II. THE ADORNMENT OF LIFE

Nevertheless it was a monk who wrote the most complete and revealing summary of medieval arts and crafts. Theophilus—“lover of God” in the monastery of Helmershausen near Paderborn—wrote, about 1190, a Schedula diversarum artium:

Theophilus, a humble priest… addresses his words to all who wish, by the practical work of their hands, and by the pleasing meditation of what is new, to put aside … all sloth of mind and wandering of spirit.… [Here shall such men find] all that Greece possesses in the way of diverse colors and mixtures; all that Tuscany knows of the working of enamels … all that Arabia has to show of works ductile, fusible, or chased; all the many vases and sculptured gems and ivory that Italy adorns with gold; all that France prizes in costly variety of windows; all that is extolled in gold, silver, copper, or iron, or in subtle working of wood or stone.4

Here in a paragraph we see another side of the Age of Faith—men and women, and not least monks and nuns, seeking to satisfy the impulse to expression, taking pleasure in proportion, harmony, and form, and eager to make the useful beautiful. The medieval scene, however suffused with religion, is above all a picture of men and women working. And the first and basic purpose of their art is the adornment of their work, their bodies, and their homes. Thousands of woodworkers used knife, drill, gouge, chisel, and polishing materials to carve tables, chairs, benches, chests, caskets, cabinets, stairposts, wainscots, beds, cupboards, buffets, icons, altarpieces, choir stalls… with an incredible variety of forms and themes in high or low relief, and often with a mischievous humor that recognized no barrier between the sacred and the profane. On the misericords one might find figures of misers, gluttons, gossipers, grotesque beasts and birds with human heads. In Venice the wood carvers sometimes made frames more beautiful and costly than the pictures they enclosed. The Germans began in the twelfth century that remarkable wood sculpture which would become a major art in the sixteenth.*

The workers in metal rivaled the workers in wood. Iron was wrought into elegant gratings for windows, courtyards, and gates; for mighty hinges that spread across massive doors in a variety of floral designs (as on Notre Dame at Paris); for cathedral choir grilles as “strong as iron” and as delicate as lace. Iron or bronze or copper was fused or hammered into handsome vases, goblets, caldrons, ewers, candelabra, censers, caskets, and lamps; and bronze plates covered many cathedral doors. Armorers liked to add a touch of decoration to swords and scabbards, helmets, breastplates, and shields. The gorgeous bronze chandelier presented to the cathedral of Aachen by Frederick Barbarossa attested the ability of the German metalworkers; and the great bronze candlestick from Gloucester (c. 1100), now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, bears like testimony to English skill. The medieval fondness for making art of the simplest articles shows in the adornment of bolts, locks, and keys. Even weathervanes were carefully decorated with ornament that only a telescope could see.

The arts of the precious metals and stones flourished amid general poverty. The Merovingian kings had gold plate, and Charlemagne collected at Aachen a treasure of goldsmiths’ work. The Church pardonably felt that if gold and silver brightened the tables of barons and bankers, they should also be used in the service of the King of Kings. Some altars were of chased silver, some of chased gold, as in the church of St. Ambrose at Milan, and the cathedrals of Pistoia and Basel. Gold was normal for the ciborium or pyx that held the consecrated Host, for the monstrance in which it was exposed to the veneration of the faithful, for the chalice that contained the sacramental wine, and for the reliquaries in which saintly relics were preserved; these vessels were in many cases more beautifully worked than the most costly prize cups of today. In Spain the goldsmiths made resplendent tabernacles to bear the Host in processions through the streets; in Paris the goldsmith Bonnard (1212) used 1544 ounces of silver, and 60 of gold, to make a shrine for the bones of St. Genevieve. We may judge the scope of the goldsmith’s art from the seventy-nine chapters devoted to it by Theophilus. There we find that every medieval goldsmith was expected to be a Cellini—at once smelter, sculptor, enameler, jewel mounter, and inlay worker. Paris in the thirteenth century had a powerful guild of goldsmiths and jewelers; and Parisian jewel cutters had already a reputation for producing artificial gems.5 The seals that rich men used to stamp the wax on their letters or envelopes were carefully designed and carved. Every prelate had an official ring; and every real or specious gentleman flaunted at least one ring on his hands. Those who cater to human vanity seldom starve.

Cameos—small reliefs on precious material—were popular among the rich. Henry III of England had a “great cameo” valued at £ 200 ($40,000); Baldwin II brought a still more celebrated cameo from Constantinople to house it at Paris in Sainte Chapelle. Ivory was painstakingly carved throughout the Middle Ages: combs, boxes, handles, drinking horns, icons, book covers, diptychs and triptychs, episcopal staffs and croziers, reliquaries, shrines…. Astonishingly close to perfection is a thirteenth-century ivory group in the Louvre depicting the Descent from the Cross. Towards the end of that century romance and humor gained upon piety, and delicate carvings of sometimes very delicate scenes appeared on mirror cases and toilet boxes designed for ladies who could not be pious all the time.

Ivory was one of many materials used for inlay, which the Italians called intarsia (from the Latin interserere, insert), and the French termed marquetry (marquer, to mark). Wood itself might be used as an inlay in other woods: a design was chiseled into a block of wood, and other woods were pressed and glued into the design. One of the more recondite medieval arts was niello (Latin nigellus, black)—inlaying an incised metal surface with a black paste composed of silver, copper, sulphur, and lead; when the inlay hardened, the surface was filed till the silver in the mixture shone. From this technique, in the fifteenth century, Finiguerra would develop copperplate engraving.

The ceramic arts matured again out of industrial pottery as the returning Crusaders aroused Europe from the Dark Ages. Cloisonné enamel entered the West from Byzantium in the eighth century. In the twelfth a plaque representing the Last Judgment* gave an excellent example of champlevé; i.e., the spaces between the lines of the design were hollowed out into a copper ground, and the depressions were filled with enamel paste. Limoges, in France, had made enameled wares since the third century; in the twelfth it was the chief center, in the West, of champlevé and cloisonné. In the thirteenth century Moorish potters in Christian Spain coated clay vessels with an opaque tin glaze or enamel as a base for painted decoration; in the fifteenth century Italian merchants imported such wares from Spain in Major can trading ships, and called the material majolica, changing r to l in their melodious way.

The art of glass, so nearly perfected in ancient Rome, returned to Venice from Egypt and Byzantium. As early as 1024 we hear of twelve phiolarii there, whose products were so varied that the government took the industry under its protection, and voted the title “gentlemen” to glassmakers. In 1278 the glassworkers were removed to a special quarter on the island of Murano, partly for safety, partly for secrecy; strict laws were passed forbidding Venetian glassmakers to go abroad, or to reveal the esoteric techniques of their art. From that “foot of earth” the Venetians for four centuries dominated the art and industry of glass in the Western world. Enameling and gilding of glass were highly developed; Olivo de Venezia made textiles of glass; and Murano poured out glass mosaic, beads, phials, beakers, tableware, even glass mirrors, which in the thirteenth century began to replace mirrors of polished steel. France, England, and Germany also made glass in this period, but almost entirely for industrial use; the stained glass of the cathedrals was a brilliant exception.

Women have always received less credit in histories of art than they deserved. The adornment of the person and the home are precious elements in the art of life; and the work of women in dress design, interior decoration, embroidery, drapery, and tapestry has contributed more than most arts to that often unconscious pleasure which we derive from the intimate and silent presence of beautiful things. Delicate tissues deftly woven, and welcome to sight or touch, were highly prized in the Age of Faith; they clothed altars, relics, sacred vessels, priests, and men and women of high estate; and they themselves were wrapped in soft, thin paper which took from them its “tissue paper” name. In the thirteenth century France and England dethroned Constantinople as the chief producer of artistic embroidery; we hear of embroiderers’ guilds in Paris in 1258; and Matthew Paris, under the year 1246, tells how Pope Innocent IV was struck by the gold-embroidered vestments of English prelates visiting Rome, and ordered such opus anglicanumfor his copes and chasubles. Some ecclesiastical garments were so heavy with jewels, gold thread, and small enamel plaques that the priest so robed could hardly walk.6 An American millionaire paid $60,000 for an ecclesiastical vestment known as the Cope of Ascoli.*The most famous of medieval embroideries was the “dalmatic of Charlemagne”; it was believed to be a product of Dalmatia, but was probably a Byzantine work of the twelfth century; it is now one of the most precious objects in the treasury of the Vatican.

In France and England embroidered hangings or tapestries took the place of paintings, especially in public buildings. Their full display was reserved for festal days; then they were hung under the arches of church bays, and in the streets, and on processional floats. Usually they were woven of wool and silk by the “tirewomen” or maids of feudal châteaux under the superintendence of the chatelaine; many were woven by nuns, some by monks. Tapestries made no pretense to rival the subtler qualities of painting; they were to be seen from some distance, and had to sacrifice nicety of line and shading to clarity of figure and brilliance and permanence of color. They commemorated an historical event or a famous legend, or cheered gloomy interiors with representations of landscapes, flowers, or the sea. Tapestries are mentioned as early as the tenth century in France, but the oldest extant full specimens hardly antedate the fourteenth. Florence in Italy, Chinchilla in Spain, Poitiers, Arras, and Lille in France, led the West in the art of tapestry and rugs. The world-renowned Bayeux tapestries were not strictly such, since their design was embroidered upon the surface instead of forming part of the weave. They derive their name from the cathedral of Bayeux that long housed them; tradition ascribed them to William the Conqueror’s Queen Matilda and the ladies of her Norman court; but ungallant scholarship prefers an anonymous origin and a later date.8 They rival the chronicles as an authority for the Norman Conquest. Upon a strip of brown linen nineteen inches wide and seventy-one yards long, sixty scenes show in procession the preparation for the invasion, the Norse vessels cleaving the Channel with high and figured prows, the wild battle of Hastings, the transfixing and death of Harold, the rout of the Anglo-Saxon troops, the triumph of blessed force. These tapestries are impressive examples of patient needlework, but they are not among the finer products of their kind. In 1803 Napoleon used them as propaganda to rouse the French to invade England;9but he neglected to secure the blessing of the gods.

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