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May 21, 2006
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 However as some of Theophilus’ theories seem to be outdated; notably that involving “basilisks and the blood of a red bearded man” reading the more contemporary analysis by David Buckton on the treatise is a necessary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.
May 03, 2006
How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of medieval art?
During the middle ages, a wide range of artistic techniques were developed and employed both in Western Europe and Byzantium. By examining the skills developed, time invested and the vast number of materials used in the production of specialized types of craftsmanship, such as mosaics, enamels and manuscripts, it is evident that medieval art played an important part in the culture of the period. This is largely due to the fact that the majority of art was religious, and religion dominated the lives of people across Europe. By gaining an understanding of the techniques that developed in certain areas, it is also possible to see how and why these methods spread, as they were adopted and adapted by other cultures.
The Byzantine state regarded itself as a continuation of the ancient Roman Empire. Byzantine art was frequently defined as the art of Constantinople; a town renamed by the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great in 330 and art from this area was, therefore, described as imperial and used to express the Byzantine Empire’s power. Images of the court provide an example of this, such as the strongly idealized images of emperors that were developed to illustrate what a good emperor was supposed to conform to. The portrait of Nikephoros III Botaneiates and Maria of Alania, for the frontispiece page of the Homilies of John Chrysostam, presents the rulers as rigid, severe and impassive, to ‘express the ideal demeanour praised by … Byzantine orators’ . The Byzantine court was highly regulated, as were the perceptions of the court, and it can therefore be argued; ‘Byzantine imperial art appears to resemble church art in following established patterns of iconography and expression’ .
The art of Byzantium generally remained separate from the medieval art of the west, but there are examples of a diffusion of techniques between east and west. A key example is the interior of the church of San Marco in Venice; Byzantine craftsmen were imported to decorate the walls and ceilings with mosaics. Local artists were also employed to be trained by the Byzantines, to become capable of working in their style. The mosaics in the atrium of San Marco were directly based on the Byzantine sixth–century manuscript called the Cotton Genesis, an example being God Introduces Eve to Adam (figure 1). Byzantine fixtures and fittings were also imported from Constantinople to adorn the interiors of churches, for example is now lost gold and enamel antependium made for Montecassino in Constantinople.
Knowledge of the production of the mosaics in San Marco enables us to conclude that Venice was not simply adopting the techniques of Byzantine art for decorative purposes; by hiring Byzantine mosaicists to decorate San Marco it was rivalling the Byzantine churches of Constantinople. At this time Venice was also competing commercially with the Byzantine Empire and this emphasizes the competitive nature of the Italian state. The West held art from Constantinople in high esteem, but the doges of Venice would ‘not have wanted the products of Byzantine craftsmen had they not been acknowledged as providing a setting for religious activity of the utmost splendour’ .
Byzantine society was deeply religious; desiring salvation and fearful of the afterlife. The church was entwined in practically every activity of daily life. Although cities such as Constantinople were full of buildings and objects which would today be described as ‘secular’, the majority of art was sacred or religious; produced for churches and monasteries, or for private devotion. Byzantine art expressed a deep knowledge of the bible and did not aim at illusion; it abolished ‘all clear distinction between the world of reality and the world of appearance’ . If considered from a Western point of view, Byzantine art is not original or individual in terms of content. Paintings, for example, were standardized by tradition, and this tradition stated that art should not evoke emotion, as this was considered too human. In 730, Emperor Leo III decreed that any image of Christ, the Virgin, saints or angels, which were depicted in a human form, were illegal. The facial expressions of the figures in panel paintings, therefore, convey no emotion; for example the faces of the Virgin and Child in the Vladimir Madonna (figure 2) touch tenderly, yet there is no sense of emotional closeness. This knowledge of technique, i.e. the reason behind the facial expressions of Byzantine icons, therefore, reveals the religious beliefs of the period, and the importance of religion in society.
Icons were at the centre of Byzantine art and life and so time, care and considerable resources were lavished on the production of them. This was also the case with mosaics. Whilst mosaics were ‘an invention of the Mediterranean people during the classical era’ , the technique was greatly developed in Byzantium. Decorating of a building with mosaics was a complicated task and probably involved a large team of trained artists. ‘[T]he desired pictorial programme was established with considerable care’ and this would reflect the religious function of the site for which it was commissioned. When creating a wall mosaic, a sketch would be made first before the plaster could be applied. The mosaic tesserae were then placed on the third layer of plaster, whilst it was still wet. As hundreds of thousands of tesserae were required to make a mosaic, the process was long and time consuming, yet this effort was not considered a chore as mosaics were devotional, religious scenes and the production of them was an act of piety.
Glass was the major material for wall and vault mosaics due to its reflective surface. An even more glittering, shimmering effect could be achieved with the use of gold tesserae, which were first employed in mosaics around the end of the second century A.D., for example in the Christian mausoleum beneath the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, to represent the supernatural light that surrounds Christ. Gold was later used to cover whole backgrounds; surrounding figures and creating a glistening effect. Craftsmen developed the technique of setting tesserae at different angles to produce differences in the way that light was reflected, for example the haloes could be made to appear lighter than the surrounding gold background, as is the case in Hagios Georgios in Salonika. This knowledge of technique reveals the time and skill lavished on mosaic decoration, and thus reveals the importance of church art during the medieval period.
During the medieval period precious and semi–precious stones were used to embellish sacred objects, altars and icons. Mother–of–pearl was used for the representation of pearls, particularly in depictions of jewellery, for example in the mosaics of Justinian and Theodora in San Vitale, Ravenna (figures 3 and 4); Theodora’s head–dress is adorned with mother–of–pearl, as is Justinian’s crown and the broach securing his robe. It is also assumed a large piece of red smalto (glass) was once placed at the centre of this broach, to suggest a large ruby. These examples reveal the lavish decoration mosaicists bestowed upon their art, and that artists of the period often did more than was required of them; they ‘indulged the impulse to embellish’ . Medieval craftsman developed the tendency to elaborate, both in the design and execution of works as, ‘To the good medieval craftsman, perfectionism was no reproach’ .
Small, portable objects were also commissioned for private devotion. The two most extensive fields of medieval art production were books and textiles. Illuminated manuscripts were commissioned as acts of devotion, and then studied as an act of duty. These books were time consuming to produce, carefully planned and expected to last indefinitely. The illuminated manuscript for Basil II, known as the Menologion of Basil II, was commissioned for private use, and would probably have been displayed on a stand or lectern in the imperial palace, then transported when the emperor went away from Constantinople, on a campaign. Objects such as ivory carvings held a high status both in Byzantium and Western Europe, due to the rarity of the material and the skill of the craftsmanship involved in carving. Ivory plaques, diptychs and triptychs, become popular both in Byzantium and the West, particularly in the 10th and 11th centuries, as they were devotional and portable. The double–sided Harbaville Triptych (figure 5) involved a great deal of craftsmanship as it is carved on both front and back. These items were expensive to produce and so were generally for the use of the rich and the powerful.
In conclusion, knowledge of the techniques employed for the creation of mosaics, carvings and illuminated manuscripts helps to reveal the importance of medieval art. Time consuming methods and expensive techniques were developed in order to create beautiful, elaborate works suitable for devotion, whether privately or in a church, and producing these objects was an act on piety in itself. The arts of the medieval age reveal how religion dominated both Byzantium and Western culture. Although different methods were employed in the east and west, techniques spread and they always shared one similarity; religion was the key theme of art.
May 02, 2006
How can a knowledge of technique enhance our understanding of Medieval Art?
As there are very few records of critical art historians from around Medieval times, it is crucial to form our own knowledge of the techniques used to understand the art. We are not directly informed about why some of the art existed or more importantly, its meaning – apart from the large religious influence which i will discuss – making interpretation more difficult. But aside from religion there must have been other factors as to why the art at the time was created, and for what purposes. To begin to combat this lack of knowledge we can analyse instead how a work of art was made and what this involved to further our understanding and appreciation. Additionally, if we know how something was made then we can hopefully get a rough idea of the technology around the time, when it was dated, the events taking place and the artist/s relation to that and/or the influence on them. Was the inspiration to create an art object influenced by a particular event or place, does its existence in turn influence other works of art, and if it does, how does it show their links and connections over the centuries?
To give a brief religious summary as mentioned above; during Medieval times the church had become the greatest power in the realm, and its whole relationship to art had to be reconsidered. This would mean that not only would the church's – or basilica's as they were then called – interior have to change and be built upon, to make room for congregations and services in their ever increasing popularity – but that art too would also be highly influenced by religion. Monks took the lead in theological development, in icons and shaping the piety and religious practice of Byzantium in general, in which ritual, cult and symbolism were practised. This motivated the benefactors who commissioned the religious artworks to express their participation by decorating the churches with gold and silver, silk vestments and bronze lamps. People primarily came to church to be transformed, and thus art became this means of communication with the divine. There are many different kinds of art which can be analysed for their technique, but i will be looking at only two of these in this essay; they will be illuminated manuscripts and altarpieces in churches.
Illuminated manuscripts flourished between 850 and 1200, with their content mainly being very handsome and lavish. The Byzantines were typically known as depicting the first eight books of the old testament, the psalms joined with poetry and the major and minor prophets, with great care taken over the beauty and appearence. These were completed on thick parchment usually in two books. Size often gave a good indication of its intended use, for example pocket versions of the gospels and psalms were popular for private devotional reading. However illuminated manuscripts were made to a large degree for use or donation in churches, and usually made to teach the reader ‘a lesson’ or pass on wise words about their role in life. For example, Theodore Psalter copied the book of Psalms and the Odes for the local monastery’s abbot, Michael. This was intended to guide Michael on how he should show responsibility for the orthodox belief of his monks, and teach them obedience, charity and chastity. The saints in the pictures act as religious guides to help Michael. The more lavish the book, the more powerful in society was the receiver, so we can conclude that material appearances of importance, wealth and position were greatly favoured in those days.
During Antiquity, reading was done aloud and authors would dictate their work for secretaries to transcribe and professionals to copy meaning relationships between creativity and writing were weak. This changed during the middle ages, as authors became more independent and private study more commonplace. Due to this shift in the way writing was communicated, with the written word now being more important, grand letters were used and great care taken over books to make reading more ‘fun’. This extended to the pictures as well; enamel was used from around the ninth to the tenth centuries for expensive objects. Pictures and words were slightly squashed, and their depth reduced. Together these would emphasise a flat and shallow or blank plane. But why would artists use this technique? Effort must be taken to understand the demands placed on the artist to fit everything in on one page, indicating that for whatever reason it was necessary to do so.
The pictures drawn can show not only the telling of a biblical story, but as depicting something that somebody in the past had witnessed in real life. Take for example the Joshua roll and its link with the Byzantine army events in the tenth century. Historical influence therefore had a significant impact on the technique used in illuminated manuscripts, and careful time must have been taken to recreate the scenes as they appeared in reality. I shall also look at whether historical events had an impact on the other type of art in this essay.
It is hard to trace the development of altarpieces as they have been lost in time due to the poor survival of actual objects, the frequent loss of original settings and some missing documentation. The reason i have chosen altarpieces is to prove that it is still possible to learn at least a little of their technique and hence their meaning, despite the fact that are a noticable amount of gaps in knowledge. Another large problem has been the tendency to view nearly all painted wooden panels as alterpieces; this is not the case. Altarpieces were typically made of various materials, the use of stone for example in Virgin and Child, or wood in the altarpieces of Friuli. The way in which altarpieces were made indicated what use they were intended for. Another problem is the altarpieces origin and a way to combat the problem is to search for an existing form and give it a new use; the antependium (altar frontal) may have served as a background to a new ritual, namely the elevation of the main body of the altarpiece. The form and development of the altarpiece depended on local taste and fashion. Patterns of development vary though depending on whether the antependium theory is correct. If it is, then the alter would be made up of rectangular 'dossals' or 'retables' contructed with horizontal wooden planks. The downside is that this still does not explain whether some panels are retables or altar frontals. The organic process is the next step: to separate the figures, arcades or colonettes were used; and for greater height and width, the horizontal structure was replaced by vertical sections. Because some alterpieces did not reach completion, it is very difficult to know how much time it took to make or the date it was 'finished'. Despite this, surviving contracts and records of payments help us to gain an understanding of the production processes and hence to a technique insight. A proof of what patrons demanded is not only in the contracts but backed up by the amount of, or lack of, gold and blue in the alterpieces. Unfortuately though, we do not have such a great understanding of alterpieces as much as other forms of medieval art, although the knowledge isnt enitrely lacking.
Byzantine art is thought to be highly influential but it is not sure how much and whether this phenomenon can be explained better in parellelism.The Byzantine style was not static in the later twelth century, this is probably because Byzantine art was constantly renewing itself while upholding time honoured iconographies. In the last decades of the twelth centuries, it entered a dynamic fast paced phase, followed by a simplistic and calm style of form and expression. There is not a clear connection between early and middle Byzantine art.
To conclude, we can see that by knowing how a work of art was made and what this involved shapes our understanding of technique, showing us that there were reasons other than religion for making art, and how this improves our understanding of the whole Medieval artworld. Technique was also partly down to who was composing the artwork – the Georgians, the Bulgarians, the Armenians, the Crusaders or the Byzantines. The technique of one group seemed to have had largely, but not always, a domino like effect from one to the other. The evidence does seem to suggest that the inspiration to create an art object was indeed largely influenced by an external force; a particular theme, event or place, and that this in turn influences other works of art, showing their links and connections over the centuries. This is highlighted by some of the overlapping styles between all of those listed above (the Georgians, the Bulgarians eccetera) Technique was also down to social appearences, the Byzantiums, for instance, frequently encouraged by their art, made their work ever more lavish. By doing this, they received significant praise for the sheer beauty of it, and so great artists held a high place in society and received creditable amounts of respect from their people. Artwork attracted people to churches and the like as a place for social gatherings and gossip as well as a place to worship and be enlightened. Perphaps this is what the artist/s had in mind as they developed their technique, and it helps us realise why they put so much effort into their art. Yet again it reinforces the crucialness of possessing knowledge of technique to further understand art during Medieval times.