Sunday, December 24, 2017

Early Depictions of the Nativity

Last Year at Christmas time I posted some examples of the "Three Wise Men ", as depicted in artwork from the first half of the Middle Ages. This year I thought it would be good to make another post about a different part of the "Nativity" Story; the birth of Christ, and how it has been portrayed through the ages.

A Carolingian Era Nativity scene from the British Museum

Art historians will often try to show evolutions and trends of certain themes or topics in art, and how they originated and shifted over time. When it comes to early art, this is not easy, and is sometimes impossible, because so few examples are left. We can take one image and compare it to another and see the differences, but since there would have originally  been hundreds, if not thousands of examples, it is impossible to deduct any meaningful or conclusive trend from the differences seen in the few surviving examples. All we can safely conclude, is that the subject being depicted is the same, and the imagery is different.

Having said that, however, change did occur, and the nativity scene, as we see it in front of churches today, is very different than it was in the early Middle Ages. As time marched on, some elements were dropped, others added, and still others took on different forms. Somehow, however, the basic core has remained constant, and we are easily able to recognise the earliest scenes for what they are even if many aspects of the iconography have changed,

Three stone relief carvings depicting the Nativity from the 4th and 5th centuries
from the Vatican, Athens and Palazzo Massimo, respectively. All of these
relief carvings are from before the Middle Ages,
and are technically "Roman" art. (often referred to as "Early Christian")

The Christmas story is at the very beginning of our modern era, so much so, that that event is the basis for the dates that we use today. As I am writing this, it is 24 December, 2017; that 2017 represents that many years since the very first Christmas, even if it was no actually celebrated as such in the year 1. Somehow, between that year and the 4th century, Christianity had taken hold as a major religion, and the artwork and iconography associated with it had come into full bloom, although the period we know as "medieval" was still another 200 years in the future. There are many representations of the Nativity on 4th and 5th century stone sarcophagi, which come from the regions under the influence of the Roman Empire. I have pictured a few of them here so that the similarities and differences with early medieval artwork can be seen.

Part of an ivory panel in the British Museum, depicting a 6th century
version of the Nativity (the 6th century marks the beginning of the
medieval period.)
Panel on the back of the "Throne of Maximian" in Ravena, 6th century

Not much had changed (at least as far as these examples are concerned) by the 6th century and the "dawn of the Middle Ages". No one had told the people of the 6th century that they were entering the "dark Ages" so they kept right on doing what they had been doing before the so-called "Fall of the Roman Empire". (meaning there is no distinction between "Byzantine" and "Roman" before the Middle Ages; Byzantium and Rome were one and the same) People who had been under the influence of Rome kept on being "Roman" and doing as they had done, and the Germanic tribes kept on with their "Celtic" roots and continued doing what they had done. A gradual fusion of those two styles eventually gave us the "Romanesque" style of the 11th through 13th centuries, but the clash of the two traditions gave us "Early Medieval" art, which incorporated distinct elements of both. There is much more of the Roman influence in most of the surviving early medieval artwork depicting the Nativity.

The one change that can be seen, in these 6th century examples, lacking in the others, is the inclusion of Mary lying on some sort of stuffed matres type bed. Doubtless this is not the first example which depicts this element of the scene, and it is impossible to say when it might have first appeared. - Even if we have an object depicting a particular element or event, and it is positively dated earlier than any other artifact portraying the same event, the only conclusion we can positively draw is that it is the oldest one we know of, not that that was the first time that event or idea had been represented.

Coptic styles mixing in with the fading Roman traditions;
the Nativity as portrayed in a possible 7th century icon
from St Catherine's (?) Egypt.
(if anyone has positive proof of date or location please let
me know)

I am not completely certain if the above pictured object is actually from the 7th century, I found it on the internet, and supposedly it comes from the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, but I was unable to verify that. It does look very similar to other artwork from that area and era, so until dis-proven, I will go along with the notion that it is. Here we can see elements of Egyptian art creeping into the Greco-Roman style, but it is still basically the same forms, just represented in a different medium, and with a colloquium influence to it.

In this painting, we have the Three Magi, but they have been around since at least the third century, though not always portrayed as "kings", as can be seen in another Roman sarcophagus, pictured below. Another element that is new, at least to the images we have looked at, is the "manger", here portrayed as a piece of carved furniture. Another element added here is the announcing angels; these guys became very prominent by the 9th century, after which one hardly sees a nativity scene without them, though in most of the early examples we have seen, they are nowhere to be found.

The Three Magi make an appearance in this sarcophagus

In fact, the one element which is constant throughout the entire narrative, but which, interestingly, has no biblical reference, is the "ox and the ass". These two characters are so wrapped into the tradition that were we to see a scene without them, we would doubtless not recognise it as being the Nativity. None of the gospel writers, however, mention anything about them, they are only a logical conclusion from the fact that he was, according to the stories, born in a manger, in a stable. (There is also an ambiguous passage in the book of Isaiah, sized upon by early theologians, referring to an ox and an ass, which was linked by them as being a prophetic reference to the birth of Christ)

Once again, the Ox and the Ass; not Mary, Joseph, shepherds or Wise Men,
only these two animals inform us of the intended meaning of this scene.
Also, like two other, out of eight images we have seen, no star.
My favorite part of this is the two birds eating fruit from the baskets ,which
have absolutely nothing to do with the Nativity, and everything to do with
ornament, for the sake of ornament. (4th century sarcophagus in Sant'Ambrogio)

Moving on to the 9th century, as we saw in the first image of this post, not much has changed yet. There are some slight stylistic changes that art historians can pick up on, which identify it as being 9th century, not 4th, 5th, or 6th, but essentially the scene remains unchanged. In this version, the manger is back to being made of stone, not a carved piece of furniture, but that is a decision of the artist, either as he wanted it, or as the model that he worked from had it portrayed; there are numerous variations in the portrayal of the manger and its style and composition by this time.

A 10th century ivory panel from Trier, still very much following the now
700+ year old Roman models; things changed much more slowly in the
Middle Ages than they do now.

Though this example looks very much like it could be from the previous century, that is perhaps a deliberate choice; much as people are still ornamenting things in the styles of bygone eras. The imagery had not changed very much, but the style of art had been shifting a bit more than one would guess from this picture. The trend for copying earlier decorative tastes goes back at least to the early Roman era, continued through the Middle Ages, and has never really gone away.

This one comes from just the other side of the 10th century, and is now in
the 11th, whereas the previous example was from the end of the 10th. Not
really a lot of time difference between the two, and still much the same, so
far as elements of the story are concerned, but this one is more in keeping
with central European artistic trends of the time.

the first real shift that I can find from Roman era depictions, to those of the Middle Ages, is the shift from the depiction of Mary lying on a matres to one of her lying on a wooden framed bed. The picture below is an example of this, but interestingly, shows an hybrid Greco-Roman era/ western style bed, as opposed to a purely Western European type. (the canted upright supports at the head of the bed) This tells me that there might be, or had been, earlier depictions of the Nativity with Mary on such a bed, and even this idea is not new to the Middle Ages. However, from this point on, one finds many more examples of Mary lying in a bed made with legs and sides, yet still into the 13th century we also see examples of the formless matres type bed repeated. (which is, incidentally, shown on top of this bed frame)

A late Ottonian depiction of the Nativity, from a manuscript in the Getty
Library. (1025-50 AD)

One can see the shift that this scene has taken from the original Roman period models, but to this point most of that shift has been purely in the style of art. Only later, toward the end of the medieval period do we find nativity scenes which begin to resemble those we are accustomed to seeing now. At the core of it all, though, one thing that has never gone away is the lowly Ox and Ass, the central un-credited characters of this story.

Thus concludes the second year of this blog. Thanks to all the readers and fans who have helped keep it going.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

9th Century Furniture Ornamentation

Several years ago I came across the website for the Bibliothèque nationale de France and discovered a vast online collection of manuscripts. I spent months going through nearly every available 8th through 12th century work looking for images related to my field of the study of furniture, interiors, and decorative objects. I found a wealth of information which both confirmed my suspicions of the complexity and variety of objects and designs from that period, as well as providing a few examples to prove that things I expected had existed, but had never seen any examples of, were in fact in existence .

A few weeks ago, I was looking for an image that I knew I had, but could not locate in my files. After awhile, I decided the fastest way to find what I was looking for would be to go back to the source and look it up again. A lot has changed since the first time I visited the site, and I was delighted to see that, for many manuscripts, the website has been updated so that one can "zoom in" to even larger formats than had previously been available. This was great because in some pictures, one can now see details that were previously invisible at the resolutions in which they used to be displayed. A good example would be the details now revealed in this scene of St Mathew from folio 17v ('v' is for "verso" which is Latin for the back side of a page, and where we get the words 'obverse' and 'reverse' from)

St Mathew, from BNF Abeville MS 4 fol 17v ca 790-800 AD

The above image is as detailed as one was previously able to view, You can see that there is a chair with its ever present foot bench, a lectern, and an ink stand, you can also deduct that the  stand is made of metal, and the lectern seems to be made of part metal and part other materials. The decorations of the chair appear to be some sort of gold strips. The fact that the picture was painted on very expensive purple dyed velum does not actually help us in discerning the details, because at this resolution, areas where the paint has flaked away makes it difficult to distinguish between scratches and deliberate decorations.

Scrolling vine and bead decorations revealed in high resolution; this is from
the middle section of the left side of the plinth chair, near the hem of
St Mathew's robe
Acanthus leaf and other details of decoration on the chair and the lectern

One cannot download images at these higher resolution, but it is great to be able to view small details at four or five times their actual size. This helps greatly in compensating for more than 1200 years of wear and tear to the pictures. At this resolution, one can see that the stripes on the chair are actually moulding, with dots and gold scrolling vine decorations. The top moulded edge of the chair has an acanthus leaf design to it, and the bosses, or knobs of the lectern have five white dots; a "shorthand" way to indicate that these junctions also have carving or some other type of ornamentation to them.

As I sat studying these details, it dawned on me the type of ornamentation the artist had in mind when he painted this picture. I realised with that information, and comparing it with surviving objects made with the same techniques I could go a lot further than one typically can in visualising the actual appearance of these objects.

It must be made clear that any sort of hypothetical recreation is exactly that, hypothetical. Any time one sees a reconstructed drawing or model of anything from a car accident, 2nd Dynasty Egyptian temple, or a "3D" image of a dinosaur, the artist can only do the best he can with his knowledge of the subject and the information he has to hand. I am therefore not going to attempt to make a chair and claim it to be what this illustration represents, but I do wish, in this post, to point out actual objects and design elements from the same era, which will help you to get a better idea of what such a chair may have looked like for yourself. I also want to stress that usually artists were not trying to represent any particular chair, but rather they were illustrating the general appearance of a particular chair type. I strive to bring to life, in your mind, the complexity and sophistication available in a time that was supposed to be "crude" and "dark", and help you see what might have been since it no longer exists.

In studying these high-resolution details, the first thing I realised was that this image of St Mathew's chair represents a metal foil covered chair. Metalworking was one of the favourite mediums of ornamentation for many early medieval craftsmen working in several divers types of craft. This was a carry-over from the Celtic and Migration Peoples who had exploited the medium to phenomenal degrees of design and quality. The museums are full of bits and bobbles of every description, demonstrating the skill that early medieval artists had with the manipulation of sheet-metal. Most of what survives, though, are small items. This medium was used for larger objects too; everything from altars, buckets and crosses, to doors and chairs, were covered with punched, embossed, and repoussé work.

Metal covering from a Migration Period Chest (6-7th century)

I believe the above picture is an object in the Cathedral Treasury (Schatzkammer) Musem in Köln, but cannot remember for sure. I do know that I saw it on my trip, but I do not have a picture of it; pictures were forbidden in that museum (they take your camera and lock it up until you leave), so this must have been the place where I saw it. The above picture is one that I found on the web six or seven years ago, with no information about it, and have never seen any other picture of it since then, but when I saw it myself, on my recent trip, I recognised it at once. Wherever it is, it shows a metal covering for a small chest of a form seen in many 8th and 9th century manuscripts, as well as several Roman era mosaics and wall paintings. Though the ornamental style is different from that of our chair, it is based on the same sort of decorative scheme (an ornamented metal foil covering). Most of this sort of work survives as book covers and on small reliquary caskets, but there are enough of those to show that this sort of work was quite common, and like every other art form, there was a vast range of quality of workmanship as well as degrees of ornamental sophistication employed in their creation.

9th century Gilt copper casket in the Diözesanmuseum Ellwangen
The fundamentals of this sort of furniture begin with a wooden core. In the case of this sort of plinth chair, that core would be a basic box with  mouldings either applied or carved out of the solid. One of the things that would have historians all abuzz over such a chair, were one to have actually survived, would be its method of joinery. Based on that, they would try to establish a date for the object, but in principle, a chair like this could have been made at any point throughout the Middle Ages, and the only thing that would give it stylistic changes, would be in the manner of the decoration on the foil.

As I said, metal foil ornamentation was a very popular method of ornamenting things from pre-Christian times, well into the 13th century. This was so much so that it influenced the style of carving in other mediums at the onset of the Middle Ages. People often compare the flat low relief carvings of the early medieval period with the very three dimensional work of the high Roman period and dismiss it as, "crude" "primitive" and "unskilled". Some of it certainly was less well-executed than others, but overall, if one thinks about it, it can clearly be seen that this was a deliberate choice of sculpting stone to look like metal. Just as artists of the 1920's made a deliberate shift in the carving style and created the Art déco style, a deliberate shift was made away from the classical Roman styles, to create a new style that more suited the tastes and culture of the people who were the new dominating force of Europe. In all likelihood, the stone panel pictured below, which was part of a chancel screen in an Italian church, was either gilded or painted gold, giving it almost exactly the same appearance as the  foil-work decorations that the metalworkers were producing at the time.

A carved stone panel in the Musei Civici di Pavia
In a ll probability, this panel was originally gilt, or gold painted
giving it almost exactly the same appearance as embossed foil work. 

Below are a couple details from some 8th and 9th century work. I chose these two pictures because they show scrolling decorations similar to what the artist of St Mathew's chair had in mind. The first also shows the very popular use of a beaded border, which is also represented in the manuscript illustration. The second piece is much less accomplished than the first, but no apology is needed for it, not every work produced in any time period is of the highest quality. One should also, when viewing such items, bear in mind that they have usually been taken apart and put back together over the years, due to damage or deterioration of the wooden core, and that any piece of metal which has been continuously handled for 1200+ years will have inevitably suffered from dents, scratches, and crushing.

An embossed silver border around an ivory panel;
part of a 9th century book cover, and a wing of an embossed
foil-covered cross of the 8th or 9th century.

One of the methods employed in this sort of decoration was the use of dies, or "matrices" used to create repetitive designs in the metal. The scrolling border design as well as the central branching elements to the arm of the cross pictured above were created with these sort of ready made stamping dies. The artist tried to get creative with the die he used  in the centre by adjusting the spacing and over-stamping successively in order to get the design to narrow as it went towards the centre of the arm. The simplified acanthus leaf decoration to the book cover moulding is also created with these sort of  dies. 

Below, is an illustration of a piece of cruciform gold foil which has stamped design work on its entire surface. There are many of these gold crosses found in museums all over the world, and seem to have been popular from the 4th century to the 9th. They were apparently made as offerings, to hang in churches, and to place with the dead, in tombs and cemeteries. Most of the examples we have were recovered from burial sights. I show this object to illustrate how important ornamentation was to people in the Middle Ages, for any sort of object. It seems that a plain, flat sheet of metal would not due, and so some sort of design was stamped onto them. The workmen producing them were not interested in creating a magnificent work of art, they were just suffering from the "horror Vacui" syndrome, which is a dislike of blank, flat, or empty space, and felt the need to decorate these objects in a thrifty way. Unlike modern taste, medieval people did not like blank empty flat  surfaces, and spaces, and therefore, they decorated everything. This cross was made almost willy-nilly by a single stamping to each of its arms with a die that was much larger than the arm. The result is that the centre of the cross is a jumble of over-stampings of incoherent design. As I said, the point was to decorate a basically disposable object, not to make a 'work of art'.

No two arms of this cross were stamped with the die in the same position,
the result is that we can see much more of the pattern than would have been
visible had it been carefully made.

Enough about stamping; on to scrolling vines.

A section of relief carving an the wall of  Santa Maria de Lara in Spain
8th century

Some Columns, now in the Cluny Museum, from
the 6-7th century Notre-Dame de la Daurade.
Compare the capitals with the lectern of St Mathew.

So far, we have looked at several metal objects, but none of them seem to have the same sort of vine decoration that is suggested in the illumination of St Mathew. I am sure there are examples that exist, but I like showing a variety of materials in these blogs, to illustrate how the same sort of ornament was used in various mediums. I believe the above two illustrations capture the essence of what the artist had in mind even if the material happens to be stone.

The top edge of the chair is painted with a red-orange colour as its base. This is different from the gold of the main body of the chair, but that does not necessarily indicate anything more than that the artist wanted to add another colour to his painting. It could also indicate a different material, or a different coloured metal, if the edge is also to be interpreted as being made of metal. If that is the case, then copper foil would be a good guess. (There are several examples of 11th and 12th century altars made of bi-coloured gold and copper-foil in the museums of northern Europe.) This change of colour could also indicate that the seat of the chair is made of carved and painted wood. This would make practical sense, as the nailed on foil decorations would probably not stand up very well on the edge of a seat and the nails would easily catch on clothing. However with no surviving examples of such a chair, the best we can do is speculate. 

A carved acanthus border of a 9th century ivory panel from a box., now
on display in the MET. (Originally the birds and flowers were gilded.)

Regardless of the material that it is made of, the artist has clearly indicted, as can be seen from the supper magnified image above, that he wanted his chair to have an acanthus leaf decoration to its upper and lower mouldings. Wooden 9th century acanthus leaf carving is hard to come by, but there are numerous examples carved in ivory, a much more durable material. 9th century art consisted in a large part, of a contrast and/or a mixing of Classical and Migration Period styles. The illustration of St Mathew holds firmly to the design elements of the classical tradition, as does the decoration of the above pictured box panel, and the following picture, which is a detail of a comb from the 2nd half of the 9th century.

Detail from the so-called St Heriburt Comb, Cluny

We have mostly been focusing on the chair, but I did mention the similarity between the carved capitals pictured above, and the one illustrated as the support for the lectern. I also mentioned at the beginning that the little white dots represent ornamentation to the bosses, or "knobs" of the lectern. At the scale of the painting, it would have been nearly impossible, as well as completely pointless, for the artist to have painted more detail, he was not trying to give a photo-realistic representation of a chair and lectern. Perhaps something like the cup boss pictured below, could be what the artist envisioned in his painting.

The boss of a chalice, from one of the Attarouthi Treasure objects; these
were displayed at an exhibition at the MET

There is no way we can ever really know how plinth chairs of the 9th century looked, because there are none which have survived. Even if one or two had, the vast variety of ornament which was employed over the entire continent doubtless rendered tens if not hundreds of thousands of chairs, each one different to the next, but at the same time, all conforming to contemporary stylistic trends and regional variations. We can speculate endlessly on how any one of them might have looked, but careful examination of other objects produced at the same time will give us a much better starting point for that speculation.

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