Sunday, March 4, 2018

Decorations for Utilitarian Objects

I love finding utilitarian objects which have been made beautiful by someone spending more time than was necessary to add ornamentation to them. In the Bauhaus movement, there arose a debate which ushered in a new way of seeing the making of objects, and was summed up with the phrase, "form follows function". This was a way of saying that a tool or object should first and foremost have a shape to it which suits its purpose. I have no problem with that notion, but I have no idea why that thought became licence for everything to be made without any beauty or art left to it. It is my opinion that the best approach to the question of design should be phrased as, "function has form", which is to say that even if it is functional, as it should be, it should also be pleasing to look at, and ornamented as nicely as possible, without sacrificing its usefulness.

To that end, I was delighted last week to see some objects that a long-time Romanian girlfriend of mine sent me from he home country. This type of object is called a "distaff" and they are made by her father-in-law. I was unaware of it, but apparently there is a long tradition all over Europe, Scandinavia, the Balkans and Russia of various forms of this type of artwork.

A "chip carved"spinning distaff made in Romania

A Distaff is an object used to hold the linen (or other) fibers whilst the spinner converts them into threads. It is a very utilitarian object, and came be made as plain and crude as someone wishes, and it will still do its job. I found a photo on Flicker, of two women using a very simple version in some reenactment event. I have no idea who or where they are, so I censored their identity; the purpose of the picture is to show how the object is used.

Two anonymous women demonstrating the traditional
method of spinning with a distaff 

Quite obviously, this tool does not need any decorations to be useful, but look at the following photos and see how much more pleasant such an object becomes when someone is willing to put into it more than the absolute minimum amount of effort necessary for its creation. When an Artist applies a bit of his soul to an object, that object takes on a soul of its own and becomes more than just a tool.

I have seen many beautiful things made in Romania since I first met the friend who sent these pictures in 1999 where she was demonstrating traditional Romanian egg-dying (another very intricate and beautiful art) at the annual Smithsonian Folk-life Festival in Washington DC. I also met a couple woodcarvers at the same time, and was impressed with the carved gate they were making at the time.
It is enjoyable for me to see people who work to keep traditional crafts, such as this, alive, and in so doing, make our modern sterile world a little less boring.

All of these objects have been decorated with what
is known as "chip carving" but this one has the
addition of having a pair of horses carved, a nice
little touch of creative originality.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Method To My Madness

When I was in Europe on my Photography trip last summer I had two agendas. The first was to visit museums and see medieval objects which I knew of (and hopefully some that I did not) and the second was to find 18th century pieces which I could use for my work.

Back when I studied "Interior and Product Design" (furniture) at Berkshire
College of Art and Design, this is how I spent all of every day. It has been
a long time since I did this, but it feels good to be doing it again.

For the nearly two months now I have been working up designs from some of the pieces I saw in the Chateaus I visited in France. I begin with the photographs I took and adapt them to the requirements of a client who wants a pieces similar to the original. Some re-working of the design is necessary due to differences in size or in use of the object. (A desk has different dimensions to an occasional table, for example)

Below are some photos of some of my design work and a couple pictures of the inspirational piece.

An urn in Chateau Champse-sur-Marne.
Mine will be about half the size of this one

Designing is a bit different than "drawing". In
design it is not necessary to draw more than what
is needed, but is is necessary to draw the details
as they would be on a pattern, not as they look
in perspective.

Design for a desk, adapted from a table seen in Köln

The actual table

Some details and proportions needed to be changed so that this could be a
functional desk. One could not put a chair under the table and sit at it because
the centre hangs too low. I also made the front to be a drawer.

Detail of the legs

A box from the MET

Drawing and detail shots of another table, also adapted to serve as a desk.
The same challenge applied to this one, as the centre on the original was
 much too low to be used as a desk.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Wooden Treasures

As regular readers will be aware, this past summer I took a trip to Europe to do a lot of picture taking. My trip was a sort of "pilgrimage" because I wanted to visit some places that I knew to have medieval treasures of the wooden variety, which I have been wishing to see first-hand.

One place, very high up on my list, was Sankt Maria Im Kapitol, which is one of the 11 Romanesque churches still extant in the city of Köln, Germany. I went there for the specific purpose of seeing, with my own eyes, a magnificent pair of doors which were carved, painted and installed about ten years prior to the Norman conquest of England, which, for many people of the English speaking world, has become one of the key points of reckoning in the history of the Middle Ages. (That event occurred in 1066.)

No tourist will probably ever get to take a picture of
these doors like this because they are sequestered behind
a very heavy iron gate, All the pictures you can get are
by putting the camera lens through the bars. This picture
came from a website of the City of Köln.

Chance is an interesting character and what he leaves behind or takes away in the course of history is a mystery beyond comprehension. Such is the case with this pair of doors which is still in a rather remarkable state of preservation, especially given their age. I have seen doors made in the 18th and 19th centuries in far worse condition than these. Part of the miracle of their preservation is due to the fact that in the 12th century (some hundred years after they were installed, in other words) a porch was built at the entrance where they were hung, and thus the elements did not touch them so severely as they would have, had the doors remained exposed. However, back to the topic of fate and chance, on the opposite side of the church is an identical entrance, which also had an identical porch built at the same time. Obviously it would also have had a pair of doors in its entrance, but there remains no trace of that pair, nor any record of them. ( Nor for that matter, of the two sets of doors which would have been installed in the main entrances.) One can only guess as to their appearance, but it is not a big stretch to imagine them as being similarly carved with depictions from the Old testament, as this was a favourite programme of ornamentation.

The German Wikipedia has a very interesting article on these doors and I will give a few summarising tidbits here for the English speaking audience. As I already mentioned, they were made just after 1050, and were known to already be in place circa the year 1060. Amazingly, they remained in continuous use until 1932. Although they were in a secondary side portal of the church, for quite some time in their history, due to practical reasons related to the monastery architecture surrounding the church, they served as the primary entrance. (This fact also poses the question of what the main doors were like, as main entrance doors were usually made superior in quality and decoration to side doors. Perhaps they were made of bronze and suffered the same fate as countless scores of other such doors; appropriated for their metal content to be used in some infernal war.) 

Top half of the right-hand leaf

The doors stand an impressive 485cm high, which is to say nearly 5 metres, and have a combined width of 2 and 1/2 metres. (the main entry doorways are nearly double that width) Each door "leaf" is made of an heavy oak base of three parallel planks over which are attached the panels and frames of carved and painted walnut. Each panel is surrounded by three separate carved borders and a flat panel which has painted on script, notating the events portrayed on theire respective panels. To assist in keeping all the moulded pieces in place, large carved knobs are attached with heavy ornamental nails at the corner of each panel. It was my observation that no two of the surviving knobs has the same design as any other.

Each leaf of the door is divided into 13 panels of three different sizes, this gave a pleasant sense of rhythm and balance to the overall unit. At the top, the centre and near the bottom are three larger horizontal panels, the two upper ones each have four smaller, nearly square panels below them, whilst the lowest horizontal members have two vertical rectangles under. Each panel has a composition of one or more scenes related to the life of Christ. The whole door is reputed to be the best preserved sculptural depiction of that subject from the 11th century, in the whole of Europe. It is also one of a very limited number of medieval sculpted wooden doors still in existence, but is far from the oldest, as there is, in St Sabina, in Italy, a pair of carved wooden doors from the 5th century (which is actually a bit of a stretch to include as "medieval" since that period technically begins some 67 years after those doors were made. However, there is no reason to think that the construction of doors would have had any drastic shift in such a short period of time, and thus can be counted as an example of that art at the dawn of the Middle Ages.)

Detail showing the three carved borders to each
panel along with the flat border with the painted
script and the heavily carved framing for the

There is, apparently, some discussion among scholars as to whether the doors were made by one or more artists, and there is some allusion in the article to a point which I like to bring up whenever I get the chance; which is that although this may be the only surviving work from that artist or group of artists, it represents an entire career, of one or several individuals, and bears testament to the quality of work which they were producing. I should also point out that since no one simply woke up one morning and began carving, it further bears witness to one or more masters and all of the work that they would have produced in the span of their own career(s). When we contemplate this, we begin to realise the vast quantity of what has been lost to time, and the amount and quality of ornament that originally existed. In order for craftsmen to have a career, they obviously need to have enough work to keep them employed in that field. 

First picture; one of only two depictions of furniture from the right-hand door.
Second picture two chairs in one scene from the left-hand door. Notice that
the second artist took more care to show more of the forms of the furniture.

One of the reasons given for the opinion that at least two different artists worked on the doors is because the figures on the left-hand panels are a bit more stiff and linear in form than those on the right panels. Another discrepancy pointed out, is the fact the the three horizontal left-hand panels have, each, two scenes, whilst the matching right-hand panels only have one. My own observation to add to this, is that the left-hand panels seem to give more attention to details of furniture in the scenes and there are far more such objects depicted. (on the right-hand door there is only one table and one bench) whilst the left-had leaf has a bed, several chairs, a table, and an altar.

The second piece of furniture depicted on the right-hand side, but this is a very
rare example of a table that actually has leg. For some reason it was a fad for
several hundred years to depict tables that seemed to float in space. This is a
great example to counter most people's notion of planks of wood placed on
trestles as the primary form of a medieval table. 

In Wikipedia, there is a comparison of this door to the so-called Bernwardstür  a surviving early (ca 1015) 11th  century bronze door, but to me, this comparison is another reminder of just how few medieval artifacts still remain. Frankly, the wooden doors we are discussing are "like" the bronzes as much a tulip is "like" a rose. There simply are no other tulips to compare it with. In my opinion, they are much more in keeping with the Magdeburg Doors of about 100 years later, but again, that comparison is more of the overall look of the doors, with their sculpted borders and round corner knobs to each panel, than in the general style of the carvings, all three of which are not particularly "like" any of the others and bear witness to three distinct "schools" of sculptural style. Basically, if you are in a dessert full of cacti and brambles, it will be very tempting to draw comparison with the only three very different flowers that you happen to find even if they are not botanically related at all. (by clicking the live links you can view those doors for yourself)

A very quaint bit of well preserved painted decoration. This tells me that the
"Folk Art" paintings of so much 18th and 19th century work was but a
continuation of centuries old painted ornament

For me, there are two very important points to consider about these doors, first, as another German language Wikipedia article points out, it was almost always, prior to the 15th century, "mandatory" for carved wooden objects to be painted (or gilded, or both), and these doors have enough of their original paint left to give us a glimpse of how they would have appeared when new. There is no gold left on them, but if one compares these doors to the illuminated art of the same time period, he will quickly realise that the pale yellow colour in the background of all of the scenes was originally the yellow bole used in the gilding process. These doors would have been gleaming with red, yellow, blue, green, black, white and lots of gold, just as the finer illuminated manuscripts of their day. (and doubtless panel paintings, none of which have survived were.) (do not think of modern printed and plastic colours, but rather of natural earth and mineral ones.)

My personal favourite scene from these doors, but I cannot really say why,
other than that I like it. Click here to see a picture on the internet which
gives a better sense of the surviving paint.

The second point is concerns what I have already mentioned about what this piece tells us regarding the state of decoration and ornament in its time. Most people think of flat heavy wooden doors with big iron straps, but this was not for important building with sufficient revenue. In medieval times people liked to spend as much or more money than they had to decorate and ornament their possessions, and architecture. This is one rare surviving example that can very emphatically point that out at the same time as it proclaims very loudly the quality and skill of the 11th century woodcarver's skills.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Oh, The Possibilities

Before the artist, stands a blank canvas; he is a creator, and the worlds, places, or events which he might bring to life are endless. His only limitation are his skill and his time; what will he create?

Back view of my 10th century box; ready to begin... what?

The same held true for the medieval furniture maker, there was an almost infinite range of possible ways he could ornament a box, trunk, or chest and we cannot always appreciate that from the few remains that we might encounter in museums, or from the limited details in the iconographic depictions found in illuminated manuscripts or paintings. (this blog is generally referring to the pre-13th century medieval world)

A modern person would be completely satisfied with some paint, varnish, or perhaps some veneer or at best some marquetry to this box, but in this blog I will show, from actual surviving examples, some of those endless possibilities just mentioned.

Some of the pictures are my own, some came from the websites of the museums where the objects are found, and others from image searches on the web. I have tried to list the source of all the photos for this post.

A painted box, in the MET
(own photo)

It would be nice to list the types of potential finish organised by the cost of work which went into the making of them, but there are not enough records to know how much workers were paid for the various types of work done, also there are so many degrees of quality and skill level, so that a very finely painted casket might cost more than a quickly done bone laminated one or a finely wrought repoussé chest might cost more than an ivory one. Because of the huge amount of grey area, after a few obviously less expensive examples, I will just try to group them by type.

(Incidentally, this casket which I photographed at the Cloisters is labeled as being early 13th century, and supposedly depicts scenes from "the capture of Orange" a specific incident in 9th century French history. However, I see nothing of particular on this box to identify it as such. To me it looks like a generic box with stock period decorations, done purely for the sake of ornament. I have sent a message to the museum to inquire about any supporting evidence for their theory, but as yet have not received a reply. In addition, I take issue with the dating, because, based on the style of artwork and the costumes, it could come from any time between circa 1100 and the early 13th century. [See another chest below, from the late 11th century which has a very similar style of artwork in a different medium.] I much prefer when Museums give the whole range of possible dating unless they have specific evidence to point to a particular date, in which case they should state that evidence.)

Early 13th century casket covered in embroidery

I am only making a guess that a chest covered in silk embroidery would be more expensive than a painted one, but it is only a guess. Silk is, and always has been, expensive, but the work of covering the box in linen and then applying and scraping the gesso smooth also consumes a lot of time before the painting actually even gets started; it is probably impossible to say which one would have actually cost more?

13th century bead-covered pyx in the Schnütgen Museum, Köln
(own photo)

I have not encountered any box with the form such as those we are discussing, covered in bead-work, but the fact that there are a few surviving small boxes finished in that manner, and the fact that bead work was a means of ornamenting numerous objects, I find it highly probable that this was a viable option.

Leather covered coffret in the Germanischen Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

Another similar type of covering to cloth would be leather. This was a very popular medium for finishing boxes, cases, and satchels. It could be flat and punched, or, as this example, highly embossed and worked. In addition the leather would have been painted and gold or silver leaf could, and was, used to further enhance the more expensive examples. (Yet another form of ornament known only from writing, would be mosaic made of crushed eggshells. Perhaps the finished result would look something like the bead-work pictured on the pyx, above.)

12th century casket covered in silver leafed gesso
St-Servatiusbasilika Maastricht

Speaking of metal leaf, here is a chest which has been coated in thick gesso and then ornamented with a punch to trace out a leaf and vine motif, it was then covered with silver leaf. Similar work was done in gold leaf as well, another variation on this idea was moulded gesso, referred to as pastiglia.

Carved, painted and partially gilt wooden casket from the 12th century
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Probably the single most common form of ornamentation for boxes, chests and caskets would have been carving, which would have almost always been painted or gilded before the 14th century. (The only exceptions would have been something carved from a "precious [i.e. figured or box] wood" There are a handful of surviving carved boxes in various states of preservation going back to the 9th century and they exhibit a wide range of carving quality which has nothing to do with the time period in which they were made, and everything to do with the amount of money someone was willing to pay for them,

German casket with inset carving 12th century
(from a book)

As with every other art form, there was an endless variety to the style and quality of carving. Some carving was done in the solid body of the box, but more expensive pieces had carved filigree work. This allowed for cleaner details on the sides of the carving and facilitated quicker and neater work in the painting or gilding of the background. The oldest chests of this type that I know of are from the 12th century, but there exist many ivory examples of this type of work going back to the 7th century and there are wooden examples from Egypt going back at least to the 4th century which suggests that such caskets probably also existed throughout the entire medieval period in Europe as well. (The dry climate of Egypt allowed many more artifacts to have been preserved there.)

Painted Italian ivory casket, 11th century in Sankt Maria im Kapitol, Köln
(own photo)

Because it is a more durable material, as well as being more valuable, there are many more ivory caskets which survive, than wooden ones; except that most "ivory caskets" are actually wooden, with ivory or bone plates laminated to them. Because there are more of them which have survived, we can see a much wider range of technique and quality to this type of box. The simplest are made up with thin smooth plates which have been painted, partially gilded, or both, as is the case with the one pictured above. Other examples used simple geometric incisions to form decorative schemes, and could also be enhanced with colour and gilding. Moving up the cost scale, there were carved bone and carved ivory, and then ivory carved and enhanced with gold and gems. As I said, the potential is nearly infinite.

A line incised carved casket of the 11th century enhanced with colour
and gilded copper foil visible through the openwork design.
The style of this artwork is rather similar to the painted casket at the
beginning of this article

Early 12th century bone casket with colour and gilded copper foil, its
original lock-plate would have been gilded

Carved ivory plates overlay another gilded foil backing on this  12th century
reliquary shrine, now housed in the Cloisters.
(own photo)

The red and green colour has been infused into a resin (probably glue) which originally filled the incisions left by the tool used to make the circular geometric ornaments to this piece.

9th century ivory casket from Metz. The metal hardware is a later addition.
The ornament of this casket has traces of gilding to parts of the carving

For some curious reason, a workshop in the city of Köln, in the 12th and 13th
centuries, seems to have produced a large number of pieces done in an archaic
style. The work of this group of carved ivory containers, reliquaries, chests,
boxes, book covers, and game tables, is much more in keeping with the 10th
than the 12th and 13th century. This piece is now in the Cluny Museum -
the corner braces are a later addition.
(own photo)

Although from the standpoint of an artifact, it is sad to see this piece half
destroyed by thieves stealing the gold foil and gems from it, it is nonetheless
very informative for the study of such objects. Here we clearly see the method
of construction on such a piece. Several of the examples we have just seen
 had the gold foil behind the ivory, but this one employs it as framing.
This Spanish box is dated to 1059.

This brings us to the next type of decorated casket, which is variations on a metal covering. As we see with the last example, there is not always a clear line of distinction between various mediums and metal coverings were often further enhanced by other techniques.

Embossed silver foil casket ca 1150
(Chicago Art Institute)

Insular style metalwork over a wooden core.
This is not a very pretty example and there are similar objects in a much better
state of preservation, but this clearly shows, once again, the wooden chest
which is at the core of all of these objects.
(Norwegian University Databank)

This type of decoration is based on gilt cast metal ornaments, applied over
gilded metal foil, on a wooden core. This one is from the 13th century and is in
the Cluny Museum
(own photo)

I chose this particular casket because of its legs which are in keeping with the
style of box that my "9th century box" project is based on. Caskets with post-
type legs persisted through the medieval period and (perhaps) originated in
Egypt, from which numerous examples survive going back 4000 years BC.
The Champleve enamel work adds yet another layer of ornament.

Yet another variation on metal ornament, is engraving. This sort of work led up
to the copperplate etchings made famous by artists such as Albrecht Dürer at
the end of the Middle Ages.This box comes from the early 11th century, the
gems are a later addition to this piece, but are original on other similar work.
(Romanesque art of Aragon, website)

I have been searching for years for a picture of this large chest in the Sion
Cathedral treasury. It is in rather rough shape because all of the silver
had been stripped from it but now has been put back as well as possible on a
reproduction wooden core. This 11th cent. casket also has projecting corners

A priceless treasure of the Oviedo Cathedral is this agate chest, which was
made in 918, and donated to the cathedral. It is made of gold foil which
encases pieces of cut and polished agate, applied over a wooden core.
It is further enhanced with precious and semi-precious stones.

Coming from about the same time as the last example, this casket is in the
cathedral treasury in Astorga and is another example of north Spanish work.
It is made of embossed and chased gilded foil and is further enhanced with
cloisonne enamel decoration.

My earliest example is of the 7th century (only slightly older than the Insular
example above) it is made of gold wire and cell-work soldered to a foil base
and infilled with garnet and other gems. This type of work had been
practiced in Europe for over a thousand years by the time this box was made.
Originally, all of the empty cells in the fields of this box were filled with enamel,
some of which still remains on the bottom.
(Catharijneconvent Museum, Utrecht)

These last three examples are probably of the most expensive type of work done, but since I love wood, I will finish with a couple of the most precious of wooden treasures that I know of, both German work of the 12th century. (Theophilus mentions Germany as specifically being a place producing noteworthy wood-work.)

Marquetry chest, 12th century, with bone accent
(Hildesheim Cathedral Museum)
This is one of the most phenomenal pieces of medieval woodwork that I know of, and completely flips the cover off of most people's concept of woodworking at this time in history. In addition to the intarsia certosina work on the main box, the border has been made of a veneer comprised of two separate pieces of wood, one light, the other ebony, which have been repeatedly slit in such a way that they could be forced into one another, creating a stripped effect which does not go all the way across the width. (the intention was to give the illusion of a twisted column.) In an early 20th century work, which has been cited by many authors since, the opinion was put forth that marquetry was first re-introduced to Europe (the Romans practiced the art in their time) into southern Italy by Arab workers in Sicily in the 14th century. This is obviously clear proof against that notion.

12th century casket from the treasury of Essen Cathedral with 13th century
metal mounts

Even more amazing than the last piece is this, my absolute favourite; not only does it have more of the fine intarsia work, it also incorporates carved and painted decorations. In my humble opinion, one could not have a finer medieval wooden casket than this.

So with all of this information to work from, what will I be doing with my box?

covered in linen
(if it was still 1960 I would be finished, it looks just like several books and my
radio from when I was a kid)

eight coats of gesso

lots of scraping

These photos which show the current status of the box will give a hint. I first made some size from parchment, as directed by Cennini, and then applied the size and linen as directed by him (and also Theophilus) I then made some gesso with the size and applied it to build up a good thick layer and then scraped it down very smooth and even... After all that, - I am still facing a blank canvas.