What a title for a post - can there be anything less noticed in the world's most-ogled city? In the middle of September I celebrated my birthday with a day trip to Venice, to put into effect one of my bucket list intentions to see the Basilica of San Marco. I spent a week wandering Venice as a student but for some reason I can't remember, I couldn't visit San Marco, or even see it from the outside as it was shrouded with scaffolding. In the afternoon we joined the crowds of tourists being herded expeditiously round the interior by fiercesome officials - if you want to linger and look up you have to dive behind pillars. Photography inside the church or even in the arcade is strictly forbidden, so I have had to raid unknown sources on the web for my illustrations, including a picture of the Pala d'Oro, the magnificent gold and enamelwork altarpiece which I have been studying on and off for years. This is housed on the back of the main altarpiece in a separate chapel, so it was famously missed by Napoleon when he took over Venice in 1797 and carted back its valuables to Paris. The tourist literature displays palpable continuing resentment about the French sack, which makes me laugh mightily when I think that the Basilica and indeed Venice itself is largely entirely composed of materials and art which the Venetian Republic looted from Constantinople and elsewhere. You don't hear nearly so much about that little detail of history. In the evening I attended Mass, when the Basilica was splendidly lit, and during the incomprehensible homily gazed up at the great dome with the apostles looking up at Christ in Glory. After Mass there was an opportunity to light a candle for a departed friend and spend a few quiet moments with Venice's ancient miracle-working icon (looted from Constantinople), the Madonna Nikopeia. Like so many powerful icons, she is a small and unassuming panel, dwarfed by the magnificence of her ornaments and architectural setting. Some of the jewellery which once adorned the image can be seen in the Basilica treasury.
But for the truly less noticed, look beneath your feet. The magnificent Cosmati pavement, a mainly geometrical design composed of miraculously tiny pieces of coloured marbles and semi-precious stones is undergoing restoration. Much of it is covered to stop damage from thousands of tourist feet, but here and there it peeps out in all its beauty. The interlocking squares, triangles, circles and swirling quincunxes all have meaning in medieval natural philosophy, as do the choices of coloured stones. Nothing is random or simply decorative in medieval art. I became interested in Cosmati pavements about twenty-five years ago when I ran across a book about the meaning behind the Westminster Great Pavement (Patterns of Thought: The Hidden Meaning of the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey: Richard Foster 1991.) The other day my husband and I tried cutting a few concrete pavers for a garden path, with disastrous results. How did these artistis cut such tiny patchwork pieces so accurately with only hand and water-powered tools? That is even more of a mystery to me than the arcane meaning of the geometry
I am also currently working on the restoration of a big St George icon (dragon and princess this time) a project which I took on in a fit of rash enthusiasm and which I don't mind admitting is giving me a packet of trouble. Fortunately (as I am not a conservator) it is worth nothing either artistically or monetarily: it has sentimental value to the owner, who found it in a junk yard sale, because it reminds him of his Serbian heritage. It is a curious item: it seems to have been cast in resin from the riza on some old icon, complete with nail heads and tack holes. A riza (sometimes oklad, Russian) or revetment is an embossed metal cover made to protect a precious icon from candle smoke and the kisses of the faithful. The embossing echoes the painted design underneath and only the hands and faces of the saint peep out from the cover. I found some examples on line - one a 19th century version in plaster, and another which is copyright. This copy had been sprayed gold and paper prints of faces and hands pasted on the top. A few damp years in a garage, and they had peeled off completely. I am trying to replace them with something a little worthier than paper cut-outs, using gesso on balsa wood and a great deal of ingenuity. St George has also had a respray, silver this time at the client's request, and now he looks like the King of Bling. I can recommend Plasticote Brilliant Metallic spray paints, they really are remarkably convincing.
Courtauld Institute standards it is not, but I hope to turn it into something the client wants to hang in his home. Look back in a while for the faces. And before anyone else asks - no, I do not do restorations.
The window as a whole is very large and elaborate in conception, and there are more expensive stained glass windows lining the nave, though Troutbeck is such a tiny place you could blink and miss it - Troutspeck, even. I guess the grandees who commissioned the many fabulous Arts and Crafts or neo-gothic holiday palaces in those parts were gracious enough to share some of their worldly excess with the local yokels who joined them for worship in these little village churches.
I don't think the effects of myopia - or even astigmatism or cataracts - on a person's life have been given proper credit by art historians. Most illuminated manuscripts have details so tiny that the artist must have had magnifiers or have been naturally shortsighted to paint such tiny detail so perfectly: reproductions in books tend to be enlarged so one doesn't get a true impression of how tiny they were. I've always been very short-sighted myself, and when I take off my glasses I can see in glorious magnification provided I have my work no more than an inch from my face. Anything further away is a miasmal mist, so that I have to line up my pigment pots in a special order and locate them by feel. I am exploiting my own weakness by choosing to paint small, but if I wanted to go larger it would have to be as a latter-day misty Impressionist or a new Jackson Pollock. Easel painting would mean constantly juggling with three sets of eyewear.
Getting back to Gutenberg and his printing press, the Museum was very empty when I visited so I was lucky enough to get a turn printing a page of St John's gospel on his very machine. So exciting! The machine actually started out life as a wine press, which Gutenberg adapted to the purpose. An incredibly heavy contraption to turn- his assistants must have been a brawny bunch.
ermany has a tradition of carved religious statuary unbroken from the early middle ages, so was not surprised that this art form dominated the lovely Schuetgen Museum in Cologne: it is a private collection, donated to the city, and perfectly housed in Romanesque church building. I had the place almost to myself, and could walk round all the exhibits and examine them from near and far to my heart's content, only slightly inhibited by the hovering of the museum guardian who, having no one else to keep an eye on, and presumably having long since exhausted the novelty of the exhibits, trailed me round like my own personal minder. I remarked hintfully that he must find the work very dull but he shrugged and said, "Ein Job ist ein Job".
Looking over the photographs I took, I feel provoked to get on the soapbox for one of my rants. Will somebody please tell me how in the world we got from this:-
A 12th C carved wooden corpus (polychrome, but paint now eroded) in Schnuetgen Museum Cologne.
- to this? - And this?
The local talent
People, have we all gone blind? Is this a proper focus for prayer and meditation? Why are we confronted every Sunday by this kind of ubiquitous glassy-eyed tat? Is it because The Committee would rather buy something out of a supplier's catalogue than risk dealing with a real live artist? There are people who make a living out of restoring these plaster statues - it shouldn't be allowed! When I am dictator of the world we will consign all the hideous pious paraphernalia to the cemetery and commssion some real artists. Even if it's not world class it will surely be more honest and expressive than what we've got now. There is a Facebook Group entitled "I'm fed up with bad church music". I propose a sister act entitled "We're sick of tacky church art",
I have worked myself up into such a passion now that I can only append, without further invidious comparison, a sample of the other magnificent Christian art on display at the Schnutgen Museum.
As a child visiting my grandparents, I used to love poring over their twelve volumes of Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia. A wonderful work, in print for an incredible sixty years from the early 1900s! Among the many anachronistic treasures to be found therein were photographs of the great North European cathedrals taken before the terrible destruction visited on so many of them during the second world war. I had them in mind on my recent visit to Cologne in Germany, home of the famous Koelnisch Wasser ('4711' as it's known - my grandmother had a covetably dinky little bottle of it sitting on her dressing table). Cologne, always important for its strategic trading position on the Rhine, is now a modernised industrial city famous for its crazy Easter carnival which lasts six months and for having being bombed to blazes during the war. But happily there are some surviving golden nuggets for the medieval art enthusiast to mine. Most well-known of them is the cathedral, whose blackened twin towers rise into the sky as a testament to the Koelner tenacity and determination to rebuild it from the ruins. The citizens set about the task of rebuilding almost immediately after the war, and work continues to this day.
The cathedral houses a magnificent golden shrine to the Magi whose reputed mortal remains have been here since the early twelfth century. I wish I could have got closer to the reliquary, because it is an artwork almost worthy of reverence in itself, made by the incomparable medieval goldsmith Nicholas of Verdun. Instead I lit a candle for a precious family friend whose death we heard of while we were away, and thought of the beautiful Poulenc motet he and I used to sing in the church choir, 'Videntes stellam': teeth-jarringly beautiful dissonances in the second soprano line. "Seeing the star, the wise men were overwhelmed with great joy;and entering the dwelling, they offered to the Lord gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The day of my visit a great deal of noisy pavement construction was going on, and the ambulatory was occupied by a mini-crane with a woman bravely perched thirty or forty feet up in the bucket, dusting a polychrome archbishop with paint brush and vacuum. She noticed me taking the photograph and shot me an old-fashioned look, which is my excuse for the lack of focus. Unfortunately most of my pictures of the interior were either too blurred or too dark to be worth publishing. The second photo below was intended to show the interesting painted gothic beam, looking as if it were originally part of a rood screen - but instead the modern mosaics below the clerestory show up much better. The third grainy photo is of a painted stone side altar which caught my eye, partly for the green and red colour interchange which I love so much and seems so characteristic of gothic art.
Also in Cologne I found the Schnuetgen Museum, a cave of medieval treasures - more to follow soon!
I found these pictures by accident while rattling round the web looking at Romanesque frescoes. They are in a little church somewhere in Sweden and date from around 1220, though unfortunately (like so many medieval artefacts in northern Europe) they have been 'restored' by the ubiquitous nineteenth century neatness freak. I don't know how authentic the colours are, and the faces have probably been 'improved', but one can at least study them as a rare surviving iconographic scheme. I wish I could find more detailed photographs on line. However, there is a really stunning carved stone font dating from a century earlier than the frescoes. Another destination to add to the bucket list.
I was so excited to receive a commission to design an illuminated letter B for a Californian boutique wine producer's new range of organic wines. The brief (an angel watering a vineyard) seemed like the perfect marriage of my diverse interests! We agreed the design and just as I started laying in the colour I received word that the company was making a change to its business plans and so my artwork would not be needed after all. Too sad... No doubt the drawing will get recycled somehow - I am posting it here as a little RIP to the project, together with a photograph of a wonderful medieval watering pot which I turned up while I was researching the detail. I want one, any potters out there?
Yesterday we woke up to the news that Norcia in Italy has again been hit by an earthquake. Thankfully this time there seem to be no human casualties, but word is that the ancient Benedictine monastery of Subiaco has suffered bad damage. I wonder how its famous fresco of St Francis has fared? It's thought that it must have been painted when Francis was still alive (on earth, that is) because it is inscribed 'Brother Francis', and there is no halo. A couple of years ago I was commissioned to make an small icon based on the fresco as a gift for Professor C H Lawrence, historian, who among his many achievements has written the definitive history of the mendicant orders in the medieval world. The scroll he is holding reads 'pax huic domui' - peace be on this house - with what I think must be a date underneath, 1228?
I was hard put to it to decide which beautiful picture to use as an illustration of my recent visit to this exhibition and eventually decided on this page from a Latin Kingdom of Jersusalem sacramentary, dated around 1128. I love it for the east-meets-west style of the icon panel, and the beautiful versal script. I am learning how to write versals at the moment, this is definitely one to add to the study list.
A must-go exhibition for iconographers, illuminators and scribes - on till December, so don't miss. Many of the manuscripts are in cases of course, giving the usual difficulty for close examination, but there are many cuttings framed on the wall which one can eyeball closely. There are also handy reference copies of the £30 exhibition catalogue lying everywhere, which means one can examine photographs and read up on detail without expense. Give yourself a good couple of hours and try to get there early before the usual headphone brigade are there blocking the view!
Many of the manuscripts are from the University collection, but there are also borrowings from the British Library, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Library and elsewhere. The later medieval and early Renaissance period is quite heavily represented, as one might expect. The show's chief focus is on the chemistry and provenance of pigments and materials used in book illumination but technique is also touched on. Iconographers will be interested to study the gradual development of different fleshpainting techniques, from the fully modelled style of the Byzantine period through to western experiments with pointillism, grisaille and tinted drawing.
Other random gleanings that I shall follow up on my next trip:
- Different ways of ruling the page: pricking, hardpoint, silverpoint, plummet. Medieval readers preferred their pages to be ruled and even drew in guidelines to the first printed books because the page looked naked without! So this business in calligraphy class about not showing the lines is a load of rubbish, ha!
- Using black gesso under gilding for special effect. Must try, could look amazingly contemporary.
- Indigo and woad are chemically indistinguishable when used as dyes or pigments. Western artists probably used woad. It will grow in the back garden, and I found someone on line who extracts and sells the pigment.
- The fabled Tyrian purple, so expensive, was extracted from North Atlantic dogwhelks as well as from the Mediterranean murex. The farthest Scottish islands had a trade in it. On the other hand there was a cheap subsitute to be made from the turnsole plant or a variety of lichen, used on some of those glorious purple-dyed manuscripts.
- Some French manuscript fragments c 1250 were described as having a 'stained glass palette', an artistic cross-fertilisation from the contemporaneous technological developments in coloured glass (remember that amazing Chartres Cathedral blue?). One of the pigments used was minium. I have always held off using minium (red lead) on the grounds of it being so toxic, but I suppose that's a bit daft given that I already use vermilion (mercury), white lead (for gesso) and the cadmiums. I am interested in this manuscript school, and up till now have had to guess at what pigments were used to achieve the effect.
The view from my desk
Current work, places and events, art travel, and interesting snippets about Christian icons, medieval art, manuscript illumination, egg tempera , gilding, technique and materials.