Trompe L’oeil, or whatever that is in Medieval Italian.

Museum No. 47-1882 in the Collection of the V&A

Depth without depth.
Museum No. 47-1882 in the Collection of the V&A

Skipping ahead for a bit, I wanted to take a moment to look at a peculiar decorative technique on a couple of these boarded chests. A cursory look at this chest appears to be a frame and panel construction, despite the significantly apparent nails. There also appears to be relief carving on the pediment that mimics the abbreviated ogee contour of the “feet.” But look closer.

Side view of the same piece.

Bold painted lines and layers of lighter and darker pigments make the appearance of panel framing and relief carving. In context, this cassone was faked up pretty well to look like a much more elaborately constructed piece. Figuring how to build consistently curved frame and panels isn’t particularly difficult, a little steam and a lot of pressing can make this a breeze. Realistically, though, it’s quite a lot of work to make it happen, especially considering that the chest itself is little more than the canvas for the artwork. In a later article we’re going to have a look at the layout for the curves and other elements of this and another cassone. For today, just have a scroll back up and look at how the artist mimicked the curves and arrisses of the actual construction for painting on the details that mimic panel and reliefs. It takes a particular attention to detail to create the highlights that correctly mimic the different facets of a frame-and-panel construction. Picking out those highlights and creating a feeling of depth is something we don’t usually ascribe to medieval painters and illuminators. Obviously we might need to adjust our preconceptions.

A boarded chest from the catalog of Marham Church Antiques. Constructed of English Chestnut during the Reign of Henry VII. Stock No. marh0411

Of course, the Italians weren’t the only ones who like to dress up their “simple” cabinetry with fancy aires. We’ve also a few extant examples of the English carving “rails and stiles” to create the appearance of joined chests. While the grain is somewhat apparent now, remember this is after someone attempted to “conserve” the piece sometime in the last 200 years.
From the text accompanying the image at Marham Chuch Antiques: “Many late medieval surviving Northern English carved board chests were originally paint decorated. This chest […] originally received an all-over coat of reddish-orange paint composed from vermillion (mercury sulfide)[.]”

So paint cannot only cover a multitude of “sins,” but has also been used to fake up a much more extravagant chest than was originally devised.

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