May 21, 2006

How can knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?

Follow-up to Medieval Essay from Team Colour

How can knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?

Medieval art is a vast subject spanning hundreds of years across continents. The art itself is voluminous with varying styles, techniques and products; from religious panel paintings, to exquisitely decorated chalices. So whilst taking on this mammoth task, of analysing both the technique and relevance of such in medieval art, I have focused on one, highly popular form of practical art throughout the medieval period; the technique of enamelling. Although this narrows my analysis somewhat, enamelling was used on a huge variety of art works in the relevant period, and so, I believe the study should be sufficient for this task. In reference to my study, enamelling is a complicated art work, requiring great technique on a wide range of surfaces, and so will provide ample study into the relevance of medieval technique in understanding medieval art.

The technique of enamelling proved highly versatile and was used on a great variety of works, religious and secular. The use of enamelling also scanned from Anglo–Saxon Britain to Byzantine Constantinople. This we can see from the collection below of medieval enamel examples, figure one and two from northern Europe and figure three and four from Byzantium. From this collection of images one can clearly see the diversity of production of enamel throughout the medieval period in question. I have also chosen these examples to highlight the diversity of enamelling, used in fashion (figure 1), religion (figure 2), politics (figure 3) and the secular realm (figure 4). We can hence discuss the relevance of knowledge of technique in relation to understanding these different aspects of medieval enamelling.

After establishing the relevance of enamelling in this study, it is then necessary to understand the technique of enamelling in order to establish its necessity in regards to understanding the art. Enamel in essence is coloured glass, bonded with metal at high temperatures. To go into more depth however, I have looked at perhaps the best resource concerning medieval enamel work; that written in the medieval period (probably early 12th century) by a German Benedictine monk; Theophilus. His treatise ‘diversis artibus’ appears to be a lifetime’s work on glass manufacture and cloisonné enamel (cell enamel). However as some of Theophilus’ theories seem to be outdated; notably that involving “basilisks and the blood of a red bearded man” reading the more contemporary analysis by David Buckton on the treatise is a necessary undertaking.

Cloisonné enamel is so called as it comprises of cells, formed by metal wires, or strips, into which the glass is inserted to construct the composition of the enamel decoration. As we can see from figure 3; medieval enamels were often highly decorated, and the versatility of the enamel requires that all decorative fixtures about the enamel should be in place prior to the creation of the enamel itself. It is at this point that Theophilus begins a step by step instruction on how to make medieval enamel. First one must measure out a thin gold frame in the area selected for the enamel, using this measurement a second, thicker strip of gold should be wrapped about the first, leaving a small gap. In this space your ‘cells’ can be created by painstakingly laying very thin strips of gold in your desired pattern. To form the base of the cloisonné a sheet of metal is then placed in each of the cloisons, and then pasted in a fire to secure the enamel base.
Theophilus then turns to the glass itself, and its preparation. First it is suggested that the reader break off a small piece of each colour of glass, and test its melting point in relation to the other glasses, as if its melting point is different, it will not be satisfactory. Once tested, all the glass should be heated separately, and then splintered in cold water, ready to be broken down with a pestle into powder and washed. When the glass is prepared it has then to be applied to the base of the enamel, using a “goose quill, cut as fine as if for writing but with a longer point and unsplit”1. The glass and base should then be fired, and the process of filling the cloisons repeated until they reach or surpass the height of the metal borders. The process of enamelling is then completed by filing and polishing the works, in order to give a professional finish.

As I have previously mentioned this above process of enamelling was used across continents from Anglo–Saxon Britain to Byzantium where “the technique of enamels attained the highest degree of refinement and of expressiveness in the period of the Comnenian dynasty (1057 – 1187)”2. Enamelling had been greatly developed in cities such as Constantinople, and these techniques native to Byzantium, became incorporated into Venetian enamelling, with political gifts, and the lootings of war. However there was always a great difference between the enamels of Venice and Constantinople. Sergio Bettini notes in “Venice, the Pala d’Oro and Constantinople” the great difference in colour between these two manufacturers. With our knowledge of enamel techniques, we can clearly see that colour is a very important aspect of enamelling; it is colour and line alone which give the enamel its charm and style. Figure 5 shows an example of a Byzantine pendant with cloisonné enamel detail. With this example we can see the delicacy and translucency of colour in Byzantine enamels, Bettini describes a “balance between colour and line”. The Venetian examples used stronger colours and thickness almost to the point where the translucent effect of enamelling is lost. With technical knowledge it is then possible to appreciate the style of both these uses of colour in enamelling; in Byzantium where the two main features are harmoniously blended and in Venetian enamels, where the singularity of line and colour is exaggerated and exploited.

Other than enabling an aesthetic appreciation of enamelling, technical knowledge can prove to be useful in other disciplines of understanding the art. With the widespread popularity of enamel, across the globe, and the extensive movement of art between these areas, it is often difficult to locate origin, provenance and even date the art work. Technical knowledge of both the varying styles, for example between Venetian and Byzantine enamels, is only one area in which technical understanding may help. As previously mentioned, the height of Byzantine enamelling was the Comnenian period, however styles and techniques of making have varied throughout the medieval period, and knowledge and understanding of the different techniques can help to categorise different enamels into artistic, or dynastic periods.

The technique of glass making itself, core to the enamelling process can also aid our understanding of period and provenance. In addition to the enamelling process Theophilus also explains the techniques of glass making, and their various chemical and other components. Fundamentally glass is a composition of a type of silica and an alkali flux. The alkali is largely soda and can come from foliage3. This is crucial, as different areas at different periods obtained their alkali from different sources. For example in Germany and Bohemia:

“…the ash of marine plants was replaced, apparently by the tenth century AD, by the ash of certain hardwoods, notably oak and beech, producing a glass known as Waldglas ‘forest glass’.” (David Buckton – Theophilus and Enamel).
With this knowledge of varying techniques (and perhaps with the aid of chemical testing) we can both locate the Waldglas enamel as originating in Germany, and approximate its period, as after the 10th century AD. In this way our knowledge of technique has been shown to aid not only aesthetic and appreciative functions of understanding but also in practical methods of comprehension.

So far I have discussed how knowledge of technique can aid our understanding of medieval art, however I would like to highlight certain areas of understanding in which further knowledge is required. One such example is the understanding of a social and political context. Perhaps I should argue here why this is necessary in our understanding of art, and so I shall briefly underline why I think this is so, particularly in regards to medieval art. From the range of enamel examples throughout this essay it is clear to see that the decorative purpose of the enamel was also to serve a function, with regards to what it was decorating. With a great divide between the wealthy and the poor, in the monarchic system of the medieval period, it was only the wealthy who could afford, or commission art works leaving art as a very powerful and specialist tool. Perhaps it is also important to note here that most (save a rare few) ‘artists’ of the period are remembered by name, as the birth of ‘art’ as a concept had not been fully divulged in this period. Instead art was seen as a skill in conjunction with a creative subject.

Perhaps this is an argument for the necessity of knowledge in regards to technique, and I would not contradict this, however it does raise another issue. When the art has a specific purpose it is then necessary to understand this specific purpose in order to gain a full understanding of piece. If we then look again at figure 3; the votive crown of King Leo VI, we must recognise the enamels in their political context. As a symbol of power the enamels were designed to ordain and bring ‘majesty’ to the wearer. Further to this the enamels depict King Leo VI flanked by saints to enhance his ostensibly saintly predisposition as leader of the religious and secular state. With this knowledge I believe that one has a better understanding of the medieval art, which could not be accessed by knowledge of technique alone.

Whilst studying the art in its socio–political context we must also consider the practical function of many of the enamels, designed to decorate items with practicality. An example of which is the exquisite temple pendant and stick (figure 6). As part of court attire, the pendant was worn in pairs by men and women near the temple or cheek. As the pendant is hollow it is believed that the stick was used to insert a scented rag into the hollow cavity to give the bearer an elegant scent. Despite this practical function, the enamels also serve the purpose of displaying wealth and power, and perhaps highlight the refined elegance of the luxury of perfume.

In considering this then, it is necessary to take into account both the practical functionality of medieval art and its socio–political context, in addition to knowledge of the technicalities of making in order to fully understand medieval art work. It is necessary in such a skill orientated discipline as enamel to have knowledge of the technical methods involved in order to aid your understanding of the art as this can prove useful in appreciative, functional, and stylistic evaluations. However as I have also discussed to gain a comprehensive understanding it is necessary to take into account its context and function. The religious icons, used for worship and the secular decorations used to represent power and wealth comprise of much of the medieval art of which we have today, and so to understand it fully we must also gain knowledge of the context and function of the art, in correspondence with our practical understanding of the fundamental techniques, as these are also crucial for a complete understanding of medieval art.

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