Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Utrecht Psalter; Part VI

It has been awhile since we had a visit with the Utrecht Psalter, so I thought it was about time for the next installment in this series. This week's post brings us to the letter 'R' which is for Round Table. I did not do 'T' for table, because there are two types of tables and I wanted to cover each one of them separately.

Round Table from the 9th century Utrecht Psalter

I have counted 22 individual round tables in this Psalter, and they can be subdivided into three subcategories. The first are three tables which have been depicted with no visible legs of any sort. When this practice first began is not known to me, but there is a 3rd century BC painted Greek vase in the MET which has a scene with a table completely covered in a white cloth, leaving no visible legs to support it. This became an exasperating (for someone interested in furniture design history) trend in the 11th and 12th centuries, to the point that it is hard to find any depictions of tables from that era actually illustrating the legs. They are almost always shown as a top with an elaborately draped covering cloth, seemingly floating in space, as if by magic. (This is simply another example of trends in illustrated fashion, much like the overly elongated legs of female models in fashion illustrations of the mid 20th century, meant to exemplify an illusionary ideal.)

This represents a round table, but there are no details, to indicate anything
about construction details or ornamental decoration.
A round top table, again with no support depicted, but showing the fashion
for covering the table with an elaborate drapery.
This illustration comes from a 9th century book cover in the BNF.

Coming back to our 9th century Psalter, it is interesting to note that none of these tables are shown with a cloth covering. This should not be interpreted to mean that people did not cover their tables with cloths at this time, several 9th century ivory carvings show tables draped with cloth, completely obscuring the details of construction, just as with the 11th and 12th century trend that I mentioned. (see above) There was a lot of regional and artistic variation, and anything one sees in medieval illustrations should not necessarily be applied to the whole of Europe. In fact there is so little left to study, from the first two thirds of the Middle Ages, that any glimpses we see are like trying to watch a football match standing 2 metres behind a picket fence. Those glimpses, however, are enough to wet the apatite, and give people such as myself, reason to try to keep watching in hopes of seeing something fascinating.

There still exists one other very well illustrated 9th century Psalter, known as the Stuttgart Psalter, which could not be more different from the Utrecht Psalter. None of its illustration bear any resemblance to either the images used, or the driving concepts behind their inclusion in the manuscript. This shows us the wide range of style, and the variation which existed throughout Europe during the 9th century. (and nothing changed, on that note, for the rest of the medieval period) Of interest, insofar as this discussion is concerned, on that point, is the fact that whilst the Utrecht Psalter has no fewer than 29 tables depicted, (among more than 200 illustrations) the Stuttgart Psalter only has one, from more than 300 illustrations.

From our manuscript we find that the second sub-type of round table depicted is one with straight legs; there is only one such example of this type however. Since these illustrations are merely sketches, with almost no details, it is impossible to say whether the artist was intending square or turned legs, but they do seem to have a bit of taper to them. The truly unusual detail, however, is that unlike all of the other round tables depicted with legs, this one has four legs, whereas the others all have three. Given the level of detail in this manuscript, this table is no different from a dining table that might have been made in the 17th 18th or 19th century. There are a scattering of other medieval illustrations of round, four legged tables from the various centuries, and we can probably safely conclude that such tables existed, in the guise of the ever changing period decorations, right through the medieval period.

A four legged round top table. Would these legs be turned? It is hard to say.
This illustration does seem to suggest that the legs are applied to the outside
perimeter of the top (as apposed to being mounted underneath)

The third, and by far most common form of round table depicted in this Psalter, is a type carried over from Greco-roman times; this is a tripod table with lion mask and paw feet. There are 18 such tables in this manuscript, which probably doubles the number of extant illustrated examples from the whole of the 9th century. One example was given at the top of this article and another is pictured below. Both are of the same type, but this second illustration suggests that such tables could be made quite large to allow many guests to be seated, calling to mind the Arthurian legend of the "Knights of the Round Table".

A round tripod table large enough to seat many people, yet still made in
the same style as the smaller ones.

Anyone paying attention will note that all three legs seem to be on the same side, but this is a stylistic representation, and has a tradition probably as old as the actual design of this type of table, a point illustrated by the following 5th century BC Etruscan representation of one of these tables.

When I was in MET I spent time searching for origins of medieval furniture
design, this 5th century BC Etruscan table tells us that when the 9th century
Utrecht Psalter was illustrated, this table design had already been around for
more than 1300 years.

When one speaks of "the Middle Ages" most people will conjure up some mental image of what that means to them; inevitably, this image will have much more of a resemblance to life in the 13th, 14th or 15th centuries, than to earlier periods. The fact is, that styles and tastes evolved over the course of history, and by the time the 13th century came around, there was very little which resembled life of the 8th or 9th centuries, much as 1970 had very little to do with 1920. In a broader sense, the "medieval" world of the 9th century bore much more of a resemblance to the Roman period (at least in regions once included in the Roman Empire) than it did to the "Middle Ages" of the 14th century. The following six illustrations will quickly point this out.

Roman town, from a Pompeian Mural in the MET 

9th century depiction of a town, from an ivory panel in the V&A

Roman Soldiers from Trajan's Column

9th Century mounted soldiers from a mid 9th century Psalter,
St Gall, Switzerland
The helmets are still very much the same, as is the length and form of
the clothing, one change which has occurred is the more prevalent use of
chain mail armour.  

Another of the 18 round tables from the Utrecht Psalter. This one is of a
smaller personal size, such as the following charred remnant found in
Herculaneum, buried in the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius
A very rare survivor (almost a survivor) this is the charred remains of a
Roman era table, very much like those illustrated in the
Utrecht Psalter

I have read so many references to medieval tables being "planks set on top" of "crude" trestles, or "tree trunks" that it makes me want to scream. The medieval artwork tells a very different tale to that notion. It is also interesting to note that the earliest example I have found to date, of a "trestle table" is from the 13th century. This is not to say that they did not exist before that time, but most pre 13th century depictions of tables are round, demilune, or rectangular on turned or square legs, with an occasional 'X' frame or pedestal base to round out the selection. Most early illustrations of tables clearly indicate some form of decoration to the supporting members, wherever any support is actually indicated.

In centres of commerce and industry and places of education, where society continued to thrive, the Roman style of art melted away much more slowly. In Aachen, the capitol of the Carolingian realm, we find a pair of lion masks on the cathedral doors (I believe these are actually cast copies made from the originals) which were made in the 9th century, Here we still see a lot of classical influence on the design, including the panel construction of the doors, the egg and dart moulding, the acanthus leaf wreaths, and the lion faces, (they originally held rings, used to pull the doors closed), but we can also see that the changes of artistic trends have left their own period stamp on them.

One could easily imagine these lion's faces carved on the terminals of
lion-paw legs and then we would have a 9th century version of
this sort of table
A 1st Century AD table from Pompeii, This is another example
of a Roman table, but in principle it is much the same as those
illustrated in the manuscript. To get a 9th century version, we
need to add 9th century style lions, such as those pictured
in the previous illustration

To sum things up, there is so little of anything left from the early medieval period that it is impossible to recreate that world, but little hints and fragments, and a bit of logical deductive reasoning can fill in a bit more of the void left by the destruction of so much of what once was. This Utrecht Psalter gives us some tantalising glimpses, and informs us that certain stylistic trends, such as lion shaped tripod tables were very slow in dying out and continued into the 9th century

Last minute addition, just in case someone gets the idea that the tables
depicted in the Utrecht Psalter are an anomaly. This is from a manuscript
known as the Drogo Sacramentary, which is found in the BNF and was
created in the middle of the 9th century.
(BNF Lat. 9428)

Videre Scire

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A New Box

Sometimes I get the urge to work on Something different, even if I have not yet completed a project I am currently working on. Because of this, my friend Steffen has dubbed a couple of my projects, "Century Project" by way of saying he thinks, at the rate they are going, they will take a century to complete. I Have completed a couple of those 'century projects', but others are still in the works, such as my 9th century box. I enjoy working on it, and want to get it finished, but I realised, once I began working on it, that it was growing into a much larger project than I had first envisioned. Meanwhile, I would like to do something that I can get finished faster, and I also feel the urge to work on something different, for a change of pace. In fact, there are a thousand projects that I want to do, so if there are only three underway in my shop at once, then obviously I have been employing great restraint on my impulses. I once had 11 paintings in various stages of completion in my studio; it is just the way I work, and at 50 it is not likely to change.

Inside view of the new box

My latest project, then, is another box. (I like making boxes) I am calling this one the "Turn of the Millennium Box", because it will be decorated in a style of circa the year 1000. I have chosen a couple manuscripts of that period which will be the basis of the decoration for it. One of these manuscripts even has a little "historiated initial" (which is what a letter with a picture in it is called in the realm of illuminated manuscripts) which depicts a box like the one I am making.

Kölner Diözesan- und Dombibliothek MS Cod 141 Fol 53v M. 11jh

An historiated initial showing God giving a reliquary (box) to a priest 

What follows are some pictures and a brief explanation from the progress of the build.

Cutting box sides 
The sides were all cut from a piece of timber that was left lying about when I sliced 15mm off of a 38mm thick plank that I needed for a different project years ago. It seemed like a waste to plane it all away so I sawed it off on the band-saw. 6 years later, I finally found a use for it.

Planing box sides
Putting the 8th century style plane, that I made this spring, to work. It works nicely. For anyone new to my blog, all sawing, planing, and any other work required for the making of my pieces is done entirely with hand tools, from whatever stage the timber that I choose is in, when I begin. 

Cutting dovetails

I always cut the tails first.

Truing up the inside ends

Years ago I made this device for getting very clean and accurate tenons, it works good for dovetails as well.

For anyone who might want to take issue with my using dovetails on a medieval box, thinking that they are not "period correct", I counter, that in museums, I have personally observed boxes from the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th through 15th century all made with dovetail joinery.

Beginning the top

As I said, whatever state I find the timber in when I start, I begin from there with hand tools. In this case, the lid will be made from a chunk of firewood left over from last years batch. (so two years since it was cut) This is a chunk of beach and I think it will make a great lid. It had a bit of a twist to it, so the first task was to make a flat face to work the other two sides from.

Roughing out the shape. You can see the box at
the top of the picture

I split a chunk off of the side with hammer and wedge, then went at it with the axe. A bit more axe-work went into it after this picture, as you will be able to see in the next. The axe is used because it takes off material much faster than a plane, even a scrub plane.

From the axe to the plane

In this picture, the first side (which will be the bottom) has been planed true, and now I am ready to begin one slope of the lid.

Ready for side three; this is the right-hand face on the axe picture above

A nice triangular block of wood

About two hours later, I had something that resembles a house. In fact, in German, the lid for this type of box is called a "Giebeldach Deckel" which means a gabled roof lid.

Carving out the inside

A lot is made of "dugout" chests when it comes to histories of medieval furniture. Generally the implication is that they were crude and primitive, and were made because it must have been simpler to do so than to make one from flat timbers. It is also usually implied that they were made in this way because the makers did not have the tools and or skills required to make one by any other method. Most histories of furniture were not, however, written by anyone who ever made anything themselves, and therefore the writer was just assuming things. Perhaps the mental image of neolithic man making objects by burning the insides and scraping away the ashes stuck too fast in their minds and they assumed the same method to have been employed by medieval artisans. I cannot speak for what was in the mind of the authors of such texts, but having made this "dugout" lid, (for that is exactly what it is), I can assure you that it is not 'easier' to make in this way. Well, perhaps the lid might be, because all of the acute angles would be difficult to get right and then it would be a big challenge to hold the pieces together whilst attaching them by any means of joinery. A square box, on the other hand, would be much harder to make in this method, and it requires just about every tool that one would need to make a box with cut timbers. It is more difficult to true up the sides to any degree of accuracy, in this way, for sure, and the time and energy it takes to carve all the waste material is staggering.

The finished inside (except that it was not, because I wound up changing
the angle - compare this with the first photo)

I mentioned the challenges of holding parts whilst trying to make them, and that is one of the  fundamental challenges of creating anything. In order to work something, one must have a way of holding it stationary or most of the effort will be wasted and the results will not look good. I just said that it is easier to carve out the inside of this lid than it would be to join together all the separate pieces, but it was much more difficult to hold the block of wood to be able to carve it out than it would have been to make flat pieces to join together. Either way, making a box with a lid in this shape is not "easy" and anyone who wanted to make an 'easy' box, would not have undertaken one of this form. 

Actually, working on this lid left me to ponder what method the medieval artist employed to hold the lid stationary whilst working on it. For sure, as I did, the ends had to remain square to the face in order to be able to hold it to chisel out the inside. This means they needed to have had some sort of vice or cramp large enough to do this. Most medieval illustrations depicting anyone carving anything, be it wood or stone, simply show the object laying on a table, but anyone who has carved anything knows that one must cramp or nail the work down in some manner before it can be carved. I have no idea how the medieval artist worked the tens of thousands of such boxes that must have been made in this form, but here is how I held mine.

Cutting off the ends

Once the inside was carved out, the lid could be turned over and the ends cut to the same angle as the sides. My cuts were accurate enough that it was not necessary to do any planing.

The cut off end, just as it came from the saw

With medieval (and later) workmanship, any work that would be concealed by further stages of work was not made any more perfect than it would need to be for the next stage. If this box were covered in gesso for painting, or covered in enamel or metal plates, there would be absolutely no reason to plane these very faint saw marks away. The same is true for the few worm holes in the wood; they will have no effect on the finished product and will not be visible.

Carving the moulding for the base

Scratch-stocks and moulding planes existed in some areas at some periods of the Middle Ages, but to what extent, it would be impossible to say; there simply is not enough surviving work to make any sort of assessment. A third method to make mouldings, which is still employed in Asia, where there is much more hand tool work still used in making furniture, is simply to carve it with gouges. This is the method I used to make the moulded edge to the base of the box. At some point, the box will get cast metal feet, but that is the very last stage of the project.

Snipe hinges

I opted for the simple snipe hinge, something that has been around for millennia.

The back view, showing the hinges. The base has a shoulder to it and the
thickness of it fits up inside the box; the nails are for securing it to the sides.

At this stage a modern person would be forgiven for thinking I am just about finished with the box, but in fact, from a medieval perspective, I have just begun. People of the medieval period liked things to be ornamented and decorated, and no one would have stood for anything so simple and unfinished as this. In the next blog-post we will examine many ways in which such a box could have been finished, and then I will show you how I intend to finish this one.

Step one; make a box. Step two; decorate said box...
to be continued