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