Monday, April 9, 2018

Varnished Furniture In the Middle Ages

Not so long ago Steffen and I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see what they had to offer in their medieval collection. The trip there took more than two hours, and we had to be back home at a reasonable time due to the fact that he has a family, so I was mostly taking pictures instead of studying what was on exhibit.

If I have limited time in a museum I tend to operate in a "shoot first, look later" sort of mode. When 'later' came, and I was studying my pictures, I was pleasantly surprised to see a detail that I had never noticed in any paintings before. In this painting, by an anonymous Flemish painter working in the last quarter of the 15th century, I saw evidence of a highly polished furniture surface.

It is amazing what you can find in a painting if you
spend the time to study it

This is important, and I make mention of it, because most people seem to assume that (unpainted) medieval furniture was dull and dry, either entirely unfinished or perhaps only having a single coat of linseed oil, which gives not sort of gloss to the surface.

Zoom one
Zoom 2; here you can see the lines of the drapery reflected in the surface

I looked through pictures of my own furniture and realised that ordinarily, the glossy surfaces that I work so hard to achieve do not really show up very well in photographs. This is important because it would be a detail that someone would probably not ordinarily put into a painting either. Below are a couple pictures of furniture which I know to have a very fine sheen of varnish to them because I made it, but that sheen is not well reflected in the photos.

In the first picture, only the corner of the room causes a reflection line to
the top. The front is every bit as polished as the top is, however. In the second
picture, only the side reveals that the surface is shiny. This box has a very
bright French polish finish, but there is no reflection at all to the top surface
in this Photo. the third picture is of a chest which has a well polished and 
waxed finish, but shows no evidence of such.

Seeing this detail in the painting from Philadelphia, I looked through other pictures to see if I could find further examples which portrayed this characteristic. Sure enough, one of my pictures from the MET had a bench which also exhibited a highly polished surface.

Detail of a painting in the MET
Detail of the detail; here you can see that there are some reflections from the
book and the column behind; this painting represents a bench which would
have a polish every bit as bright and glossy as the one on the box
pictured above.

Cennino Cennini mentions varnish and Theophilus gives two recipes for making it. There is no real difference to his varnish recipe of the 11th century than there is to that which is in a book I have from the late 19th century.

If varnish existed, it must have been used; but for what. In Theophilus' writing he only specifically mentions using it on paintings, metal, and on doors, but it seems to me safe to assume that it would also have been used on furniture, and here are two 15th century examples which clearly show that it was. Once one sees these examples, and knows what he is looking for, there are bound to be others.

Detail of a 15th century painting and a model reproduction of the room

Above is a detail, found in Wikipedia, of the famous Anolfini Wedding, by Jan van Eyke; below it is a picture I found on the web, of someone's model of the room seen in the painting, perhaps used in a dollhouse. I show these two  pictures so that one can see that in the original painting there is actually 
much more highlights to the carving than is visible in the model, which has  a less polished finish. It requires very specific lighting from a sharp angle to achieve any sort of meaningful highlighting to a carved surface, as can be seen from the picture of my carved chest pictured above. It is a shame that I could not find a more clear picture of this painting, because the highlights on it are brighter than they look from this photo, but it definitely represents a varnished chair. Below is pictured a detail of a stool which I made, which exhibits some of the same highlight details from direct overhead light (the sun); much like the direct side-lighting which illuminates the objects in the painting.

A brightly polished piece of furniture under strong
direct lighting shows up the carved edges as white

Knowing what to look for, and allowing for period stylistic trends, I now have more confidence to believe something that I have long suspected, which is that the details in this painting, by an anonymous 13th century Italian painter, exhibited in the Washington National Gallery, also represents an highly varnished chair.

Detail of a painting in the Washington National Gallery

My original reason for believing that this represented a highly varnished chair, when I first saw it 22 years ago, was because of the similarity of the treatment of the highlights on the fabric, which represent silk, and the highlights on the wooden parts. Now that I have seen later paintings which clearly demonstrate a varnished surface, and I know that varnish existed and was used, I have no reason to doubt that this is what is represented in this and other similar 13th century paintings. Much information put into paintings has been lost to us from the changes in painting techniques and the way we see and portray things.

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting!I would have never picked up on that from the first painting. Email me when you get a chance.