Sunday, February 21, 2021

Dull and Drab is Right Out

Not long ago I was watching a video featuring an ongoing and very interesting "medieval reproduction" project in south-western Germany, not far from the Swiss border. The project is called Campus Galli, and the idea is to replicate, using "authentic 9th century methods", a medieval monastery, modeled after the famous 9th century Kloster plan found in the library of St Gall. In principle, I am very much in favour of the idea, in fact I would love to participate in this project and lend my skills to the cause, my mention of it here is because of a very disturbing stereotype which I saw reinforced by said video. At the same time it serves as a springboard into the broader topic of the myriad misconceptions of medieval dress in general.

A "screenshot" taken from the film
One could not get a much bleaker image than this. 

This scene is very sad in so many ways, and it would seem that most of them have been deliberately employed to maximise modern misconceptions and ingrained stereotypes of life in the early (and even later) Middle Ages. Shot in the early morning, before the sun has lent its rays to fully illuminate the landscape, on a day in which spring has yet to lend its fresh and invigorating lushness to the still barren trees, this scene has all of the hallmarks of a cold, bleak, hardscrabble, and miserable existence.

I am not sure what planet these "reenactors" are supposed to be from, but if they think they are emulating 8th or 9th Carolingian styles, they are very sadly mistaken. Honestly, I often think modern people confuse the Middle Ages with the Late Neolithic period. The look of those in the video is much closer to Ötzi than to anything from three hundred years after the end of "Classical Rome". This might strike some as a very bold statement, but in this blog-post I wish to present contemporary literary and pictorial evidence to substantiate my claim.

As with any new topic, it is often helpful and very useful to step back a bit and get some historical context of what came immediately before the time in question. In this case, we can begin with the 5th and 6th,  centuries, three to four hundred years before the 9th, - our main point of discussion. From the 6th century, we find a couple of very detailed mosaics in Ravenna, Italy showing detailed depictions of garments. 

6th century mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
The "Three Kings" shown with multi-coloured and 
patterned garments

6th century mosaic of San Vitale, Ravenna
Court Ladies with multi-coloured and patterned 
garments, and the queen with the above Three Kings
embroidered onto her dress. 

Lets be clear from the beginning, these pictures are portraying people "of the court", not artisans, merchants, or peasants, but it is still important to demonstrate that people were wearing colourful and patterned clothing at this time. So often, modern concepts of even royalty and nobility, are assumed to have worn and are depicted wearing plain woven, even if coloured, clothing. It has also been a universal reality that the lower classes ape, to the best of their ability, the clothing of their superiors. The infamous 12th - 14th century "sumptuary laws" of Europe (Actually ancient Greece and Rome already had these) were intended to prevent people from exhibiting dress and wealth considered "above their station", but such laws would not have been needed if people were not practicing the "offending" behaviour. Roman records are full of such offenses, and there is no reason to believe that humanity suddenly changed their habits in this regard, at the "fall" of the Roman Empire. The many re-writings of these laws in the 13 and 14th century surely attests to the fact that there must have been a good share of scoff-laws, prompting the authorities to repeatedly attempt to thwart and curtail the offending behavior.

A consular diptych of Manlius Boethius from 487AD
This panel is loaded with things it can teach. First, the figure
shows us that "Roman" clothing was not plain woven fabric,
but was actually patterned. (Damasks and Brocades) the 
small painted figures on the obverse tell us that they were of 
colours, such as purple, red, and blue. (not white) The fact that
we have a Roman consular diptych from 7 years after the death
of the last Western Roman emperor tells us that the Roman
way of life did not suddenly end with the "fall" of Rome. (in
fact, the use of these continued in fashion in the realm of the
former Empire past the middle of the 6th century)

The rich have always tended to outwardly flaunt their wealth and power, the aristocracy of early medieval Europe was just as flamboyant about their show of wealth as someone "cruising" around in his Bugatti is today. The troves of gold and jeweled broaches and "fibulae" which are found in almost every museum housing medieval collections are some of the only surviving physical evidence of this fact, but there are other sources which give us a hint of the fashions and taste for opulence of the times.

It was written of the famed goldsmith, St Eloy, Foy, or Eligius, as he is variously known, not long after he died in 660, that "...he was used to wearing gold and gems on his clothes having belts composed of gold and gems and elegantly jeweled purses, linens covered with red metal and golden sacs hemmed with gold and all of the most precious fabrics including all of silk." I love this passage, as it very eloquently dashes the generally held notion of early medieval dress, to smithereens. An earlier passage in the same manuscript says, "Daily did he not rip golden bracelets, jewelled purses and other gold and gems from himself so that he might succor the miserable? "

BNF Lat. 12048 Fol 1v 8 jh

Dublin, Trinity Coll. Lib. MS A. I fol 202v um 800

No gems or jewels here, but these two 8th century works of
art depict both pattern and colour in clothing, The top
portrays Mary in a gold brocaded dress, and the bottom,
from the Book of Kells, the Temptation of Christ
who is wearing multi-coloured and patterned
garments. All of the other figures wear
multi-coloured clothing as well. (no drab white and grey)

Since I am quoting contemporary writings, I will jump ahead to the 9th century, which is the time that this cloister projects strives to emulate, and mention another juicy tidbit from a later 9th century story written by Notker the Stammerer, a monk of St Gall (of all places) about Charlemagne, for his great-grandson Louis II. In one part of the story, Notker, relates an incident in which Charles was on a mission to the Italian city of Fruili to initiate the instalment of a new bishop. (The previous one had just passed on to the Other-World.) After Charles and his court had been there "for a short time", one day, just as a local festivities were ending, he proposed to his Frankish courtiers and the local Italian nobility, that they should go hunting, dressed "'in the very clothes that we are wearing'". (It must be here mentioned, that the most illustrious and prudent Charles had a particular disdain for out-of-place pomp and pretension, and this part of the story was included as a mater of pointing out that fact.) It seems that the Italians took particular pleasure in spending large sums on their clothing (this has been going on for a long time) and, as Notker relates, they "...strutted in robes made of pheasant-skins and silk; or of the necks, backs and tails of peacocks in their first plumage. Some were decorated with purple and lemon-coloured ribbons; some were wrapped round with cloaks and some in ermine robes..." (Ermine is a fur and in the Louvre, there is a famous portrait of Louis XIV regally draped in such a robe.)

Vat Barb Lat 587 fol 4v 9jh
A 9th century work, now in the Vatican, shows 
St Cecilia, and two other martyr saints dressed
in much the manner described by Notker. Notice,
in particular, the ermine lining of St Cecilia's cloak. 

So far, we have seen examples which are applicable to royalty and the nobility, but in our age, when people are not only concerned with the fashions of the elite, our readers may raise the objection that these descriptions do not apply to the garments of artisans and working class people. Fortunately, there is some fragmentary evidence to counter that as well. In a medieval treatise on the applied arts, which is an Ottonian era compilations of earlier writings done by "Theophilus" comes a description of making gilded silver leaf to use, among other things, for textile work. "Narrow strips are also cut from this sheet and they are twisted around silk in spinning. Gold fringes are woven from them in the homes of the poor, just as among the rich they are woven of pure gold."

Wow, here we have several little morsels that crush our collective notion of medieval persons of lower classes. First of all, that they would have silk at all, is perhaps staggering to most modern readers, and that they would further embellish their fabrics with gilded thread flies completely in the face of the notion of anyone except a lord or lady wearing dull, drab browns, greys, and dingy white clothing.

Another passage from near the end of Notker's story of Charlemagne, helps to clarify the attire of the various classes of the Frankish population in the 9th century. It seems that at Easter, the emperor was accustomed to give out gifts, as is written of him, "On that day, it was his practice to make presents to each and every one of those who served in the palace or did duty in the royal court. He would order belts, leg coverings and precious garments [earlier in the text described as being made of silk] brought from all parts of his vast empire to be given to some of his nobles; the lower orders would get Frisian cloaks of various colours; his grooms, cooks and kitchen-attendants got clothes of linen and wool and knives according to their needs." (I believe the "knives" here is a mis-translation of some sort of garment or fabric, lost to posterity, that was probably decorated in some way by cutting, as Notker is here only describing clothing and types of fabric, so "knives" does not really fit in this context.) 

Here it does not say that the clothing given to the lowest order of servants was or was not coloured, but in other passages from this manuscript we learn that the "Frisian cloaks of various colours" were "striped", and were garments held in "high esteem" in a broad part of the world, serving as a "luxury" trade item and even being sent to the Middle East as gifts from the emperor, thus the mentioning of cloaks "of various colours" is used to denote theses particular specialty garments. 

From a small Italian chapel, Known as 
Santa Maria di Torba, comes this 8th or 9th
century fragment of a fresco. In it are depicted 
a crowd of people who seem to be wearing the
type of "Frisian" robes described by Notker.
In addition to being striped, this fragment also
informs us that the stripes were further 
embellished with patterns and thus more of an
explanation as to why they would be 
held in high esteem. 

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg MS Msc.Patr.61 fol 41v 4. V. 8jh

From an 8th century  manuscript, produced in Montecassino,
comes another image of a man wearing a striped garment.
is this another reference to these "Frisian Cloaks"?
or simply the fact that anyone weaving fabric can use different
coloured threads and produce stripes, which are more interesting
than solid colours

In medieval art, it is very common to see renditions of people dressed in clothing of solid colour, and later medieval inventories, when people bothered to mention such things at all, often refer to textile objects by a singular colour. However, this in no way implies that, from a detail-specific point of view,  these objects were in fact unadorned or plain. Below is a picture of part of a book, whose cover is compiled of remnants of a brocade-woven fabric. If one were to be somewhat specific about it, they would say it is "red with a lighter red pattern." but it could also be very easily described as simply being "red". We have already seen the consular diptych in which the coloured images of figures are painted in solid colours, but on the very same object, the carved figures show a proliferation of pattern. Many artists seem to have not seen the point of adding both pattern and colour in the same rendition. In addition, the smaller the scale a figure was, the less likely it would be to embellish, for the simple economy of time and skill.

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.95 inside cover, before 1012

Late 10th century, or earlier, fabric fragments re-used as a cover
for a book. In fact, there are two different fabrics here, the 
second, red, with yellow and white stripes and white dots.

I say "many artists" but certainly not all. At the same time I saw the video which inspired this blog-post, I was just finishing up my Turn-of-the-Millennium-Casket and had been studying the artwork of a late 10th century manuscript in which two of the artists (There were four or five working on it) seem to have relished in the depiction, albeit in a "short-hand" sort of  impressionistic way, of the patterns and colours of textiles. Nearly every figure in the entire manuscript has some indication of ornamented fabric for their clothing. Further, all of their clothes are blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, etc, nothing drab about any of them. In fact, I have never seen a medieval manuscript with any figure even closely approaching the manner or (lack of) colour of dress depicted in the Campus Gali video. (Save for someone who had just received a new white "baptismal robe")

I have now been studying the art of medieval manuscripts for more than twelve years and what I have seen from 8th and 9th century works coincides with the meager descriptions in the writing from the same period which I have come across. A couple sentences from which have already been quoted; in another passage, this time from Einhard's story of Charlemagne, we find more information about the "Frankish" dress, which should be relevant to the Campus Gali project. He says that King Charles "...wore the national—that is to say, the Frankish dress. His shirts and drawers were of linen, then came a tunic with a silken fringe, and hose. His legs were cross-gartered and his feet enclosed in shoes. In winter-time he defended his shoulders and chest with a jerkin made of the skins of otters and ermine. He was clad in a blue cloak, and always wore a sword, with the hilt and belt of either gold or silver. Occasionally, too, he used a jewelled sword, but this was only on the great festivals..." 

BSB clm 14000 fol 5v um 870
Not Charlemagne, but his grand-son Charles
the Bald.
Here we have the red hose and the cris-
cross laces of the leggings along with the gilded
shoes, all mentioned in the writings. In this
Illustration, the king's cloak is of a jeweled shimmering
gold and purple variety. Doubtless it also would
have a pattern to it, but the artist left it off to better
capture the shimmer of the silk and gold

Notker elaborates on this description further in the following manner, "Now the dress and equipment of the old Franks was as follows: Their boots were gilt on the outside and decorated with laces three cubits long. The thongs round the legs were red, and under them they wore upon their legs and thighs linen of the same colour, artistically embroidered. The laces stretched above these linen garments and above the crossed thongs, sometimes under them and sometimes over them, now in front of the leg and now behind. Then came a rich linen shirt and then a buckled sword-belt. ... The last part of their dress was a white or blue cloak in the shape of a double square; so that when it was placed upon the shoulders it touched the feet in front and behind, but at the side hardly came down to the knees..." Here we have a slightly more detailed description, and a hint of ornament with the mention of "gilt" boots and leggings "artistically embroidered", but this still does not tell the half of a description as a modern person would like. In reading medieval writings, by nature at best very terse in their details, it is important to read "between the lines" as well. At the end of the paragraph, part of which was just quoted, Notker ends by stating, "...I myself am lazy and slower than a tortoise, and so never got into Frankland; but I saw the King of the Franks in the monastery of Saint Gall, glittering in the dress that I have described." This "glittering in the dress" line gives us a much better clue as to the reality of the kings garments. What is simply described, both by Notker and Einhard as a "blue cloak" would have been, in fact, a cloak of blue damask worked with a design of gold thread and for a king, doubtless further embellished with pearls and or gems as portrayed in the above picture of Charles the Bald. As we saw from Thophilus, a person such as a king's fabric would have been worked with "pure gold" and a less well off person's cloak would have been made with the gilded silver foil. An even less expensive, though certainly not plain and unadorned method, could have simply been made with yellow thread replacing the gold. Here, then, we have a range of possibilities of ornamentation of a garment, according to the amount one has to spend and the status of the wearer, but never being a simple "blanket" of uncoloured, undecorated fabric as shown in the subject video. (notice, also, that the cloak "touched the feet in front and behind" and so was long enough to actually keep someone warm, and furthermore would have almost completely concealed whatever other garments were below.) Another snippet of revealing information comes from a part of Notker's story where he is relating Charlemagne's grandson's (Charles the bald, pictured above) attitude toward soldiers exhibiting undue pomp in their manner of dress, whilst preparing to engage in battle. "...If any of his servants, ignorant of this rule, [to wear only "linen and wool"] happened to meet him with silk or silver or gold upon his person, he would receive a reprimand of the following kind and would depart a better and a wiser man. “Here’s a blaze of gold and silver and scarlet! Why, you wretched fellow, can’t you be satisfied with perishing yourself in battle if Fate so decides? Must you also give your wealth into the hands of the enemy...?" "The offense, here is not that the garments are ornamented, but that they are made and decorated with very costly products; silk, along with silver and gold were the primary "treasures" which were taken as "war booty". The fact that opposing armies would despoil one another of these possessions further attests to their manner of wearing their material wealth.

Book-binding Staatsbibliothek Bamberg.

This much worn piece of brocade-woven fabric
comes from the 9th century and is made from
silk, though it has long-since lost the luster
which rendered it so valuable in the first place.
Most of the yellow threads have been worn 
away as well. Very likely, however, this is
a remnant of someone's worn-out garment that 
still contained sections which were in good
enough condition to be recycled.

In fact, a passage from the will of Charlemagne specifically points out the medieval attitude to what was or was not "valuable", in the instructions given for the distribution of his property after his death. "...He desired further that there should be added to this third part of the total sum, which like the other parts consists of gold and silver, all vessels and utensils of brass, iron or other metals, with arms, clothes and all other moveable articles, whether of value or not, which are employed for various purposes; as for instance curtains, coverlets, tapestries, woollen-cloths, dressed-skins, harnesses, and whatever else is found at that date in his store chamber or wardrobe: so that in this way the subdivisions of that part may be larger, and the distribution of alms find its way to a larger number." In this will, the division of his wealth into thirds had been limited to gold, silver, jewels, and silks. To this last third was added everything else "weather of value or not". It is interesting that even three silver and one gold table were not counted in the "treasures" but were special enough to be added as an addendum to the list of distributed items. In addition, he had "books" of a "great quantity in his library", which were neither part of the "treasure" or the more utilitarian items to be added to the last lot. In short, I am comparing what constituted "valuable possessions" and the details thereof, in the medieval mind, with our modern notion of possessions, where an estate inventory can even list something as mundane as a "box of miscellaneous clothing" or a "set of screwdrivers". 

The whole topic of class dress, national dress, and generation-specific dress becomes quite complicated, and is rendered more so by the human tendency to find great prejudice in minute and subtle details as a way of distinguishing one group of people from another. This is pointed out well by  several contemporary writers, but I will again quote Einhrad, and his mention of the lands and peoples in conflict with the Franks of the 9th century. "Of...all the barbarous and fierce nations lying between the Rhine, ..., and the Danube, who speak much the same language, but in character and dress are very unlike..." Unfortunately, no mention is made of what differences there were in their dress, or what distinguished them from that of the Franks, for that mater. More of this same minute judgemental distinction shows up again in part of the already mentioned passage about Charlemagne's dress. "...He disliked foreign garments, however beautiful, and would never consent to wear them, except once at Rome on the request of Pope Hadrian, and once again upon the entreaty of his successor, Pope Leo, when he wore a long tunic and cloak, and put on shoes made after the Roman fashion." "foreign" here, is obviously in reference to the fashions of "Rome", or what modern writers would term "Byzantine." (see the above 9th century illustration of St Cecilia) The funny thing is, for all of these distinctions, real or imagined,  through the lens of 1200 years of by-gone history, whatever subtleties existed in their minds has been almost completely erased in ours. It is rather like two people arguing, in 1955, of the design differences between a Ford and a Chevrolet. In the 21st century they both look very much the same, with both obviously coming from the same time period, even though fans of one car or the other would be very quick to point out the supposed superior design elements of whichever vehicle they favoured. 

The question even becomes more blurred with further reading of both Einhard and Notker, because it turns out that Charlemagne did not always and only wear the above-mentioned "national dress" of the Franks, but, "On festal days he walked in procession in a garment of gold cloth, with jewelled boots and a golden girdle to his cloak, and distinguished further by a diadem of gold and precious stones. But on other days his dress differed little from that of the common people." (Einhard) and, "The most glorious Charles used to go to lauds at night in a long and flowing cloak..."(Notker) This leaves us to wonder exactly how different the "foreign" dress that he refused to wear actually was, and what differences there really were. (probably, mostly, the wearing of leggings) To muddy the waters a bit more, comes this bit of exaggeration of comparison of two groups of "knights" in the telling of the exploits of an over-pompous bishop who hosted a feast for some of the king's men, after a botched mass. "When the mass was thus scrambled through his guests passed into his hall, which was decorated with many-coloured carpets, and tapestries of all kinds; and there a magnificent banquet, served in gold and silver and jewelled vessels, was provided, calculated to tickle the appetite of the fastidious or the well-fed. The bishop himself sat on the softest of cushions, clad in precious silks and wearing the imperial purple, so that he seemed a king except for the [lack of] sceptre and the title. He was surrounded by troops of rich knights, in comparison with whom the officers of the palace (nobles though they were) of the unconquered Charles seemed to themselves most mean." Here, "mean" is to say that they looked less wealthy by comparison. Again, this is probably somewhat akin to an 80 year old man and a 90 year old man arguing about which of them looks older, in the presence of a 20 year old kid. To the kid, they both look so ancient that he cannot see any difference. (And the 90 year old sees no difference between a youth of 18 or 25) These differences which are being discussed here are primarily things that would have only been visible to those living in the times and cultures from which they came. I rather imagine that most of the differences were in the types of weave to the cloth, or the types of accessorising ornament that was added to them. The majority of silk would have been imported, either from the Eastern Roman Empire or from the Middle East, at this time, and therefore, weather it was a king in England, Francia, or Italy, the weave and pattern of the cloth would have been much the same. The primary differences, then, could have been the way in which regional fashions made changes in the "cut", and "fitting" of these garments. 

Coming back down to the realm of the more "ordinary" people, notice the last line in the bit in which Charles' festive dress was described. "But on other days his dress differed little from that of the common people." I think if we read between the lines here, we can learn that the form of the common people's dress and perhaps even the basic colours, were what was "little different", much like a modern suit purchased for 100$ is visually very similar to one purchased for 2000$, the distinctions being in the quality of the product, the material used, and above all, in the mind of the owner and his peers. Assuming they are both the same colour. someone from another planet would most likely see no difference at all. 

The wealthy would have worn a tunic of well made linen, perhaps with a subtle pattern woven into it, and further decorated with silk embroidery, the "common" man would have a tunic made of less-fine linen or even wool, with less (but not necessarily no) embroidery also of wool or linen and probably more expressionistically rendered. The same would be true for the hose, or leggings, that each person wore underneath, and the cloak that they wore over everything; primarily differentiated in material, quality and workmanship, not in basic form.

Lastly, coming back to the topic of "sumptuary laws" even that topic gets a little muddied with a story at the very end of the surviving portion of Notker's tale. He was relating how Charles the Bald would go weekly to the baths, and upon stripping off all of his clothes, "...give everything that he took off, except his sword and belt, to his attendants. His liberality reached even to the lowest grades: insomuch that he once ordered all his attire to be given to one Stracholf, a glazier, and a servant of Saint Gall." If there was a rule about commoners not wearing the clothing of the nobility, what exactly was this glazier meant to do with them? In fact he did wear them, as the story goes, but some very envious people decided to waylay and rob him of his gifts. What became of him, sadly, is no longer known, because the manuscript ends there, the rest of it lost to the ravages of time... or else it was the worlds first "hanging suspense" ending? Incidentally, this little story also serves to dash another misconception from the Middle Ages. A "glazier" for those who do not know, is someone who installs window glass, yet most any book on the Middle Ages that I ever read says that there were no glass windows at that time.

Attempting to piece together the daily reality of a time 1200 years in the past is no easy task, and there are bound to be mistakes made. The cost of replicating history in extreme authenticity would also be exceptionally high, but it is no fault of the past that we moderns cannot or do not want to spend the money to decorate the re-created spaces with "gold and silver, and carpets and tapestries lining the walls", or any other number of ornaments and decorations to both space and person which once existed as ordinary, but now would be considered as opulent luxury. (consider that even 100 years ago no self-respecting man would go out without a felt hat, a jacket, and even a tie, but nowadays it seems to be, for some people at least, perfectly acceptable to go out in one's t-shirt, pajamas and even underwear [boxer shorts]; the hat, jacket and tie are thought of as pointless expenditure). 

Bellow, I have included some additional contemporary illustrations and commentary to more fully illustrate the reality of 8th and 9th century dress.

BNF Lat 1 Fol 423r M. 9jh

A group of prelates surround King Charles in this illumination
All the bishops are dressed in ornamented textiles, dyed with 
expensive colours and further adorned with gold and gems

9th century Fragment of a Ribbon
Museum of Los Angeles 

We already read about costly "ribbons of 
lemon-colour and purple

Perhaps Notker had something like this ribbon in mind? It has lost several of its pearls, and some of the embroidery has worn away or frayed, but enough is left to exhibit the undeniable exquisiteness of this small fragment which measures a mere 50mm in width. If one looks closely, the background fabric is knitted, meaning that the material is as fine as any modern, machine-made stocking. The figures in the above painting from the Bibliothèque Nationale are all shown with ribbons hanging from their robes. Given the opulence of their attire, these ribbons doubtless represent ones such as this, from the Los Angeles Museum. Medieval art usually only suggests the basic form, not the fine details.

10th century Ivory panels. Bode Museum

"Roundels" were a staple of medieval ornament for centuries. 
The 5th century diptych in this article has them, and they
continued in use even into the 14th century

5th century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy (Mosoleum of 
Galla Placidia)

This ceiling mosaic is a reproduction of a textile design

Fragment of 10th century textile, produced in Köln and
formerly a drapery in the St Gereon Church of that city

7th or 8th century "Samite" silk fragment.
This is the type of silk fabric imported from "the East"
and sold in markets all over Europe

7th or 8th century fresco fragment, Santa Maria, Antiqua, Rome
An artists representation of the same sort of roundel

7th or 8th c. Santa Maria Antiqua
Another example. Notice, also the 
partially gilded shoes

 BSB Clm 14345 fol 7r um 853

Sometimes Ornamentation was more of the geometric type

To add to the discussion of subtle differences in dress, perhaps here is one clue? The man shown leading Saul, (who was converted to Christianity and became St Paul) is wearing wrapped leggings, but his wrappings are not crisscrossed. Is this a shift in fashion, or the mode of a different region? Whatever the case, in the days of my youth, such a distinction would have been enough to get beat up for. Doubtless it would have been noted by 9th century people as well. 

BSB Clm 22311 fol 111r sp 9jh

St John, from the late 9th century

John is shown here with a roundel-ornamented cloak, but his cushion is decorated with another popular motif, the "quatrefoil". This design is ubiquitous with Gothic art, but this painting was produced nearly 200 years before the "invention" of the Gothic style; further, the design had already been around for at least 500 years at that time, and is quite common in "Carolingian" decoration.

8th or 9th century Fresco, Santa Maria di Torba

A hint of what wall tapestries looked like in the 8th and 9th 

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg MS Msc.Lit.131, 9th century

There is no way to know if this little fragment was part of a 
wall hanging, or someone's garment, but either way, once again,
it demonstrates the complexity of early medieval textiles

Staatsbibliothek Bamberg MS Msc.Lit.142 fol 5v ca 990

This is a bit later than the period we are discussing, but 
relevant in several ways. The seated figure wears a
patterned silk robe, not a cloak, which is made of "shot silk"
Behind him is a textile wall hanging, with a geometric design
woven from four colours. (blue, white purple and gold)

9-11th century wooden box with bone overlay; Scandinavia

Inside is a collection of minor relics and fabric which was used
to wrap them.

On first glance, these fabrics look to be mundane white rags, but on closer inspection, we can see that nearly all of them have patterns woven into the cloth. Further more, three fragments are comprised of silk of extremely fine weave. There are also three fragments which have colour, including the most prominent one, which is a pattern woven from white and green threads. 

It is hard to say to what degree people wore plain woven fabric versus decoratively woven stuff, but is is safe to assume that even if one's garments were of a solid colour, they might very wall have had a pattern worked into the weave. Furthermore, many "plain" fabrics would have been worked over with embroidery and or trimmed with borders, fringes, tassels, ribbons, and so on. Whether a prince or a pauper, medieval people loved colour and design and would have used whatever means they had available to them, to decorate their surroundings. Even something as simple as embroidering stars or cutting out dots and sewing them one, would have been more interesting to them than walking around in monotonous clothing. 

When one thinks of the Middle Ages, monks dressed in brown or grey frocks come easily to mind, a very drab and boring sort of garment, for sure, but these were adopted (late in the Middle Ages) as a deliberate statement of distancing one's self from any sign of worldly wealth. If everyone were wearing clothing that looked like them, it would not have been much of a statement. 

Videre Scire

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Christmas Story from Santa Maria Foris Portas

  Happy Christmas and good riddance to a year that I am sure most of us would just as soon forget.

"The Annunciation to the Shepherds", a scene from the 
Christmas story as depicted in Santa Maria Foris Portas, Italy.
The pock-marks are from where the surface was "keyed"
to allow a new layer of plaster to adhere to the old. It was
this layer that preserved these paintings, albeit in an
incomplete and damaged state, for us today.

As has become my tradition, I wish to present another glimpse of a Medieval view of the Christmas story. This particular instalment comes from an amazingly happy accident in the form of some remarkably preserved early medieval paintings in a small chapel some 50km north-west of Milan. It seems that the church, along with the rest of the town was mostly destroyed in the 13th century and never re-built, but by the time of the destruction, the paintings had become old and outmoded and were thus covered over with new plaster, which helped to preserve the frescoes until their rediscovery in 1944. 

What is left of the Annunciation scene and part of the 
Visitation between Mary and Elisabeth. 
Incidentally, the "annunciation" scene evolved and changed
considerably over the course of the Middle Ages, but the 
"Visitation" scene has already been firmly established and 
is no different from that still in use in the 13th century.

There seems to be a lot of debate as to when these frescoes were painted, and small wonder that, because there are simply no other paintings like them to have survived from the Middle Ages. It is important to realise, however, that this sort of decoration was normal and common in the early Middle Ages, and there were probably dozens of buildings dotting the surrounding landscape, decorated by this anonymous artist (or artists). Someone with the skills this artist had does not do "one-off jobs". He obviously made an entire career of painting and it is a shame that so little of what he or his peers produced has come down to us- which is also what makes this find all the more spectacular, having survived at all.

Gifts of the Magi. Because only part of the painting was done
"al fresco" (in the wet plaster) much of the colour and details
have been lost to time, or pealed away by the removal of the
overlaying plaster layer. Of particular note is that nearly 
every trace of Mary's chair has been lost, only a bit of the 
foot-stool remains. 

Carved to imitate contemporary metalwork of the time, 
this relief from the "Ratchis Altar" seems to have been 
inspired by the same model as that used by the Santa Maria
In a world without photography, artist relied on one another's
work and certain models became more popular and iconic,
 in time becoming the "standard" design from which to work.
 This did not mean wholesale copying, just a point from
which to begin. Each artist left his own nuances and stylistic
contributions. This adaptation and individuality is what leads
to stylistic and chronological changes in art. If every artist
simply copied exactly what he saw, then art would have been

Now in the Vatican, this 3rd century sarcophagus front
has a different version of the same scene. It was this version
which would become the "standard" method of depicting the
scene. Note the more natural and spacial depiction from 
Santa Maria Foris Portas.

I prefer to join the camp of those who opt for a 6th century date of these works as the iconography of many of the scenes is very different to much of the Western art tradition by the 9th century (the alternate proposed date). One example would be that, although the style is very different, the basic model of the Three Magi seems to be the very same one used for the right-hand end of the famed 8th century "Ratchis Altar", down to the little round hats worn by the three Magi and the angel flying overhead. Neither of these details is in the 3rd century catacomb depiction of the scene (now in the Vatican Museum) which seems to have become the more popular model and the one which most western art followed from the 4th to the 10th century. Most early depictions, also opted for the Phyrgian Cap, as opposed to these little round hats. By the time of the Ottonian dynasty, the hats had changed to crowns and the "wise men" had become "kings". 

Another reason for my view of the earlier date is the very fact that these frescoes do not follow the more "conventional" model of many of the scenes. At the dawn of the "Middle Ages" there was a lot more variation on any number of themes, but as time wore on, "conventional norms" fashioned "iconic" models from which various subjects were depicted giving rise to instant recognition of biblical narrative depictions across a broad spectrum of art forms. In Sana Maria Magiore, In Rome, there is another version of this scene which is neither like the Vatican version nor that of Santa Maria Foris Portas. There were probably still other versions which have not survived at all. These painting then, in my opinion, are from the period when Christian art was still young and finding its form.

The Flight into Egypt, in this scene Mary rides
an ass led by a nearly obliterated figure; Joseph trails behind.
As time wore on, the figure leading the ass morphed into that
of Joseph leading; the other figure fell by the way. Also taken
from the same original model, a panel from the so-called 
Throne of Maximian, in Ravenna informs us that the steaks
above the donkey's head is a wing of an accompanying
angel, another figure that often dropped out of the
pictorial lexicon by or before the 11th century. 

Lastly, because of the style of the paintings themselves, I opt for an early date. The similarity of "Byzantine" art and these paintings have been noted, but it has also been noted their many differences. It is important to realise that "Byzantine" art was, in fact, Roman art in its beginnings. Byzantium was the new Roman capital city (called Constantinople) set up by the Roman emperor, Constantine in the 4th century. What was artistically produced there was simply the natural evolution of Roman/Western Mediterranean art at the time. The fact that a similarity of style between what was produced in Constantinople and Rome would occur only some two hundred years after the shift from one place to the other as the capital should come as no surprise to anyone. 

The angel warns Joseph in a dream, to flee to Egypt.
Unfortunately, much has been lost in this picture as well but
the remnants of Roman artistic style is still very evident.

This depiction of the same scene comes
from the "Throne of Maximian" an ivory
chair in Ravenna, from the 2nd quarter of
the 6th century, It is interesting to note 
that this and the Santa Maria painting share
the same model for this scene; the one of 
the Flight into Egypt, below, however,
comes from a different one than that
used in Santa Maria.

This fresco from sometime between
the 6th & 8th centuries in Santa
Maria Antigua, in Rome is 
somewhat similar in style to those
we are discussing, but this "simi-
larity is only like saying a 1955
Borgward is similar to a 1955
Cadillac. If we are comparing it to
a 2010 Prius, then yes, it is "similar"
The "similarity" is only from
a lack of additional items with 
which to compare it. This illustrates
the problem of art history. Sometimes
we have nothing much to compare
(All pictures for this article sourced
from Wikipedia and the "web".)

Regardless of the whom and the when of these frescoes, they are indeed the remnants of a master artist, and give us a tantalising glimpse of how churches, and even small chapels were decorated in the early Middle Ages. Nearly 1500 years have come and gone since these paintings were finished, but part of a Christmas Miracle remains in that they still live and we are again able to view these works today. Thanks to the power of the internet, even those who have no ability to travel to Italy can now, too, view them.

Happy Christmas.

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Sunday, November 22, 2020

Learning To Paint (Again)

 I n previous posts I have introduced my "Millennium Box". In the beginning it was not so named because I had expected it to take that long to finish, but because it is supposed to be patterned after the art of the "turn of the millennium", as in circa 990-1010 AD. My first post, after completing the construction of that box was 12 November, 2017; an unbelievable quick three years ago. 

"Turn of the Millennium" 10th century box,
front detail

I have always been an artist, and have been painting since I was 12, but I had to learn to paint all over again to work on this box. My intent, from the conception more than three years ago, was to crate an expensive painted medieval box, and I had even worked out the theme, some of the designs, and had begun to purchase authentic pigments for executing the plan. The idea was to not only paint it with art inspired from late 10th/early 11th century manuscripts, but to do it with egg tempera, one of a few different options available to a turn-of-the-millennium artist. 

The box with a new coat of gesso. The top has been
scraped smooth but the sides are still unfinished. I used
a cabinet scraper for the flat areas and a file to trim up the 
rim of the box and give tiny chamfers to the corners.

There were several factors that caused the process to take three years, one of them being that after I finished making the box, I covered it in gesso and then left the country for six months to work on a job. When I returned to my workshop, I found the gesso on the top had cracked. Somehow, the fabric that I had put on the box prior to the gesso, (as per Theopholis' instructions) had not adhered well, and it seems that there was also a bit too much glue in the mix. Whatever the cause, I had to remove everything from the top and do it over. I had also made some "gesso sotile" following the instructions of Cennini, and that was put over everything and scraped down after I had repaired the top.

The second, and even more fundamental reason for the delay, was that I had to mentally get myself ready to do the painting. I had never made or worked with egg tempera before, and there are so many factors that come into play that made it a bit daunting to commence. Once I finally spent enough money accumulating pigments, and had read, ad nauseum, the medieval treatise available to me on the subject, it was actually time to stop baulking and get to work. 

BNF Lat. 9448 fol 54v and 73r ca. 990-95 (cropped)

As I mentioned, my idea was to make a box with a theme, specifically my own zodiac sign of Leo. I also wanted to incorporate the Sol and Luna (sun and moon), which was a popular, oft repeated theme, in medieval art. As with medieval artists, I would chose my subject mater from the images available to me, and adapt them as my artistic skill and inspiration allowed, to come up the with figures to fit my intended theme. I had seen several examples of the sun and moon personified as king and queen, but all of them were only bust or half length figures. I wanted full figure seated persons, and so adapted figures which were originally other characters. These images came from a manuscript produced in Prum Abbey (Northern Germany) around 990-95 and are now housed in the BNF. (French national library) My second source comes from a manuscript now in the Boulogne-sur-Mer branch of the French Municipal Library, which is a late tenth century copy of a 9th century copy of a now lost, but probably Roman original. The extant 9th century copy is known as the Leiden Aratea. There are scores of surviving medieval manuscripts which point back to this model. 

Some of my drawings for the design of the box. Changes 
and adaptations were made as I went along, but this was 
a starting point. Nearly all peripheral decorative elements for
the box were taken from the Prum Abbey manuscript. 

One must always bear in mind, when it comes to art, that an artist needs images to work from, and he will make the best he can with those he has access to. A well paid and traveled artist would be able to visit many libraries and source an abundance of imagery, but a less-well-off artist would have been more limited, and thus need to rely more on his imagination; the resulting work would probably be viewed by modern eyes as more "crude" or "primitive" looking. There are hundreds of examples of medieval art which clearly show that one artist had access to another work, or indirect copies thereof. 

For my box, my imaginary medieval alter-ego had direct access to both of these primary sources; his own artistic ability took those models and made an original work of art to suit his patron's requirements, as was the practice of every medieval craftsman. One cannot begin to stress enough, the difference in the creative process that would have existed in a world without the photographs, printed images, and magazines, not to mention all of the digital media, that we now take so much for granted. Copying was not seen as a sin, but as an essential element for creativity. Everything that we have, owes its existence to all that came before.

Boulogne-sur-Mer, Bibliothèque municipale,
MS 0188 Fol 32v sp. 10jh (cropped)
Sadly, the 9th century version of this image has been lost,
it would be interesting to see what changes had been made by
the 10th century replicating artist.

Having gotten all of my images together and planned out, I was still not quite mentally ready to tackle the job, so I decided to ease myself into it by painting the inside of the lid. Most boxes of this calibre would have had cloth linings, but I reasoned, that it would be difficult to line the lid, given all of its angles, with a piece of fabric, and if I did so, the pattern on the fabric would necessarily have been almost completely obliterated, thus it would make more sense to paint simulated fabric where the pattern could be "bent" to give the illusion of following the contour of the lid but maintaining a discernible design. My pattern is a combination of two ornamental garment designs found in the Prum manuscript. 

The extent of the "practice" that I did prior to beginning the lid

This illustrates most of the process of egg tempera.
The dry pigment is "ground" with water to give it a "paint"
consistency, the colour is then transferred to an authentic
medieval "paint cup" (shell) and mixed with egg yolk,
 itself  tempered with water and vinegar.

As in my model manuscript, most design elements were not
drawn out beforehand. The artist just started out and whatever
happened is what it was. This, in my opinion, lends
to what I see as the natural beauty of medieval art. Not 
over-thinking and over-planning. The results look more
spontaneous and natural. They are perfect in their

A "red" colour, and the components used to achieve it. 
On the green background it looks much more like red

One of the challenges that reared it head almost immediately was getting the desired colours from the dry pigments. As soon as water is added, the colour changes. The relative colour also seems very different on a white box than it does on my black granite grinding slab. Most of my painting career has been in oil, and I have always had a white or light wood-coloured (maple) background on which to mix it. The medieval manuscripts on painting recommend a "porphyry" slab for grinding the colours. Porphyry is rather purplish red with white spots, and though light, is certainly not white either. I did not have any porphyry in the first place, but this granite slab seemed a good substitute. Learning to judge the finished colour on a black background took a lot of "trial and error", (mostly error) however.

The finished inside of the lid

Even the border decoration was painted without prior drawing. I did put a dot of white paint at the point where each curve reached the edge and then started connecting the dots. Somehow I got one more repeat of the pattern on the lower edge than what I had on the upper.

After finishing the inside I was finally ready
to take on the outside. I began at one end and
painted the border to completion. 

I then realised that I should be painting everything in stages as I went, colour by colour. This would serve two purposes, first, the whole box would be more harmoniously decorated, and second, I would not have to be constantly re-mixing the same colours.

With that Idea in mind, I began the entire box as a single

One problem with that plan, however, was that I had never finalised the design of Sol and Luna for the front of the box. I had to stop and do that. Once they were drawn, however, I spent more time working on the front at the neglect of other panels, so the idea of mixing each colour only once did not really work out very well.

Starting to show some real progress

At this point, I felt a sense of actually "getting it"

One frustration that I encountered was in attempting to replicate the colour purple. I had purchased two different "purple ochres", but neither one of them came close to the purple of my Prum Abbey model. I also had purchased several "reds" and "blues" which were supposedly what "was available" to a 10th century European artist, but no amount of mixing of any of them came close to achieving the desired colour. In the end, I had to do as any other medieval artist would have done, and content myself with what I had to hand. The bold use of purple in this 10th century manuscript is almost taunting however, and it seems, in looking through the entire volume, as if the artists (there were at least 4 working on this) after having gotten hold of some purple, were able to refine its colour to greater advantage as they went on, and made more flamboyant use of, and greater glee of having gotten hold of it. I would really love to know what their source of pigment was!

A brilliant "true" purple from the Prum Manuscript
By comparison, my purples are hardly purple at all

At this point I am more than two weeks into the process,
Using every minute that I can carve out for the purpose

The next big transformation
came when I began adding

The details were fun and why I so loved this particular
manuscript in the first place.
Painting parts of a single pattern in different colours was
"a thing" in 9th, 10th and 11th century art.

The end where I began wound up being the
last to be finished. The horses were a bit
mentally daunting for some reason. 

Sol in his Quadriga rides across
the sky, bringing light to the world
Krebs, or Cancer, is on the left lid end as he is
the sign before Leo.

Abstract stars and clouds in a night sky for the back panel

Textile inspired designs make up the back, as was a very 
common practice with medieval Chests, boxes &c.

Luna lumbers across the night sky in her ox-cart. 
Virgo, holding Libra, a common means of depicting
both signs together follows Leo as the year advances.

After some 80+ hours of work over a period of one month,
The box is finally finished.

After putting away all my pigments, and cleaning up and stowing all of my equipment, I realised that I had forgotten to paint in the scepter which was supposed to be in Sol's hand. I just did that this morning as can be seen in the first picture at the top.

Finished, including the 23K gold-leaf accents, but not without
the scepter - This would never due.

In all, this has been an educational, interesting, and fun project. If I could do it again, I would make some changes, but I feel fairly happy with it. Most important, however, is that it achieves its original goal of demonstrating the possibilities and potential beauty of the millions of lost objects from the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages. We have many examples from the 14th and 15th century, but these hardly reflect an entire millennium of artwork, nor do they illustrate the complexity and skills which early artisans had in the so-called heart of the "dark ages"! This box, then, is a slight attempt at demonstrating that reality. 

Still to come will be a set of cast bronze feet to stand on, a lock to secure the contents, and a ring-handle by which to lift or carry it. I wonder how long it will be before that part is finished...

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