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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Monday, July 13, 2020


There is doubtless no definitive, universally accepted reason why, but since the beginning of time, man has been inventing fantastic, made up creatures. Forty some years ago I even once read a book that proffers the view that the dinosaurs were actually living experiments in crossbreeding by an antediluvian society, for the purpose of gladiatorial type sports. Probably a very far-fetched notion, but the point is, that somehow, humans (myself included) have always had a fascination with making up fantastic creatures, known in German, as Fabelwesen or Fabeltieren.('en' makes a noun plural in German)


Some eleven or twelve odd years ago, looking through a book, I came across a drawing of an early medieval decorative motif for some metal object, in the form of an unidentified, (to me) rather contorted, creature in a roundel. I found it fascinating and wound up drawing him myself. That led to to the concept of creating a carved chest somewhat following after the manner of a small casket in the MET, which has a series of roundels with animals. With this idea in mind, I began making up additional creatures that might suit the purpose.

My dabblings with Fabelwesen. Somehow, they seem to fit more
appealingly in a roundel. They are numbered in the order in which they
were drawn over a couple of days. Number one is the one that started it all
and I believe number three was at least partially inspired by an historical
creation as well; the rest were figments of my own imagination.
The little casket from the MET which was the second part of the inspiration
for this project

That chest is yet to materialise, but in the autumn of the year of this initial conceptualisation, the organisers of a local event asked me to do some demonstrating. I decided to try carving one of my creatures, which I had recently finished drawing. In my wood-rack were several planks of pine left from a project, and as it was rather soft, seemed like a good wood to make the carving "easy". (As it turns out, carving pine is not particularly easy, - no forgiveness in grain direction and it is easily dented - oak would have been a much better candidate)

The carving progressed slowly over the course of the one day event, and by the end of day, his head and part of his body were defined inside a circular perimeter, his tail was also fairly well finished. After that day, however, he spent more than a decade in storage, almost completely forgotten.

Recently, in need of some material for a project, I was rummaging in the storage and happened upon this unfinished work. As I had been trying to think what meaningful gift I could give to my friend, Steffen, for his birthday, this suddenly presented itself as a good candidate. I got the carving out and took it back to my shop. It took me parts of four days to complete him because I completely re-carved every last millimetre in order to get the background much deeper than it had been. I "took a picture" of the piece as it was, but like many times before, there was no memory card in the camera, so no picture of how he was at that stage.

By the time I realised there was no memory card in the camera, the carving
was almost complete. The exposed dark colour is due to the 12+ years of
waiting in the storage building to be finished. Another plank of timber
 partially covered it, resulting in the lighter coloured upper half.

As I like to do with this blog, a bit of historical context to these imaginary creatures is warranted. I have no idea of the origin, and have not found any pre-medieval examples that show a very close connection, though there no doubt are such prototypes. The Gundestrup Cauldron shows on the "exterior plate A", two lion/dog looking creatures. Perhaps this is part of the tradition that eventually was codified by the early Middle Ages. The earliest versions that I know of, come from the 7th and 8th centuries. I do not profess or pretend to be an expert on the topic, however; the purpose of the following is simply to show some examples of the evolution of one branch of the Fabeltier through the course of the Middle Ages.

These characters, here shown in an 8th century iteration, will continue
in the ever changing styles throughout the course of the medieval period

It is hard to say what they are, or if they were actually, originally intended to be a real animal and, over time, became so stylised as to become Fabeltieren. Whatever the earliest intentions, by the 8th century they were already canonised as decorative repertoire for almost any ornamental purpose.

Amiens BM MS Lescalopier 030 fol 10v 4. V. 12jh Weissenau

In this late 12th century manuscript, from Weissenau Abbey, God is depicted creating the animals and fish on the fifth day of creation. (Latin; "Dies V") The interesting thing is that the "animals" portrayed are all mythical creatures. The "sea dog" and flying "sea lion" both have faces similar to our character.

Kölner Diözesan- und Dombibliothek MS Cod 83ii Fol 146r
798 (Detail)

Petrischrein, Domschatzkammer Minden
Carolingian Enamel plate re-used in an 11th century reliquary

Sometimes these creatures take on more of the characteristics we would ascribe to our notion of "dragons" such as those shown in the last example above, but often both these and dragons are shown together. Generally, the dragons will have thicker and often split tails, as well as wings, whilst the other, unnamed guys have neither of those.

Sometimes they take on more lion-like features, whilst other representations have them more dog-looking. My Fabeltier is a nice mixture of the two, which is also often found, as is exemplified in the following French miniature of the late 12th century. (middle left)

Getty MS Ludwig XIV 2 fol 126r um 1170-80 Umkreis Paris

These creatures seem to be prevalent throughout Europe, with slight regional artistic nuances, but generally recognisable as stemming from the same tradition, they can be found in all types of surviving artworks from as far apart as Spain and Norway.

Anglo-Saxon Stone Fragment from Jedburgh, Scotland, 9-10th cent.

North Italian or French Capital, now in the Louvre, 11th cent.

From a former frieze of Cluny Abbey, 12th cent.

Schaffhausen, Stadtbibliothek, Ministerialbibliothek Ms Min. 15 fol 45v
ca. 1100

One of my favourite characteristics of a sub-group of these creatures are those with a propensity to bite something (fruits, flowers, vines - see the Jedburgh stone carving above) or even their own backs or tails. In my opinion, they work best in a rounded fatter form, such as that shown in the Cluny fries-fragment above.

(A not very good picture of a detail from the) Basler Antipendium (altar)
now in the Musee de Moyen Age (Museum of the Middle Ages) in Paris
1st decade of the 11th cent., gifted to Basel Cathedral by Emperor Henry II 

In this roundel, the creature is biting his foot, which is another version of the biting theme. This is the sort of image I had in mind when designing my creatures for the box.

Taking advantage of some nice afternoon light to have a look
at the progress of my own carving

Once my animal was carved it was down to thinking about how to finish off the whole thing as a stand-alone piece of art. I took a cue from 12-13th century ivory mirrors and put "ears" (stylised leaves) on the four corners. In all, I think it worked out good. Once it was all done, I rubbed it down with some abrasive leaves and linseed oil, then I put it in the sun to give it a bit of a "tan" in an attempt to eliminate the piebald effect from a decade of being half buried and half exposed. I should mention that Steffen's Christmas gift to me aided my carving of his birthday gift; he gave me some very narrow carving chisels which worked great for getting into the gap between the border and the feet and rump. (1.5mm)

My Fabeltier - finished and delivered

Monday, May 11, 2020

CNC Machine

CNC is an anagram for "[real] Carving Necessitates [carving] Chisels"
(Carving Necessitates Chisels)

In the last post, the roof and one leg of the chest had just been finished. That was more than four months ago. Wow, the time really flies! Even though nothing else has been posted, I have not been sitting idle on my medieval projects.

I finished up the legs around the end of January, but then went out of town to do a job, anyway, they did not seem significant enough to warrant their own post. When I returned, I sawed up some panels (by hand) to for the sides and then started carving here and there as time and work permitted. They will eventually be fit into grooves in the the posts, but I decided to do the carving before doing the mortises on the panels, so that I would not accidentally break off the shoulders whilst carving.

7th century box lid and corner posts

7th Century box, the carving is underway. In the background one can see a
print-out of a Langobard panel, in the Church of Santa Maria, Civita
 Castellana, in Italy which I based my panel on.

7th century box, completed front panel
this depicts a wild boar hunt

7th Century box, Front panel detail. I love the way the frantic activity
of the dogs have been portrayed, albeit in a rather impressionistic way.

In the original Lombard panel, there was one additional standing figure and the trees extended further to the right, over his head. The scene was nearly perfect for the format of my box, but if I had made it exact, that figure would have been cut in half. The solution was to space everything just a bit wider, eliminate the forth figure and then shorten the branches of the tree so they fit within the space. This still left an unsatisfactory void to the right of the last figure. Taking a clue from the original artist, who had too much space below the spear-man, and thus left that area uncarved, I did not carve the right-hand edge straight in order to not have too much blank field beside that figure.

Red line showing what would be a straight edge to the field

In carving this panel, I realised that there is a lot more detail than one notices at a glance. I also realised, that even though it looks "simple" it is technically nearly as complicated as any "classical" carving. There are many subtleties which are not readily obvious, but where details are important to the scene, they have been rendered with care, such as the horses' bridals and trappings. Another factor which greatly increases the complexity of the process is the depth to which the background is sunk. If this were shallow, it would be fairly easy and take much less time, but the ground is sunk, in the scale of my work, at about 7 to 9mm. It is not easy to remove and clean out corners and small places at that depth but this was a very common characteristic of early medieval relief sculpture so I followed it.

I considered posting about this panel once I had finished it, but decided that I could get the next one done fairly quickly. "After all", I thought, it was "just circles and flowers, mostly" (I never learn) which should be fairly easy to carve, right? It took me a lot more time, again in large part due to the depth of the grounding. This panel is patterned after a panel which is, or was, in Berlin, but came from Rome, originally. I have no idea if it survived the war because I can find no modern mention of it, the original of what I used (found on an internet archive site) was taken "before 1920".

7th Century box, back panel nearing completion. I draw the simpler elements
directly on the wood, but the birds, which are more complex, I drew on paper
and then pasted that to the timber.

The original from which I based my panel on (It is marble)

7th Century box, back panel. I chose this design for two reasons, number one,
I liked it, and number two, because it worked perfectly in the space that I had
to work with. I believe this was a large factor in determining a lot of original
medieval decoration, not so much in the supposed meaning that modern
art historians and analysers want to attach to them. 

It is true that some symbols and patterns had special or significant meaning, but artist have always worked with and influenced decorative trends. It is no accident that much art of the 6th through 10th century utilised interlacing straps and bands, because this was one of the stylistic trends of the times, but like most other elements of design, sooner or later,  even long-winded popular elements fall out of fashion and are discarded. I came across several early medieval panels, with designs similar to my box design, which had been re-purposed in the 16th and 17th century. Apparently the busyness of the grooved strap-work was offensive to 17th century taste, however, and the panels were ground flat enough to remove all or most of the grooves.

Detail of a defaced 8th century marble panel incorporated into a
17th century altar in Chur Cathedral, Switzerland
I chose this part because it most clearly shows that it formerly
had the two grooves dividing the strap into three lines.
Sadly much of the detail of other elements, not so easily imagined,
were also forever obliterated - all in the name of contemporary taste.

Because I believe there is no particularly significant or special meaning to the design of this panel, (It is ornament, for ornament's sake), I felt no reason to rigidly adhere to it. (Besides, I hate blind copying of anything) I did notice, however that there seemed to be some thought given to the layout of the original design, and possible evidence of a "screw-up" along the way. In the bottom row, the same basic bird is repeated, in the same position each time, but every one of them has its own details which sets him apart as unique from his neighbours. In the middle row, there is a deliberate act of alternation one fruit and one rosette, throughout that grouping. Each flower and fruit is again rendered unique to itself. The first has 8 pointed petals, the second 7 with alternating pointed and round, and the third has all rounded tips, again with 8 petals. Two more rosettes in the top row are also individual.

The top row is where some seeming randomness and lack of reason is found. It begins with a bird on the left and ends with a bird on the right. I believe that the artist was like me, and was a bit dyslexic and confused by odd and even numbered repeats. If one has an odd number of objects in a row, the first and last can be the same, but if there are an even number of repeats, then what is on one end, cannot be on the other, leaving a bit of asymmetry to the overall design. (I have made this mistake myself in trying to lay out patterns) It is my belief that the artist wanted to have a bird on either end of the design but was also intending to alternate bird and flower. He began by carving from the left side, at the bottom, following his plan, as he progressed, however, he made adjustments to it. I deduct this from the fact that the first two "fig leaves" in the bottom row, and the first one in the top row are simpler than the others. As he worked on the design, he realised that his scale was large enough to give the leaves more detail, and so he began doing so. When he got to the top row, for some reason, he skipped to the far end, and again carved a bird, forgetting that a rosette should finish up the row begun with a bird. Once the mistake was begun, there was no way of correcting it.

Since I am speculating and hypothesising, and there is no way to "prove" or disprove my theory, I will go one step further and point out the second from the left element, which is not a "rosette" as I have named the others. One would say that it is a "Cross" and so it may be, but it may also fall into the general "flower" designs, and was used because the artist could not think of any other variation on the rosette than what he had already used.

It is interesting, however, to see that both the "flower" element and the "cross" element go way back in history. I have found evidence for both of these motifs in Assyrian art from at least 2000 BC. It seems, according to what I have read, that the cross within a circle represented the rays of the sun as obscured by the moon in an eclipse. As time went on and artists did what artist do best, the design was modified to include circles or dots within the void created by the quadrants of the crossed arms, and then the dots gave way to swirls in Celtic art. I have seen many variations on this theme from Celtic, Assyrian, Dacian, Scythian, Etruscan and Greek art, all long before the adoption of this symbol as the central motif of the Christian religion.

Two Greek Vases, one showing Celtic influence in the cross ornament, the
inside of two Etruscan cups, and a Celtic metal ornament, all showing this
as a form of decoration from several hundred years BC

Cross-shaped ornament

Since by the early Middle Ages, this cross motif had been adopted by Christianity, this was an appropriate element to incorporate within a panel intended for a church, but was in no wise intended for anything other than decorative elements within the broader field of ornamental work. It was simply part of the contemporary artists repertoire.

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