Ecclesiastical Art - Wood-carving and Carvers - Primitive character of the Furniture of Castles and Mansions - Huchiers - Menuisiers - A Typical Bedroom - Dinanderie - Wood-work and panelling - Chest, banc, bahut, sideboard, dressoir, credence, table and chair - Embroideries - Definition of Chambre - Textiles and Tapestries - Ecclesiastical hangings - Tapestry-weavers - Tapestry of Philip the Bold - Flemish Looms - Cordovan and Flemish Leathers - Goldsmith's Work - Glass and Glass-workers - Guilds of St. Luke.
IN the turbulent days of the Middle Ages, the goods of the Church were the only ones respected, and, sometimes, not even those. The castles afforded protection to those in their immediate vicinity, but rival feudal ambitions rendered the calling of a luxurious craftsman more or less precarious. The abbey walls always sheltered a community of carpenters, joiners, leather-dressers, iron-workers, goldsmiths, sculptors, painters and calligraphists.
Towards the end of the Crusades, the new organization of the Communes, after the period of anarchy, becomes firmly established. Industry, commerce and art begin to make rapid strides in the towns, and craftsmen form themselves into corporations that receive special privileges from their titular overlords. So long as the artists of the ecclesiastical school remained under the protection of the monastic houses, they naturally followed a hieratic road. The ornamentation they were called upon to produce for the Church, they reproduced when luxurious furniture was required in domestic life. The great Corporations, however, as they grew in wealth and power, demanded something superior to, or at least, different from, the work of their forerunners. In the monastic houses, it was long before this influence made itself felt; but among the secular clergy it received a hearty welcome.
The distinguishing character of Mediaeval work is the freedom of execution allowed to the workman. The architect decided on heights, dimensions, dispositions of parts and profiles of stalls, or armoires; but the details were left to be worked out by the artistic ability of the skilled workman. Individual expression was allowed full play, while the original conception of the designer was respected.
Gradually, as the Communes became more powerful and were able to afford stable protection to their members, the spirit of association and solidarity tended to break away from exclusively ecclesiastical art.
The art of wood-carving was developed principally in the production of choir-stalls and altar-pieces. The building of a beautiful temple to the glory of God was usually begun by some pious founder from motives of gratitude or repentance. It was dedicated to some patron saint, and the work was carried out under the supervision of some abbey or other religious house. Often the church or cathedral was originally the abbey church itself. In early Mediaeval days, the arts and sciences were confined to the cloister, and the embellishment of the Holy House was a labour of love. Many an obscure monk put all that was beautiful and fanciful in his nature into the production of carvings in stone and wood that have never been surpassed.
The precise date at which choir-stalls were introduced into churches is not known; but it is certain that they were in general use as soon as the Pointed Style was finally established, that is to say, not later than the thirteenth century. When the sanctuary was railed off from the rest of the church, the priests, in their light garb, naturally wanted to be protected from cold, damp and draught by woodwork, which, like the high back of a settle, enclosed the choir.
The stall is composed of several parts: the socle, the tablet, or seat, half of which can be raised, as it turns on hinges, the half thus raised, called the mis-ericorde, serves as a support for a person resting, half standing, half sitting; the paraclose, or sides that separate it from the adjoining stalls [the forward extremities of these are called museaux (snouts)]; the arm rest; the high back; the dais, or baldaquin; and, lastly, the woodwork at each end of a set of stalls, called jouees (cheeks).
With the exceptions of the socle and seat, every part of the stall in all the great Gothic churches has received very richly carved ornamentation, which is often remarkable for its profusion of detail.
The misericorde is ordinarily decorated with foliage and fruits; but it often presents fantastic objects, such as dragons, sirens, dogs, bears, and hybrid monsters of every kind. Frequently also we find personages in ridiculous and gross attitudes, and all sorts of human and animal caricatures. The paraclose is decorated with Gothic tracery in the earliest examples; and later with foliage, tendrils and branches of elegant curve. These are usually open-work, the pierced oak producing a charmingly light and graceful effect. Sometimes here also we find human and animal forms. The high backs are enriched with bas-reliefs, the subjects of which are by no means taken exclusively from the Old or New Testament. On the contrary, here the carvers have given free rein to their fancy by reproducing scenes of private life, and graceful compositions of flowers and fruits with little animals intermingled. Sometimes the subjects are framed in clusters of colonnettes, or in pilasters decorated with niches containing statues. Sometimes also statues of considerable size adorn this woodwork. The jouees receive the most beautiful decorations, and frequently these side entrances to the stalls are ornamented by statues.
The dais, which at first was merely a shelter of boards on an inclined plane over the whole range of stalls, began to assume great importance in the fifteenth century. It curved into vaultings; and very soon each seat received a separate dais decorated with ogives, pinnacles, little steeples, pendentives, culs-de-lampe and crockets; and the skilful carver did not hesitate to introduce delightful statuettes into the company of all these decorations.