Friday, May 22, 2015

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 11 - The Aesthetics of Armour

  Tombs were functional objects. They had a job to do and to do that job they had to look good. Whether that job was to inspire the congregations to effusions of piety to help the departed in the afterlife, or to emphasise the worldly significance of the commemorated, and his heirs, within their community, the tombs had to be impressive and pleasing to the eye.
  The tombs of knights, as we have mentioned before, always displayed the latest in armour and military accoutrements. It was part of the code. During the period when effigy tombs were in their heyday, the nature of armour and military equipment was changing rapidly. Some of this was no doubt entirely practical as techniques of warfare changed. Armour became more defensive. Some of it may also relate to other changes discussed in earlier posts: competitive social stratification exemplified in tomb fashions themselves, heraldry, eating, clothing, architecture and status markers in general.
  When large military effigies started appearing in the 13th and early 14th centuries, that standard suit of armour for the knightly classes was a full suit of chain mail, over which was worn a long floppy surcoat. This was supposedly a practical measure developed for the Crusades, with the surcoat keeping off the beating sun and useful for displaying the sign of the cross so that the travelling crusader was not mistaken for a vagabond and treated accordingly.

  The above image is drawn after an image in a late 12th century manuscript from Bavaria in the Vatican library and depicts Friedrich Barbarossa as a crusader, identified as such by the large cross on his shield and surcoat. The crusader outfit exemplified the active life as a road to virtue and salvation (a bit of political self-justification, I fear, on the part of Western Christianity), so the depiction of a recently deceased in active, crusading mode was probably yet another reminder of liminality, purgatory and the process of getting the dead to their eternal reward, which I have been banging on about incessantly.

  Two early 14th century examples in Exeter Cathedral  show the energetic style of chain mail knightly effigies. Their legs are crossed in an active way, suggesting stress and motion. Their torsos are twisted as they grab for their sword handles. Their heads are covered with their chain mail hoods, ready for battle, not uncovered in prayer. They are in action.
  The fact that they are crosslegged and in fighting mood does not mean that they were actually crusaders. It's one of the many literalisations of metaphor found in medieval art. All these iconographic signs embody an idea; a concept of the active Christian life. So get praying, people, and help these boys on their way. Same old message.

  There is also something rather masculine and macho and, well, sexy about this imaging. The surcoat drapes open to show a bit of leg. The figure is lying down but in an energetic mode. There are lions and other tough beasties around the figure. It is a fully three dimensional sculptural entity in which totality of form, the shape and movement, define the entity. The picture above is an odd angle on the figures of a 13th century knight and lady from Bedale, Yorkshire but it shows what I mean.

  The imagery also translates into two dimensions, as in this brass to Sir Robert de Septvans from Chartham in Kent. He still has the active stance, but his head is bared (as it is in the Bedale tomb above but you can't see it from that angle) and his hands are in prayer. His armour and sword belt are meticulously portrayed. I don't know whether men of that time actually wore their hair in bouffant curls, but they were always drawn that way. It comes across as as a sort of androgynous tough image that was much drawn upon by the pre-Raphaelites.

  This effigy in East Harlsey church, Yorkshire, shows this style of effigy in three dimensions. The legs are still crossed, the drapery still cascades open, but the pose is more restful, although alert, the head is bare and the hands are in prayer. It is not a picture of a corpse. The figure has life and is fully sculptural. If the stone that the figure was carved from is fine grained, then the most precise details of the armour and accoutrements can still be seen, even though the colouring which was once on these figures has disappeared. They have been much studied by re-enactment enthusiasts.

  If the underlying stone is coarse, the detailing may have been added by surface treatment, such as covering the effigy in gesso and imprinting designs before colouring it. The detail may have become lost, especially if it has been out in the weather as appears to be the case with this knight from Routh, Yorkshire, but the underlying vigorous sculptural form is still there. These figures still have character, even in very damaged state.

  Even an elegant looking tomb may lack surface detail. There is no depiction of the actual mail on what survives if this effigy from Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire, but it is most likely that it had surface treatment and colouring in its original form. He still cuts a striking figure.

  Wooden effigies were even more dependent on the surface treatment for their detailing, and this was highly destructible. These two wooden effigies from Allerton Mauleverer church in Yorkshire are little more than cores, lacking intricate surface detail, but they still display the distinctive general shape of the two styles of crosslegged knightly effigies. The one in the foreground holds his shield and reaches for his sword in a twisted pose; that in the background lies reposefully with his hands in prayer.
  I suspect that it is the underlying aesthetic quality of the form of these early knightly effigies that has help preserve many of them that are actually in quite poor condition. Even if they have been out in the rain, buried underground in the churchyard or upside down under the floor, they have retained a striking presence. They are the essence of medieval romantic.

  Towards the mid 14th century, armour began to change from mail to plate. Initially the process essentially involved adding plate protection to the arms and legs as well as helmets. These things all have technical names but we won't worry too much about that here. The surcoats, or jupons, became shorter and just covered the mail shirt. I guess it's hard to cross your legs while wearing plate armour on them, and probably difficult to depict it convincingly. Crosslegged knightly effigies disappeared.
  There was a tendency at this stage to depict figures, in manuscript paintings and in sculptures, in mannered poses with a sinuous body shape. I'm sure that people didn't actually walk around like that; they just drew them that way. The tomb effigies, like the one from Bedale in Yorkshire above, retained this lively curve through the body in a relaxed, supine position.

  The brass of a 14th century knight in Aldborough church, Yorkshire, displays that little mincing flick of the hips along with some wicked brass studs on his legs. Shields had also become shorter, allowing that bit of body wiggle to be displayed.

  By the end of the 14th and early 15th century plate armour extended from neck to toe, with only the aventail hanging from the helmet over the shoulders being made of mail. This forced the whole body into a rigid posture. The shape of the torso was defined less by the shape of the human form inside and more by the awkward and exaggerated outlines of the body armour. The example above is from Swine in Yorkshire, and has lost its arms, which shows the narrow waist and bulging thorax imposed on the chap by his armour. They were not done this way because the carvers had forgotten how to depict the human form, but because they were basically depicting a suit of armour.

  By the time that the neck was also encased in plate, the poor knight was stranded on his back like an inverted turtle. The only bit of human being visible is generally the face and the whole depiction, including the tough, droopy moustache, has become very stereotyped. I blame the Black Prince, or at least the makers of his tomb. In the above example from Chichester Cathedral the knight and his lady are depicted holding hands, a rather sweet gesture sometimes found on three dimensional tombs and brasses of this era. The lady's body is slightly turned in order to reach her encased husband.

  This era of plate armour coincided with the increasing use of alabaster for tombs, a relatively soft, fine grained stone that allowed to the carving of intricate detail. The effigies may have lost their colouring, but the detail survives as it was not dependent upon surface treatment. The above example is one of several from Harewood in Yorkshire. Sword belts were chunky but elaborately detailed. The articulated fingers of his gauntlets are carefully displayed. His SS livery collar is a particularly fancy one. The band around his helmet is detailed and his head rests on a lifelike depiction of his crest, a horse's head. Rather than being a sculptural and lively depiction of the human form, it has become a stiff and stereotyped shape, based on a suit of plate armour, in which many messages can be encoded through the complexity of the surface adornment.

  Nonetheless the figures could exude a certain rugged masculinity, whether depicted in stone, alabaster or brass, as in this rubbing of a brass effigy from Harpham, Yorkshire. The only problem with the brasses is it always looks as if their spurs are tangled up.

  By the later 15th century the armour itself was becoming fiddly and complicated, with multiple hinged and jointed plates and extra protective pieces. The figures really look like a depiction of the latest military technology rather than something that relates to a former human being. The proportions are starting to look a bit drastic as well. Can you really fit the waist of a burly knight into that tightly cinched shape? Victorian ladies' corsets had nothing on it. This alabaster figure is from Halsham in Yorkshire. And yes, he is lying on somebody else's tomb slab with a brass indent in it. Something else for another day.

  Encase the head in the late 15th century fashionable salade helmet, as on this tomb from Beaumaris in Wales, and you have something rather like a medieval robot. The material is beautiful and the detail is intricate, but the sculptural form is stereotyped and inelegant.

  A trend of about this time, particularly noticeable in brasses, was the exaggeration of certain features of the armour. Yes, they did have heavier duty protection for their shoulders and elbows, but this depiction from Howden church in Yorkshire makes them look enormous and somewhat unworkable. The cinched in waist is so tight the poor chap would have been unable to breathe, let alone clobber people. His pointed footwear in peculiarly long. And yes, his spurs are tangled together. But I guess he's quite a handsome bloke, in a slightly anatomically peculiar kind of way. He doesn't look like he is about to fight his way through the heathen in the active Christian life; more like those ceremonial suits of armour propped up in the castle hall.

  This fellow, an early 16th century depiction from Roxby in Yorkshire, shows much the same characteristics of armour and anatomical disproportion. This difference is he is plain plug ugly. One does suspect that the crafters of brasses had become less skilful in their art.
  Once you get to post-Reformation monuments, many human figures were depicted, not in the reposeful, liminal, supine posture but as if they were alive; resting on one elbow or kneeling at a prayer desk. Try doing that in a suit of armour. The sculptors seem to have given up on any attempt at gracefulness or movement and the figures are as rigid as sticks and look very uncomfortable.
  Are these changes in depiction anything other than vagaries of fashion? It seems that there is a changing conception, from the depiction of a knightly ideal with generic qualities of virtue displayed through the active life, to the concept of an inanimate symbolic object, the suit of armour, adorned with surface objects that signify the subject's identity, affiliations and status. Both can be aesthetically pleasing, but in different ways. The earlier figures have their bold, lively forms; the later ones their delicacy and intricacy of detail.
  Neither style survives in their original form. Loss of gesso and paint and gilding, loss of detail and colour means they are pale shadows of their former selves. They have been scrubbed back to later centuries' concept of proper mortuary sculpture. Nevertheless they have certain aesthetic characteristics which have caused them to be preserved, because in their decay they are beautiful.


Unknown said...

The medieval suit of armour seems to be used in the wars by the warriors.

Unknown said...

The medieval armour would be the most appropriate thing I would like to have in my medieval collection.