Saturday, March 24, 2012

History of Color # 3 Not Colorful Enough, or?

Medieval fresco with traces of paint,  monastery in Baden Baden, Germany.
 Dramatic scene. Expressive image, emotions shown in movement, clarity of composition. Fine work, but 600 or 700 years ago it would be considered just not colorful enough. Brown  was perceived as  a very ugly color, just way  too humble. Those contours were the first step in painting, preparatory drawing before filling in color. But we can appreciate it very  much. Similar situation of differences in perception of beauty through ages is the case of the sculptures and architecture of Antiquity, from Greece and Rome.White, unpainted marble  delighted and delights modern sensibilities, but for the Greeks and Romans was just way too plain.
So, lots of paint was put on it, often in garish colors. But the Medieval colors were not really garish, as I mentioned before,  they were jewel-like, as imitating colors of precious stones was so important then.

This is the stone vault of the bell tower of Freiburg Cathedral. This beautiful Gothic construction detail of the tower of the tower is beautiful for us today, but centuries ago  would be just much too grey. When it was newer, it was fresher, much lighter, but still  it was just a technical detail. Even though, it is touching to see the clover leaf adornment chiseled out of stone with such love for detail.

The tower itself is one tenth of the mile high. When I was there, I first visited the framer market at front of the cathedral. After all during the  medieval times markets were common at front of such visited sacred houses. I truly enjoyed this market with buckets of freshly cut flowers, organic food, fragrant hand made soaps, it was very sensual, music, colors, fragrances.  Than I entered the cathedral, looked around, contemplated the art, so typical for a visit on a trip. It was more elevated experience, meditative, sublime.

But this place also offered one  interesting option in addition: to climb the bell tower tower, to be able to see the bells and to admire the view of the old town. Of course I needed to do it. One tenth of the mile high climb: narrow, rather steep stairs, spiraling, twilight.  The climb seemed have no end to me. And than at the top this unusual feeling when you face all those bells which are tons heavy, this stone vault beyond which is the spire of lacy stone carving, becoming less and less material, the essence of Gothic architecture, sublimation of the material world into the heavenly one.  And the view of the blue sky. It was a very strange juxtaposition: stones and the sky.

We, the viewers of today, we like patina. Old artifacts are allowed to have patina, their market value can even diminish if the patina is removed. But for people of Middle Ages, this vault would have been too dirty.
Yes, there is accumulated dirt on the vault, but we don't mind it as much as people would do hundreds of  years ago. They disliked brown, grey, as those colors don't have enough chromatic intensity. Poor peoples' clothes were in neutral colors of raw fabric, made of flax, wool. Wool was often beige, or brown. The richer ones wore colors.

Those stones from the Reichenau Monastery, which was once of the greatest centers of learning, hosting a very large library, and busting with life, are charming to most of us, modern viewers.

But than, a thousand years ago when scribes of Reichenau produced delicately illustrated books, this combination of brown floor tiles and gray stones would be plain ugly. Medieval mind loved color. Bright, luminous color.  Neutral colors were not of much of use in art.

There were of course exceptions, like frescoes in Umbria, Italy, painted with lots of browns. But this is unusual. Other exception are Cistercian monasteries, with simple, unadorned interiors.Cistercian church is beautiful to us, in its simplicity, and probably was considered as such by the monastic community which valued the life of poverty. But the general idea of the times was that a church is supposed to represent to some degree a paradise on earth, or the heavenly Jerusalem, and needs to be adorned with pure colors.

From my experience when discussing Medieval tastes for things colorful, pure, shiny and glossy, sooner or later comes a comment: "but they were so terribly dirty!" (This comment comes when discussing Rococo also, understandable). However, the idea of Middle Ages as filthy ages is disputed by historians. Some lean toward  idea that indeed, dirt was common, and there is truth in it, but others point otherwise, and there is also truth in it. For example Byzantine Empire had system of waste removal, water flushed toilets, and high level of hygiene. Latin Middle Ages had the system of public baths, which were more like spas: hangouts were it was possible to take a bath, eat while soaking in the communal  bathtub, and  listen to life music, to gossip, and play games. Bathing was a social occasion, and baths were frequented, making the members of the bather gilt rich. Banya in Russia, sauna in Scandinavia, hot springs through Germany and Switzerland, and numerous public baths everywhere point to rather cleaner people than we are willing give them credit for.

 For example in Poland bathing was so common that even the beggars were entitled by law to get free bath every two weeks. Or some in Europe monasteries might have as a rule not to bathe, but others required cleanliness rule to follow. Even some of the old monasteries were build close to hot springs, and bathing was a symbolic action of washing away sins, after confession. Above mentioned monastery of Baden Baden was close to hot springs. The Church didn't oppose hygiene, and was advocating cleanliness for health reasons, but was against a habit of too much bathing, as it seemed to be addictive to some: every day several hours in bathing house. I know, i know,  I digress, but so many people have imprinted in their minds that Medieval times were ages of filth and darkness. I felt compelled to give additional information,as we talk about colors, splendor and light in Medieval art..

For more detailed information about Medieval hygiene, read this very interesting article.