Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Method To My Madness

When I was in Europe on my Photography trip last summer I had two agendas. The first was to visit museums and see medieval objects which I knew of (and hopefully some that I did not) and the second was to find 18th century pieces which I could use for my work.

Back when I studied "Interior and Product Design" (furniture) at Berkshire
College of Art and Design, this is how I spent all of every day. It has been
a long time since I did this, but it feels good to be doing it again.

For the nearly two months now I have been working up designs from some of the pieces I saw in the Chateaus I visited in France. I begin with the photographs I took and adapt them to the requirements of a client who wants a pieces similar to the original. Some re-working of the design is necessary due to differences in size or in use of the object. (A desk has different dimensions to an occasional table, for example)

Below are some photos of some of my design work and a couple pictures of the inspirational piece.

An urn in Chateau Champse-sur-Marne.
Mine will be about half the size of this one

Designing is a bit different than "drawing". In
design it is not necessary to draw more than what
is needed, but is is necessary to draw the details
as they would be on a pattern, not as they look
in perspective.

Design for a desk, adapted from a table seen in Köln

The actual table

Some details and proportions needed to be changed so that this could be a
functional desk. One could not put a chair under the table and sit at it because
the centre hangs too low. I also made the front to be a drawer.

Detail of the legs

A box from the MET

Drawing and detail shots of another table, also adapted to serve as a desk.
The same challenge applied to this one, as the centre on the original was
 much too low to be used as a desk.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Wooden Treasures

As regular readers will be aware, this past summer I took a trip to Europe to do a lot of picture taking. My trip was a sort of "pilgrimage" because I wanted to visit some places that I knew to have medieval treasures of the wooden variety, which I have been wishing to see first-hand.

One place, very high up on my list, was Sankt Maria Im Kapitol, which is one of the 11 Romanesque churches still extant in the city of Köln, Germany. I went there for the specific purpose of seeing, with my own eyes, a magnificent pair of doors which were carved, painted and installed about ten years prior to the Norman conquest of England, which, for many people of the English speaking world, has become one of the key points of reckoning in the history of the Middle Ages. (That event occurred in 1066.)

No tourist will probably ever get to take a picture of
these doors like this because they are sequestered behind
a very heavy iron gate, All the pictures you can get are
by putting the camera lens through the bars. This picture
came from a website of the City of Köln.

Chance is an interesting character and what he leaves behind or takes away in the course of history is a mystery beyond comprehension. Such is the case with this pair of doors which is still in a rather remarkable state of preservation, especially given their age. I have seen doors made in the 18th and 19th centuries in far worse condition than these. Part of the miracle of their preservation is due to the fact that in the 12th century (some hundred years after they were installed, in other words) a porch was built at the entrance where they were hung, and thus the elements did not touch them so severely as they would have, had the doors remained exposed. However, back to the topic of fate and chance, on the opposite side of the church is an identical entrance, which also had an identical porch built at the same time. Obviously it would also have had a pair of doors in its entrance, but there remains no trace of that pair, nor any record of them. ( Nor for that matter, of the two sets of doors which would have been installed in the main entrances.) One can only guess as to their appearance, but it is not a big stretch to imagine them as being similarly carved with depictions from the Old testament, as this was a favourite programme of ornamentation.

The German Wikipedia has a very interesting article on these doors and I will give a few summarising tidbits here for the English speaking audience. As I already mentioned, they were made just after 1050, and were known to already be in place circa the year 1060. Amazingly, they remained in continuous use until 1932. Although they were in a secondary side portal of the church, for quite some time in their history, due to practical reasons related to the monastery architecture surrounding the church, they served as the primary entrance. (This fact also poses the question of what the main doors were like, as main entrance doors were usually made superior in quality and decoration to side doors. Perhaps they were made of bronze and suffered the same fate as countless scores of other such doors; appropriated for their metal content to be used in some infernal war.) 

Top half of the right-hand leaf

The doors stand an impressive 485cm high, which is to say nearly 5 metres, and have a combined width of 2 and 1/2 metres. (the main entry doorways are nearly double that width) Each door "leaf" is made of an heavy oak base of three parallel planks over which are attached the panels and frames of carved and painted walnut. Each panel is surrounded by three separate carved borders and a flat panel which has painted on script, notating the events portrayed on theire respective panels. To assist in keeping all the moulded pieces in place, large carved knobs are attached with heavy ornamental nails at the corner of each panel. It was my observation that no two of the surviving knobs has the same design as any other.

Each leaf of the door is divided into 13 panels of three different sizes, this gave a pleasant sense of rhythm and balance to the overall unit. At the top, the centre and near the bottom are three larger horizontal panels, the two upper ones each have four smaller, nearly square panels below them, whilst the lowest horizontal members have two vertical rectangles under. Each panel has a composition of one or more scenes related to the life of Christ. The whole door is reputed to be the best preserved sculptural depiction of that subject from the 11th century, in the whole of Europe. It is also one of a very limited number of medieval sculpted wooden doors still in existence, but is far from the oldest, as there is, in St Sabina, in Italy, a pair of carved wooden doors from the 5th century (which is actually a bit of a stretch to include as "medieval" since that period technically begins some 67 years after those doors were made. However, there is no reason to think that the construction of doors would have had any drastic shift in such a short period of time, and thus can be counted as an example of that art at the dawn of the Middle Ages.)

Detail showing the three carved borders to each
panel along with the flat border with the painted
script and the heavily carved framing for the

There is, apparently, some discussion among scholars as to whether the doors were made by one or more artists, and there is some allusion in the article to a point which I like to bring up whenever I get the chance; which is that although this may be the only surviving work from that artist or group of artists, it represents an entire career, of one or several individuals, and bears testament to the quality of work which they were producing. I should also point out that since no one simply woke up one morning and began carving, it further bears witness to one or more masters and all of the work that they would have produced in the span of their own career(s). When we contemplate this, we begin to realise the vast quantity of what has been lost to time, and the amount and quality of ornament that originally existed. In order for craftsmen to have a career, they obviously need to have enough work to keep them employed in that field. 

First picture; one of only two depictions of furniture from the right-hand door.
Second picture two chairs in one scene from the left-hand door. Notice that
the second artist took more care to show more of the forms of the furniture.

One of the reasons given for the opinion that at least two different artists worked on the doors is because the figures on the left-hand panels are a bit more stiff and linear in form than those on the right panels. Another discrepancy pointed out, is the fact the the three horizontal left-hand panels have, each, two scenes, whilst the matching right-hand panels only have one. My own observation to add to this, is that the left-hand panels seem to give more attention to details of furniture in the scenes and there are far more such objects depicted. (on the right-hand door there is only one table and one bench) whilst the left-had leaf has a bed, several chairs, a table, and an altar.

The second piece of furniture depicted on the right-hand side, but this is a very
rare example of a table that actually has leg. For some reason it was a fad for
several hundred years to depict tables that seemed to float in space. This is a
great example to counter most people's notion of planks of wood placed on
trestles as the primary form of a medieval table. 

In Wikipedia, there is a comparison of this door to the so-called Bernwardstür  a surviving early (ca 1015) 11th  century bronze door, but to me, this comparison is another reminder of just how few medieval artifacts still remain. Frankly, the wooden doors we are discussing are "like" the bronzes as much a tulip is "like" a rose. There simply are no other tulips to compare it with. In my opinion, they are much more in keeping with the Magdeburg Doors of about 100 years later, but again, that comparison is more of the overall look of the doors, with their sculpted borders and round corner knobs to each panel, than in the general style of the carvings, all three of which are not particularly "like" any of the others and bear witness to three distinct "schools" of sculptural style. Basically, if you are in a dessert full of cacti and brambles, it will be very tempting to draw comparison with the only three very different flowers that you happen to find even if they are not botanically related at all. (by clicking the live links you can view those doors for yourself)

A very quaint bit of well preserved painted decoration. This tells me that the
"Folk Art" paintings of so much 18th and 19th century work was but a
continuation of centuries old painted ornament

For me, there are two very important points to consider about these doors, first, as another German language Wikipedia article points out, it was almost always, prior to the 15th century, "mandatory" for carved wooden objects to be painted (or gilded, or both), and these doors have enough of their original paint left to give us a glimpse of how they would have appeared when new. There is no gold left on them, but if one compares these doors to the illuminated art of the same time period, he will quickly realise that the pale yellow colour in the background of all of the scenes was originally the yellow bole used in the gilding process. These doors would have been gleaming with red, yellow, blue, green, black, white and lots of gold, just as the finer illuminated manuscripts of their day. (and doubtless panel paintings, none of which have survived were.) (do not think of modern printed and plastic colours, but rather of natural earth and mineral ones.)

My personal favourite scene from these doors, but I cannot really say why,
other than that I like it. Click here to see a picture on the internet which
gives a better sense of the surviving paint.

The second point is concerns what I have already mentioned about what this piece tells us regarding the state of decoration and ornament in its time. Most people think of flat heavy wooden doors with big iron straps, but this was not for important building with sufficient revenue. In medieval times people liked to spend as much or more money than they had to decorate and ornament their possessions, and architecture. This is one rare surviving example that can very emphatically point that out at the same time as it proclaims very loudly the quality and skill of the 11th century woodcarver's skills.