Julia de Wolf Gibbs Addison.

Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages A Description of Mediaeval Workmanship in Several of the Departments of Applied Art, Together with Some Account of Special Artisans in the Early Renaissance online

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A Description of Mediaeval Workmanship in Several of the Departments
of Applied Art, Together with Some Account of Special Artisans in
the Early Renaissance



Author of "The Art of the Pitti Palace," "The Art of the National
Gallery," "Classic Myths in Art," etc.



The very general and keen interest in the revival of arts and crafts
in America is a sign full of promise and pleasure to those who
are working among the so-called minor arts. One reads at every
turn how greatly Ruskin and Morris have influenced handicraft: how
much these men and their co-workers have modified the appearance
of our streets and houses, our materials, textiles, utensils, and
all other useful things in which it is possible to shock or to
please the æsthetic taste, without otherwise affecting the value
of these articles for their destined purposes.

In this connection it is interesting to look into the past, particularly
to those centuries known as the Middle Ages, in which the handicrafts
flourished in special perfection, and to see for ourselves how
these crafts were pursued, and exactly what these arts really were.
Many people talk learnedly of the delightful revival of the arts
and crafts without having a very definite idea of the original
processes which are being restored to popular favour. William Morris
himself, although a great modern spirit, and reformer, felt the
necessity of a basis of historic knowledge in all workers. "I do
not think," he says, "that any man but one of the highest genius
could do anything in these days without much study of ancient art,
and even he would be much hindered if he lacked it." It is but
turning to the original sources, then, to examine the progress
of mediæval artistic crafts, and those sources are usually to be
found preserved for our edification in enormous volumes of plates,
inaccessible to most readers, and seldom with the kind of information
which the average person would enjoy. There are very few books
dealing with the arts and crafts of the olden time, which are adapted
to inform those who have no intention of practising such arts,
and yet who wish to understand and appreciate the examples which
they see in numerous museums or exhibitions, and in travelling
abroad. There are many of the arts and crafts which come under
the daily observation of the tourist, which make no impression
upon him and have no message for him, simply because he has never
considered the subject of their origin and construction. After
one has once studied the subject of historic carving, metal work,
embroidery, tapestry, or illumination, one can never fail to look
upon these things with intelligent interest and vastly increased

Until the middle of the nineteenth century art had been regarded
as a luxury for the rich dilettante, - the people heard little of
it, and thought less. The utensils and furniture of the middle class
were fashioned only with a view to utility; there was a popular belief
that beautiful things were expensive, and the thrifty housekeeper who
had no money to put into bric-à-brac never thought of such things as
an artistic lamp shade or a well-coloured sofa cushion. Decorative
art is well defined by Mr. Russell Sturgis: "Fine art applied to the
making beautiful or interesting that which is made for utilitarian

Many people have an impression that the more ornate an article
is, the more work has been lavished upon it. There never was a
more erroneous idea. The diligent polish in order to secure nice
plain surfaces, or the neat fitting of parts together, is infinitely
more difficult than adding a florid casting to conceal clumsy
workmanship. Of course certain forms of elaboration involve great
pains and labour; but the mere fact that a piece of work is decorated
does not show that it has cost any more in time and execution than if
it were plain, - frequently many hours have been saved by the device
of covering up defects with cheap ornament. How often one finds that
a simple chair with a plain back costs more than one which is
apparently elaborately carved! The reason is, that the plain one had
to be made out of a decent piece of wood, while the ornate one was
turned out of a poor piece, and then stamped with a pattern in order
to attract the attention from the inferior material of which it was
composed. The softer and poorer the wood, the deeper it was possible
to stamp it at a single blow. The same principle applies to
much work in metal. Flimsy bits of silverware stamped with cheap
designs of flowers or fruits are attached to surfaces badly finished,
while the work involved in making such a piece of plate with a
plain surface would increase its cost three or four times.

A craft may easily be practised without art, and still serve its
purpose; the alliance of the two is a means of giving pleasure
as well as serving utility. But it is a mistake to suppose that
because a design is artistic, its technical rendering is any the
less important. Frequently curious articles are palmed off on us,
and designated as "Arts and Crafts" ornaments, in which neither
art nor craft plays its full share. Art does not consist only in
original, unusual, or unfamiliar designs; craft does not mean hammering
silver so that the hammer marks shall show; the best art is that
which produces designs of grace and appropriateness, whether they
are strikingly new or not, and the best craftsman is so skilful
that he is able to go beyond the hammer marks, so to speak, and
to produce with the hammer a surface as smooth as, and far more
perfect than, that produced by an emery and burnisher. Some people
think that "Arts and Crafts" means a combination which allows of
poor work being concealed under a mask of æsthetic effect. Labour
should not go forth blindly without art, and art should not proceed
simply for the attainment of beauty without utility, - in other
words, there should be an alliance between labour and art.

One principle for which craftsmen should stand is
a respect for their own tools: a frank recognition of the methods
and implements employed in constructing any article. If the article
in question is a chair, and is really put together by means of
sockets and pegs, let these constructive necessities appear, and do
not try to disguise the means by which the result is to be attained.
Make the requisite feature a beauty instead of a disgrace.

It is amusing to see a New England farmer build a fence. He begins
with good cedar posts, - fine, thick, solid logs, which are at least
genuine, and handsome so far as a cedar post is capable of being
handsome. You think, "Ah, that will be a good unobjectionable fence."
But, behold, as soon as the posts are in position, he carefully lays
a flat plank vertically in front of each, so that the passer-by
may fancy that he has performed the feat of making a fence of flat
laths, thus going out of his way to conceal the one positive and
good-looking feature in his fence. He seems to have some furtive
dread of admitting that he has used the real article!

A bolt is to be affixed to a modern door. Instead of being applied
with a plate of iron or brass, in itself a decorative feature on
a blank space like that of the surface of a door, the carpenter
cuts a piece of wood out of the edge of the door, sinks the bolt
out of sight, so that nothing shall appear to view but a tiny
meaningless brass handle, and considers that he has performed a very
neat job. Compare this method with that of a mediæval locksmith,
and the result with his great iron bolt, and if you can not appreciate
the difference, both in principle and result, I should recommend a
course of historic art study until you are convinced. On the other
hand, it is not necessary to carry your artistry so far that you
build a fence of nothing but cedar logs touching one another, or that
you cover your entire door with a meander of wrought iron which
culminates in a small bolt. Enthusiastic followers of the Arts and
Crafts movement often go to morbid extremes. _Recognition_ of
material and method does not connote a _display_ of method and
material out of proportion to the demands of the article to be
constructed. As in other forms of culture, balance and sanity are
necessary, in order to produce a satisfactory result.

But when a craftsman is possessed of an æsthetic instinct and faculty,
he merits the congratulations offered to the students of Birmingham by
William Morris, when he told them that they were among the happiest
people in all civilization - "persons whose necessary daily work is
inseparable from their greatest pleasure."

A mediæval artist was usually a craftsman as well. He was not content
with furnishing designs alone, and then handing them over to men
whose hands were trained to their execution, but he took his own
designs and carried them out. Thus, the designer adapted his drawing
to the demands of his material and the craftsman was necessarily in
sympathy with the design since it was his own. The result was a harmony
of intention and execution which is often lacking when two men of
differing tastes produce one object. Lübke sums up the talents of
a mediæval artist as follows: "A painter could produce panels with
coats of arms for the military men of noble birth, and devotional
panels with an image of a saint or a conventionalized scene from
Scripture for that noble's wife. With the same brush and on a larger
panel he could produce a larger sacred picture for the convent
round the corner, and with finer pencil and more delicate touch
he could paint the vellum leaves of a missal;" and so on. If an
artistic earthenware platter was to be made, the painter turned
to his potter's wheel and to his kiln. If a filigree coronet was
wanted, he took up his tools for metal and jewelry work.

Redgrave lays down an excellent maxim for general guidance to designers
in arts other than legitimate picture making. He says: "The picture
must be independent of the material, the thought alone should govern
it; whereas in decoration the material must be one of the suggestors
of the thought, its use must govern the design." This shows the
difference between decoration and pictorial art.

One hears a great deal of the "conventional" in modern art talk. Just
what this means, few people who have the word in their vocabularies
really know. As Professor Moore defined it once, it does not apply
to an arbitrary theoretical system at all, but is instinctive. It
means obedience to the limits under which the artist works. The
really greatest art craftsmen of all have been those who have
recognized the limitations of the material which they employed. Some
of the cleverest have been beguiled by the fascination of overcoming
obstacles, into trying to make iron do the things appropriate only
to wood, or to force cast bronze into the similitude of a picture,
or to discount all the credit due to a fine piece of embroidery by
trying to make it appear like a painting. But these are the exotics;
they are the craftsmen who have been led astray by a false impulse,
who respect difficulty more than appropriateness, war rather than
peace! No elaborate and tortured piece of Cellini's work can compare
with the dignified glory of the Pala d'Oro; Ghiberti's gates in
Florence, though a marvellous _tour de force_, are not so satisfying
as the great corona candelabrum of Hildesheim. As a rule, we shall
find that mediæval craftsmen were better artists than those of the
Renaissance, for with facility in the use of material, comes always
the temptation to make it imitate some other material, thus losing
its individuality by a contortion which may be curious and interesting,
but out of place. We all enjoy seeing acrobats on the stage, but it
would be painful to see them curling in and out of our drawing-room

The true spirit which the Arts and Crafts is trying to inculcate
was found in Florence when the great artists turned their attention
to the manipulation of objects of daily use, Benvenuto Cellini being
willing to make salt-cellars, and Sansovino to work on inkstands, and
Donatello on picture frames, while Pollajuolo made candlesticks.
The more our leading artists realize the need of their attention
in the minor arts, the more nearly shall we attain to a genuine
alliance between the arts and the crafts.

To sum up the effect of this harmony between art and craft in the
Middle Ages, the Abbé Texier has said: "In those days art and
manufactures were blended and identified; art gained by this affinity
great practical facility, and manufacture much original beauty."
And then the value to the artist is almost incalculable. To spend
one's life in getting means on which to live is a waste of all
enjoyment. To use one's life as one goes along - to live every day
with pleasure in congenial occupation - that is the only thing worth
while. The life of a craftsman is a constant daily fulfilment of
the final ideal of the man who spends all his time and strength
in acquiring wealth so that some time (and he may never live to
see the day) he may be able to control his time and to use it as
pleases him. There is stored up capital represented in the life
of a man whose work is a recreation, and expressive of his own

In a book of this size it is not possible to treat of every art
or craft which engaged the skill of the mediæval workers. But at
some future time I hope to make a separate study of the ceramics,
glass in its various forms, the arts of engraving and printing, and
some of the many others which have added so much to the pleasure
and beauty of the civilized world.


I. Gold and Silver
II. Jewelry and Precious Stones
III. Enamel
IV. Other Metals
V. Tapestry
VI. Embroideries
VII. Sculpture in Stone (France and Italy)
VIII. Sculpture in Stone (England and Germany)
IX. Carving in Wood and Ivory
X. Inlay and Mosaic
XI. Illumination of Books


Examples of Ecclesiastical Metal Work
Crown of Charlemagne
Bernward's Cross and Candlesticks, Hildesheim
Bernward's Chalice, Hildesheim
Corona at Hildesheim. (detail)
Reliquary at Orvieto
Apostle spoons
Ivory Knife Handles, with Portraits of Queen Elizabeth and James I. Englis
The "Milkmaid Cup"
Saxon Brooch
The Tara Brooch
Shrine of the Bell of St. Patrick
The Treasure of Guerrazzar
Hebrew Ring
Crystal Flagons, St. Mark's, Venice
Sardonyx Cup, 11th Century, Venice
German Enamel, 13th Century
Enamelled Gold Book Cover, Siena
Detail; Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne
Finiguerra's Pax, Florence
Italian Enamelled Crozier, 14th Century
Wrought Iron Hinge, Frankfort
Biscornette's Doors at Paris
Wrought Iron from the Bargello, Florence
Moorish Keys, Seville
Armour. Showing Mail Developing into Plate
Damascened Helmet
Moorish Sword
Enamelled Suit of Armour
Brunelleschi's Competitive Panel
Ghiberti's Competitive Panel
Font at Hildesheim, 12th Century
Portrait Statuette of Peter Vischer
A Copper "Curfew"
Sanctuary Knocker, Durham Cathedral
Anglo-Saxon Crucifix of Lead
Detail, Bayeux Tapestry
Flemish Tapestry, "The Prodigal Son"
Tapestry, Representing Paris in the 15th Century
Embroidery on Canvas, 16th Century, South Kensington Museum
Detail of the Syon Cope
Dalmatic of Charlemagne
Embroidery, 15th Century, Cologne
Carved Capital from Ravenna
Pulpit of Nicola Pisano, Pisa
Tomb of the Son of St. Louis, St. Denis
Carvings around Choir Ambulatory, Chartres
Grotesque from Oxford, Popularly Known as "The Backbiter"
The "Beverly minstrels"
St. Lorenz Church, Nuremberg, Showing Adam Kraft's Pyx, and the Hanging
Medallion by Veit Stoss
Relief by Adam Kraft
Carved Box - wood Pyx, 14th Century
Miserere Stall; An Artisan at Work
Miserere Stall, Ely; Noah and the Dove
Miserere Stall; the Fate of the Ale-wife
Ivory Tabernacle, Ravenna
The Nativity; Ivory Carving
Pastoral Staff; Ivory, German, 12th Century
Ivory Mirror Case; Early 14th Century
Ivory Mirror Case, 1340
Chessman from Lewis
Marble Inlay from Lucca
Detail of Pavement, Baptistery, Florence
Detail of Pavement, Siena; "Fortune," by Pinturicchio
Ambo at Ravello; Specimen of Cosmati Mosaic
Mosaic from Ravenna; Theodora and Her Suite, 16th Century
Mosaic in Bas-relief, Naples
A Scribe at Work; 12th Century Manuscript
Detail from the Durham Book
Ivy Pattern, from a 14th Century French Manuscript
Mediæval Illumination
Caricature of a Bishop
Illumination by Gherart David of Bruges, 1498; St. Barbara
Choral Book, Siena
Detail from an Italian Choral Book




The worker in metals is usually called a smith, whether he be
coppersmith or goldsmith. The term is Saxon in origin, and is derived
from the expression "he that smiteth." Metal was usually wrought
by force of blows, except where the process of casting modified

Beaten work was soldered from the earliest times. Egyptians evidently
understood the use of solder, for the Hebrews obtained their knowledge
of such things from them, and in Isaiah xli. 7, occurs the passage:
"So the carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smootheth
with the hammer him that smote the anvil, saying, 'It is ready
for the soldering.'" In the Bible there are constant references
to such arts in metal work as prevail in our own times: "Of beaten
work made he the candlesticks," Exodus. In the ornaments of the
tabernacle, the artificer Bezaleel "made two cherubims of gold
beaten out of one piece made he them."

An account of gold being gathered in spite of vicissitudes
is given by Pliny: "Among the Dardoe the ants are as large as Egyptian
wolves, and cat coloured. The Indians gather the gold dust thrown up
by the ants, when they are sleeping in their holes in the Summer;
but if these animals wake, they pursue the Indians, and, though
mounted on the swiftest camels, overtake and tear them to pieces."

Another legend relates to the blessed St. Patrick, through whose
intercession special grace is supposed to have been granted to
all smiths. St. Patrick was a slave in his youth. An old legend
tells that one time a wild boar came rooting in the field, and
brought up a lump of gold; and Patrick brought it to a tinker,
and the tinker said, "It is nothing but solder. Give it here to
me." But then he brought it to a smith, and the smith told him it
was gold; and with that gold he bought his freedom. "And from that
time," continues the story, "the smiths have been lucky, taking
money every day, and never without work, but as for the tinkers,
every man's face is against them!"

In the Middle Ages the arts and crafts were generally protected by
the formation of guilds and fraternities. These bodies practically
exercised the right of patent over their professions, and infringements
could be more easily dealt with, and frauds more easily exposed, by
means of concerted effort on the part of the craftsmen. The goldsmiths
and silversmiths were thus protected in England and France, and in most
of the leading European art centres. The test of pure gold was made
by "six of the more discreet goldsmiths," who went about and
superintended the amount of alloy to be employed; "gold of the
standard of the touch of Paris" was the French term for metal of the
required purity. Any goldsmith using imitation stones or otherwise
falsifying in his profession was punished "by imprisonment and by
ransom at the King's pleasure." There were some complaints that
fraudulent workers "cover tin with silver so subtilely... that
the same cannot be discovered or separated, and so sell tin for
fine silver, to the great damage and deceipt of us." This state
of things finally led to the adoption of the Hall Mark, which is
still to be seen on every piece of silver, signifying that it has
been pronounced pure by the appointed authorities.

The goldsmiths of France absorbed several other auxiliary arts, and
were powerful and influential. In state processions the goldsmiths
had the first place of importance, and bore the royal canopy when
the King himself took part in the ceremony, carrying the shrine
of St. Genevieve also, when it was taken forth in great pageants.

In the quaint wording of the period, goldsmiths were forbidden to
gild or silver-plate any article made of copper or latten, unless
they left some part of the original exposed, "at the foot or some
other part,... to the intent that a man may see whereof the thing
is made for to eschew the deceipt aforesaid." This law was enacted
in 1404.

Many of the great art schools of the Middle Ages were established
in connection with the numerous monasteries scattered through all
the European countries and in England. The Rule of St. Benedict
rings true concerning the proper consecration of an artist: "If
there be artists in the monastery, let them exercise their crafts
with all humility and reverence, provided the abbot shall have
ordered them. But if any of them be proud of the skill he hath in
his craft, because he thereby seemeth to gain something for the
monastery, let him be removed from it and not exercise it again,
unless, after humbling himself, the abbot shall permit him." Craft
without graft was the keynote of mediæval art.

King Alfred had a monastic art school at Athelney, in which he had
collected "monks of all kinds from every quarter." This accounts
for the Greek type of work turned out at this time, and very likely
for Italian influences in early British art. The king was active in
craft work himself, for Asser tells us that he "continued, during
his frequent wars, to teach his workers in gold and artificers of
all kinds."

The quaint old encyclopædia of Bartholomew Anglicus, called, "The
Properties of Things," defines gold and silver in an original way,
according to the beliefs of this writer's day. He says of gold,
that "in the composition there is more sadness of brimstone than
of air and moisture of quicksilver, and therefore gold is more
sad and heavy than silver." Of silver he remarks, "Though silver
be white yet it maketh black lines and strakes in the body that
is scored therewith."

Marco Polo says that in the province of Carazan "the rivers yield
great quantities of washed gold, and also that which is solid, and
on the mountains they find gold in the vein, and they give one
pound of gold for six of silver."

Workers in gold or silver usually employ one of two methods - casting
or beating, combined with delicacy of finish, chasing, and polishing.
The technical processes are interestingly described by the writers
of the old treatises on divers arts. In the earliest of these, by
the monk Theophilus, in the eleventh century, we have most graphic
accounts of processes very similar to those now in use. The naïve
monastic instructor, in his preface, exhorts his followers to honesty
and zeal in their good works. "Skilful in the arts let no one glorify
himself," say Theophilus, "as if received from himself, and not from
elsewhere; but let him be thankful humbly in the Lord, from whom all
things are received." He then advises the craftsman earnestly to
study the book which follows, telling him of the riches of instruction
therein to be found; "you will there find out whatever... Tuscany
knows of mosaic work, or in variety of enamels, whatever Arabia
shows forth in work of fusion, ductility or chasing, whatever Italy
ornaments with gold... whatever France loves in a costly variety
of windows; whatever industrious Germany approves in work of gold,
silver or copper, and iron, of woods and of stones." No wonder the
authorities are lost in conjecture as to the native place of the
versatile Theophilus! After promising all these delightful things,
the good old monk continues, "Act therefore, well intentioned man,...
hasten to complete with all the study of thy mind, those things which
are still wanting among the utensils of the House of the Lord," and
he enumerates the various pieces of church plate in use in the Middle

Directions are given by Theophilus for the workroom, the benches

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Online LibraryJulia de Wolf Gibbs AddisonArts and Crafts in the Middle Ages A Description of Mediaeval Workmanship in Several of the Departments of Applied Art, Together with Some Account of Special Artisans in the Early Renaissance → online text (page 1 of 22)