Medieval artistic practice: Precursors in medieval paint technology

Marie Louise Sauerberg, Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Paint technology of the 15th and 16th centuries has many precursors in the preceding centuries. This talk explored the premise by focussing on just a few aspects of analogues techniques: oil as binding media, and matt blues. Furthermore, new findings with regard to original varnishes were presented. Technical examinations of medieval polychrome works of art reveal an extraordinary awareness of various surfaces and their reflective qualities. Given the rarity of medieval painting in England, comparative material is sought in surviving material from Northern Europe, especially Scandinavia.

Painting with oil as a binding medium has been demonstrated to be well understood by the late 12th century, as can be seen with the crucifix from Hemse Church, on Gotland in Sweden. By the 13th century oil painting was widespread throughout northern Europe. Linseed oil seemed to have been the drying oil of choice, and it has been identified by Raymond White on many occasions in medieval art. In fact, the pursuit of the origin of oil as a binder seems limited as much by the scarcity of surviving objects as the reliability of organic analysis of them.

Examples of azurite in an aqueous binding medium date back at least to the 13th century. By the late 14th century examples of matt brilliant blue are abundant, for instance in two English examples: the background on the tester over the tomb of the Black Prince (c.1376), and later that over the tomb of Henry IV (c.1413) and his second wife Joan of Navarre (c.1435). Numerous examples across Europe show an unbroken line of this type of blue, so often used from backgrounds in Tudor portraits, such as were recently uncovered on the portraits of Richard III and Edward IV, now in the Society of Antiquaries. Many blue pigments loose their lustre and brilliance in oil, and thus it is suggested that by employing an aqueous binder, which retains it, the medieval craftsman made a virtue of a technical problem, resulting in a solution practised for centuries.

Recently, technical examinations of medieval objects have found a curious use of varnish as an intermediary layer. Extant examples include the frontal from Skaun Church, Norway (c. 1250), Westminster Retable (c. 1260-70), the wall paintings in the South transept in Westminster Abbey (c. 1300), and the wall paintings in the Byward Tower (c. 1380). In all cases, discrete areas of paint were found on top of the varnish, where passages seemed either to have been further worked up or painted in their entirety. Discoveries such is this give a clear indication of the many refined ways of juxtaposing surface qualities that were exploited by the medieval painter.

Although medieval art often survives in a fragmented and strongly altered state, scientific investigations reveal highly specialised crafts, with an arsenal of techniques, most of which appear to be of much longer traditions.

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