to the copperplate etchings made famous by artists such as Albrecht Dürer at
the end of the Middle Ages.This box comes from the early 11th century, the
gems are a later addition to this piece, but are original on other similar work.
(Romanesque art of Aragon, website)

I have been searching for years for a picture of this large chest in the Sion
Cathedral treasury. It is in rather rough shape because all of the silver
had been stripped from it but now has been put back as well as possible on a
reproduction wooden core. This 11th cent. casket also has projecting corners

A priceless treasure of the Oviedo Cathedral is this agate chest, which was
made in 918, and donated to the cathedral. It is made of gold foil which
encases pieces of cut and polished agate, applied over a wooden core.
It is further enhanced with precious and semi-precious stones.

Coming from about the same time as the last example, this casket is in the
cathedral treasury in Astorga and is another example of north Spanish work.
It is made of embossed and chased gilded foil and is further enhanced with
cloisonne enamel decoration.

My earliest example is of the 7th century (only slightly older than the Insular
example above) it is made of gold wire and cell-work soldered to a foil base
and infilled with garnet and other gems. This type of work had been
practiced in Europe for over a thousand years by the time this box was made.
Originally, all of the empty cells in the fields of this box were filled with enamel,
some of which still remains on the bottom.
(Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht)

These last three examples are probably of the most expensive type of work done, but since I love wood, I will finish with a couple of the most precious of wooden treasures that I know of, both German work of the 12th century. (Theophilus mentions Germany as specifically being a place producing noteworthy wood-work.)

Marquetry chest, 12th century, with bone accent
(Hildesheim Cathedral Museum)
This is one of the most phenomenal pieces of medieval woodwork that I know of, and completely flips the cover off of most people's concept of woodworking at this time in history. In addition to the intarsia certosina work on the main box, the border has been made of a veneer comprised of two separate pieces of wood, one light, the other ebony, which have been repeatedly slit in such a way that they could be forced into one another, creating a stripped effect which does not go all the way across the width. (the intention was to give the illusion of a twisted column.) In an early 20th century work, which has been cited by many authors since, the opinion was put forth that marquetry was first re-introduced to Europe (the Romans practiced the art in their time) into southern Italy by Arab workers in Sicily in the 14th century. This is obviously clear proof against that notion.

12th century casket from the treasury of Essen Cathedral with 13th century
metal mounts

Even more amazing than the last piece is this, my absolute favourite; not only does it have more of the fine intarsia work, it also incorporates carved and painted decorations. In my humble opinion, one could not have a finer medieval wooden casket than this.

So with all of this information to work from, what will I be doing with my box?

covered in linen
(if it was still 1960 I would be finished, it looks just like several books and my
radio from when I was a kid)

eight coats of gesso

lots of scraping

These photos which show the current status of the box will give a hint. I first made some size from parchment, as directed by Cennini, and then applied the size and linen as directed by him (and also Theophilus) I then made some gesso with the size and applied it to build up a good thick layer and then scraped it down very smooth and even... After all that, - I am still facing a blank canvas.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Inspiration from the Bern Physiologus

Christmas time was a good excuse to do some painting, because I like to give friends gifts that I have made when I am able to make the time to do so. I have been gearing up to do some painting on a box that I am making, so a couple Christmas gifts were a good excuse to get in some practice in the art of painting without preparatory under-drawing.

I chose the Bern Physiologus, which is a 9th century rendition of a 5th century copy of a 3rd century manuscript, for my inspiration. This treaties was a precursor to the "bestiaries"  which had become very popular by the 11th century. They are a collection of writings on various animals and other creatures and were written with the intent of deriving a moral or Christological meaning  from the behaviour and characteristics of the named animals. The artist of the example found in the Bernbibliothek, must have had several different sources for his artwork, but the ones I liked best seem to be inspired by Roman wall fresco.

"The nature of animals at night"
in other words, owls. This work seems to channel the look of
Roman era wall murals such as those pictures below

A mosaic from Pompeii and a fresco from
Herculaneum exhibit the sort of artwork that the 9th
century artist had in mind when painting the
Bern Physiologus

In the world of decorative art, there is a very long tradition of decorating objects and walls with a very free and "unscripted" sort of painting. Most people are familiar with this sort of work in 19th century "folk" art furniture, but by that time, such work was already very ancient. I would venture a guess that as long as furniture has been decorated, this has been a way of ornamenting it. I do know that there is an example of this sort of painted decoration on a little book cover, also found in the Bernbibliothek, in Switzerland, which is from the beginning of the 11th century. I have reproduced a detail of it below, as well as a little painted panel that I saw in the Louvre, which was done in the 7th or 8th century.

Painted decoration on the inside of an 11th century wooden booklet cover
Bern, Switzerland

A very free and spontaneous bird catching a snake; fragment in the Louvre
To begin painting my panels, I first applied gesso as Theophilus directs, and then scraped it down with a cabinet scraper. I used a "silver point" which I made from a length of silver solder, to draw out the border. I do not believe that the 9th century artist drew in the trees or birds, so I did not either.

A blank white panel and the lines made with a silver stylus; you will have to
look carefully to see the lines that it makes because they are much lighter
than those made by a modern pencil

It is my intention to move into egg tempera painting, (something I have been wanting to do for a long time) but before I begin working with that medium I wanted to practice with something a little less expensive, (I spent over 300$ buying natural pigments for this purpose) so I opted to use milk paint. In all likelihood milk paint was also used in medieval times, along with glue based paint, gum (several varieties, including, according to Theophilus, gum derived from plum trees) and oils. Each type of medium has its own characteristics, but that exhibited by egg tempera was the medium preferred by most medieval artists.

The distinctive characteristic of milk paint is that it is rather "chalky", owing to its lime-based composition. This is great if you want to achieve the look of fresco, and that has been my main purpose in using it in the past. When it comes to applying a varnish or glaze to it, however, all sorts of weird things can happen.

A series of photos showing the progression of the work. Nothing is drawn in
beforehand, so this requires a clear concept of what you want to do before
beginning the work

Another thing that happens with this paint is that it is difficult to regulate lights and darks. When the dark colours are wet, they look dark enough, but when they dry, they become lighter. I am never sure what it will actually turn out like until I put on the varnish. If you compare the last two pictures, you will see that the dark border on the left side has turned light after it dried. Also, I had applied shadows to the trees, but they mostly vanished once the colour dried. In the same token, when I put on highlights, they were way too light and looked almost white, until I varnished the panel, and then the darks and lights came out (mostly) right again. This was definitely an experiment.

Grinding woad pigment with a muller

Another experiment that I did was adding some woad powder to my blue to make it darker. Woad was a European substitute for indigo and is a very dark blue. My blue that I had was not dark enough to make the border so I decided to use some of my newly acquired pigments to help it out. The stuff refused to dissolve in the water based paint so I had to add a lot of ammonia to it; it still did not dissolve completely, but I managed to get something that worked.

After varnish was applied

Above you can see the differences that the application of varnish had on the final results. My darks are dark again, and the highlights are not too white. The downside, however, was that the smokey haze look of the background was considerably lessened and the colour is not as pale as it was.

Once that one was finished, I did another one for another friend. 

Once I finished the first one I tried a second to see if I had learned anything

This one was based on two separate images from the Physiologus.

The two pictures which were merged to become my second one;
the original Oscar?

Very curiously, this guy is supposed to be a "salamander". In some versions of the text, it says "the lizard or salamander". incidentally, there is a lizard which looks like he could be the inspiration for this creature, but is supposedly only found in north America; I have no explanation.

Real-life horned lizard, but he comes from Texas!

I put these two panels against my box, imagining them as being painted on the box itself; the result could be quite pleasing but is not what I plan to use for its decoration. This was merely an exercise in learning to paint loosely.

The second picture was taken before the varnish. it has a very different look;
much more like a fresco