From then to now

It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.

Columbines (aquilegia vulgaris) decorate this page from the Isabella Breviary, 1497, Flemish. MS18851, f.124

And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.

Irises decorating the Bourdichon Hours, early 16th century, French.. MS 18855, f.33

Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).

Iris from illuminated page of The Huth Book of Hours. 1485-1490 Flemish. MS 38216, f130v

I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.

Irises bringing some colour to the raised vegetable beds at the local community plot.

This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.

There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.

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Stealing from the past – painting Silvia

Agnes-Ashe-clover-pink-close-up copyLiving in East Anglia there are many parish churches that still retain both medieval and Victorian church art. Painted rood screens and colourful stained glass provide a wealth of inspiration for my silk scarf designs.

I like to steal ideas for motifs and also re-work various colour combinations. Often I will just use a tiny part of a much larger stained glass window whether its from a Tudor pane or details ornamenting a Victorian light.

And, once I have created the whole design and transferred it to the silk I then steal colour combinations from a completely different medium such as the oil on board paintings of local medieval rood screens.

The finished work may not obviously look either Victorian or medieval in style, but if you look closely you may be able to spot a motif or two and recognise the ‘dirty pinks’ from the painting of St Lawrence’s robe.Silvia-square

Available from my online shop Agnes Ashe.

Art for Christmas cards anyone?

st-mark-preaching-in-alexandria-gentile-and-giovanni-bellini

Years ago I received a charity Christmas card which featured what I took to be ‘The Three Wise Men’. Last month, at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, I saw the very large Gentile and Giovanni Bellini painting, ‘St Mark Preaching in Alexandria’. This painting had originally been started by Gentile Bellini, but following his death it was completed by his brother Giovanni. It is a fascinating Renaissance Venetians’ version of an imagined Islamic Alexandria.

St Mark preaching in Alexandria by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini
‘St Mark Preaching in Alexandria’ by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Oil painting circa 1504-07. 3.47m x 7.7m Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

Whilst photographing some of the captivating detail, displaying both the vivid imagination and skill of the Bellini brothers, I noticed three bystanders in non-Western dress. Here were my Christmas card kings.

imagined-egyptians-bellini

There has also been a fashion for embossed, golden cards for Christmas. I’m not sure if this version of St Peter by Crivelli has been used yet, but the relief work depicting the keys and crosier could easily be embossed. Perhaps St Peter is looking a touch too joyless for Christmas.

Madonna and Child with Saints, San Domenico Triptych
St Peter part of the Madonna and Child with Saints, San Domenico Triptych. Carlo Crivelli 1482 Tempera and oil on wood. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

A small amount of gilt and glitz is acceptable at Christmas, but I think I prefer the more muted colours of frescoes. How about this fourteenth century painting by Simone da Corbetta. It fits the bill visually and would appeal more to a 21st century sensibility with the wan-faced, tall and thin female saints.

Simone da Corbetta part of Madonna and Child
Part of medieval painting – Madonna and Child (not shown), St. Catherine, St. Ursula, St. George and the donor Théodorico da Coira by Simone da Corbetta. 1382 Fresco transferred to canvas (235cm x 297cm) now at the Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.

And, finally, there’s plenty of inspirational, ornate sculptural work hidden away in churches. However, church interiors are frequently gloomy and a tripod (not popular with guides and security) is often required to capture an interesting, potential Christmas card image in focus or, maybe, not quite!

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan
The Virgin Mary in Heaven – detail of relief in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

A Wool Church – Holy Trinity, Long Melford, Suffolk

raphaelFor anyone seriously interested in exquisite fifteenth-century stained glass then Long Melford in Suffolk is well worth a visit.

wool-church-long-melford-stained-glass

Finished in 1484 the Great Church of the Holy Trinity contains a collection of some of the finest medieval glass in the country including a Lily Crucifix image and a rare roundel featuring a three hares motif.

suffolk-wool-church-holy-trinity-long-melfordHoly Trinity is one of Suffolk’s so-called ‘Wool churches’ as the erection of these buildings was funded from the profits of the medieval wool-trade. Advantaged Suffolk landowners prospered from the successful export of high quality wool and wool cloth to continental Europe and invested their profits building fine churches in the hope of facilitating a speedy journey for their soul through purgatory to heaven.

The medieval glass we see today filling the large ground floor windows features portraits of donors. These portraits would originally have glazed the upper, smaller, clerestory windows. For about 100 years during the 19th century some of this glass was used to reglaze the east window (1828) with more being installed in the west windows during 1862/3, however today these windows are clear. The present arrangement of the medieval glass, all along the north aisle, was carried out during the late 1940s.

across-to-north-aisle-holy-trinity-long-melford
Across the nave to the north aisle windows now glazed with the medieval glass that was originally in the clerestory windows.

The height of these lofty clerestory windows helped protect the glass from the various destructive onslaughts that occurred during the 16th and 17th centuries. The lost/destroyed stained glass would have consisted of biblical images and religious themes popular in the medieval period and similar to those of the Victorian glass found in the south aisle windows today.

victorian-windows-long-melfordIn the medieval period clerestory windows were filled with a variety of images from Old Testament prophets and local church dignitaries to ethereal representations of angels and archangels. Amongst the many surviving medieval donor portraits (to be explored in a separate post) there are two archangels.

Here, at Holy Trinity it is the archangels St Gabriel and St Raphael that have survived. They are both exquisitely painted displaying subtle and detailed work using silver nitrate stain. They have been painted by a craftsman that understood how to use the translucent quality of his materials to achieve an unearthly quality, literally letting the spirit/light shine through.

There is another little gem hidden away in the Clopton Chantry Chapel. One of only five examples in England, the east window of the chapel bears a ‘Lily Crucifix’ dated from 1350. Christ is not on the Cross, but is instead crucified on white lilies. The blue background and the white lily represent the Virgin Mary and the motif symbolises the joint suffering of Mary and Jesus.

Finally, an unusual and rare three hares roundel has been placed above the north door. This motif is believed to have come to Europe from perhaps as far away as China via the Silk Road. If you look carefully you can see that although there are only three ears each of the three hares has two ears!

 

 

Captured but not criminal – the fascinating Marabou Stork and friends

Imprisoned-not-criminal

Pelican in her Piety. Mid 15th-century French manuscript illumination. MMW 10 B 25, f32r. Meermanno Museum, Holland.
Pelican in her Piety. Mid 15th-century French manuscript illumination. MMW 10 B 25, f32r.
Meermanno Museum, Holland.
Recently I’ve been looking at medieval sculptural details and one of the more interesting themes is ‘The Pelican in her Piety’. When food was scarce the female pelican was thought to peck her own breast until it bled in order to feed blood to her young. This Christian imagery of ‘The Pelican in her Piety’ would have been a familiar symbol across medieval Europe representing the self-sacrifice of Christ’s Passion.

It is intriguing to examine fifteenth-century English interpretations depicting pelicans despite these birds not being found naturally in the British Isles. The above sculptural representations of this theme can be seen in the Church of St Peter and St Paul in the South Norfolk village of East Harling. Searching out local, regional work is one of the pleasures of investigating the creative skills and imagination of the medieval artisan.

It is also thought-provoking to consider the dispersal and then acceptance of new ideas and symbols such as the pious pelican. Perhaps one route of transmission occurred through illuminated books. All kinds of real and imaginary combinations decorate their pages. This intriguing image of an ape riding a crane is from a fourteenth-century Flemish Psalter.

ape riding a crane
Ape riding a crane.
MS Douce 5 – f211v
Flemish Psalter probably from Ghent. c1320-30.
Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Of course, monks working away illuminating manuscripts in a medieval scriptorium in Europe may have seen a crane or a stork or even a pelican in the wild, but ever since the Ancient Egyptians there is evidence of humans capturing and keeping birds in cages. Nowadays, more often than not it is the rare and endangered birds that are kept not in cages, but in wildlife sanctuaries in attempts to save their species.

These birds – storks, cranes (members of the Great Crane Project) and ibises form part of a collection at the Pensthorpe Natural Park in North Norfolk. Sadly though there are no pelicans not even the Dalmatian Pelican whose current status is listed as vulnerable.

Reading round the bird forums on the Internet I saw somebody describe these stunning birds as ‘deeply ugly’, surely not! I agree they are, along with herons, not tiny, sweet and cuddly, but to me they appear, with a little visual imagination, to have flown in from the Cretaceous Period. They bring with them a hint of early Earth drama with their pterodactyl-like appearance.

Sharing ways of working, sharing inspiration

Guild-of-Silk-Painters-JournalLast weekend I was very pleased when the Summer 2015 edition of the International Journal of the Guild of Silk Painters arrived in the post. It’s a great little journal that allows a widely spread collective of artist/artisan silk painters to keep in touch, share their inspiration and publicise personal and group work.

Guild-article-Ornate-and-Beautiful

I was especially pleased as it included my article about the inspirational medieval rood screens of East Anglia. It was interesting to see photographs of my work in print as opposed to on a backlit screen, and I must say the colour printing was excellent and very true to life. It made me wonder why so often colours in clothing catalogues are wildly wrong. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s down to the lighting.

Guild-article-four-page-spread

The scarf pictured on the frame (above) has since been sold, but this one, Hilda mouse, is currently available and we took some time to get the shot and get those colours right!

Damselflies and snails, damsels and devils

Detail from the miniature of the Adoration of the Magi from the Huth Hours, Flemish, c1485. Add. MS 38126 f.83v
Detail from the miniature of the Adoration of the Magi from the Huth Hours, Flemish, c1485.
Add. MS 38126 f.83v
In this third and final visit to the Huth Hours illuminated manuscript (Part I and Part II here) we find that it was not only flowers and birds that have been carefully illustrated. The Master artist, Simon Marmion, along with the other Flemish artisans who painted this fascinating Books of Hours, depicted the delicate damselfly

along with the odd snail or two

and a nuisance fly.

And, finally I couldn’t leave the Huth Hours without showing at least one saint and I’ve chosen St Anthony. This representation of the Temptation of St Anthony shows a very green, Lowlands countryside and the devil dressed as a lady of the late-fifteenth century (see the clawed foot poking out from under the cloth of gold gown). Perhaps an Egyptian desert landscape and historically attired devil temptress would have been too distracting for the devotions of the Northern European reader of this Book of Hours.

In the footsteps of medieval artisans – The Huth Hours

Starlings-the-next-generationThe beautiful illuminated Flemish manuscript, the Huth Hours (c.1485), not only has delightful representations of flowers decorating its margins, but every now and then a bird or animal is depicted within the ornamentation.

Thought to have been produced in either Ghent or Bruges over five hundred and thirty years ago, the Huth Hours contains many miniatures as well as pages of text with decorated borders. It is considered to be the work of Simon Marmion and his workshop in collaboration with other unnamed Master artisans.

Five hundred and thirty years ago sounds a long time to us, but it’s less than a blink of an eye for Mother Nature. Spying birds in the finely decorated margins such as starlings and great tits, and then spying the same species in my back garden evoked a wistful sigh from me as I contemplated the cycling of the years and the passing of the centuries.

Medieval inspiration – The Huth Hours

Bluebell-beautiful-shapeWhen I was a teenager my family visited El Escorial, Spain. It was a memorable experience as apart from queuing down a marble staircase to visit the Pantheon of the Kings, it was the first time I saw a medieval illuminated manuscript. In fact, the library of El Escorial now, like many of the world’s great libraries, shares its collection online and thanks to digitisation we can all scrutinise these exquisitely decorated manuscripts.

I’ve recently been looking for inspiration from the collection of illuminated manuscripts held by the British Library. And, a Flemish Book of Hours, the Huth Hours (Add. MS 38126), created some time between 1485 and 1490 contains a selection of beautiful wild flower and bird illustrations. These strawberry flowers and bluebells caught my attention.

Repeating a simple bluebell shape, but

not entirely sure about the colours so far – will probably add a little brown.

Guild of St George Alderman builds Dragon Hall

Medieval-carved-dragon-on-arch-Dragon-Hall

Originally, a hall house in Old Barge Yard, Norwich, Dragon Hall was remodelled and extended during the 15th century by successful merchant, alderman and member of Norwich’s Guild of St George, Robert Toppes (c.1405-1467). Toppes wanted a building that was both a showroom and a warehouse with easy access to the River Wensum. This striking timber-framed building was known then as Splytts and the main showroom was the magnificent first floor hall (85ft by 21ft). Here merchant Toppes would have laid out his fine woollen cloth, the famous worsted wool, to be traded and exported to Europe. And, at the same time he would have set out his recent imports from the Continent to sell to his Norwich clients.

dragon hall model
Dragon Hall model showing how the main showroom/hall may have been used to display and trade woollen cloth during the 15th century.

crown post timbers
The crown-post roof of the main hall.
Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich.

The showroom was made impressive by a high crown-post roof displaying arched braces and tie-beams. And, in the spandrel of one tie-beam we can still see the fearsome carved dragon (top photograph) showing traces of medieval coloured paint. Some of the roof timbers we see today are original 15th-century beams and these too would have been painted. The showroom/hall was lit by three projecting full-height windows on the west side and one similar large window on the east, river side, of the building. This would have been a bright, innovative, outstanding commercial space in its heyday.

Dragon Hall external east facade
East side of Dragon Hall, King St, Norwich showing the first floor full-height window.
Timber and brick 15th-century medieval trading hall originally known as Splytts.
c.1430s

Away from the showy hall the rib-vaulted, brick undercroft provided warehouse space.

brick built vaulted undercroft
The rib-vaulted undercroft provided a secure storage area.

Nowadays visiting Dragon Hall you can see the sensitive restoration (1979-1988) which has peeled back centuries of patchwork remodelling and, interestingly, at the same time leaves some very early reworking detail in place such as a three times altered doorway.

Ogee arch doorway, within rough segmental arch doorway now bricked up.
Ogee arch doorway, within rough segmental arch doorway now bricked up.

Blue Mildred goes pink

Pots-of-dyeJust thought I’d share my recent re-working of a design littered with medieval rood screen motifs. This time  the new colour combination is – pink!

Pink-again

I had originally painted a pale turquoise, mushroom and sage version (below left) and after a few sketches decided that a mostly pink with a few old gold highlights would make an attractive combination.

Mildred-Blue-ModelSketching-Pink-version


This scarf has now been steamed and is listed in my shop – Mildred Pink.



Adding-goldFirst-fill-nearly-finishedAdding-distressing-effect