Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Who is afraid of red, yellow and blue?

Barnet Newman - Who is afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue III. Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

A bit curious opening for a blog on medieval furniture, a contemporary artist that has attracted much attention with his paintings, especially those (including this one) that were violently attacked with knives by people who did not like the art style. But hopefully the image makes sense when reading the remainder of this post.

Around seven years ago I was helping our neighbours with the transport of a new sewing machine for (historic) shoemaking. At the place where we collected the machine, there stood a neglected Glastonbury type chair. When the owner heard that I made medieval furniture he donated me the chair. I did not like the chair. It was ugly, made from cheap spruce and had become mouldy from staying outside too long in rainy weather. But I thought perhaps I can upgrade the chair into a version that my neighbours will like. Then I discovered that this Glastonbury chair was wrongly constructed (see previous post). More work needed to be done.

It became a long term project, I only worked on it when the projects I liked were finished and I had nothing else on hand. First, the chair was cleaned with chlorine to remove the mould and the parts were dried for several months. Then, the construction was corrected by glueing an extra piece of wood on the outside of the backrest, so the were parallel again with the rest of the chair. There is no historical evidence for such a solution, but it works and is easier that reworking the seating and backrest. Then, to create a more comfortable chair, all sharp edges were rounded, either by using a router, spokeshave, draw-knife or scraper.

 Left: the extra piece of wood added to the backrest to enable a parallel armrest. Right: the trefoil decoration on the armrest.

Next, I carved a 'Gelderse' (Tudor) rose on the backrest, as this is the sign of the historic clothing company of my neighbours. Also I made some trefoil decorations on the armrest. In the end I had an upgraded, but still ugly spruce chair. Only one thing could hide that it was made from spruce: paint.

Left: The carved 'Gerderse' rose on the backrest, already covered in a layer of gesso. Right: The painted  rose.

The question then arises was medieval furniture painted, especially late medieval furniture. There is a lot of debate around this theme, but the answer is of course yes (see the blog of Johann International for example, the advocate of painted medieval furniture - for instance this and this post). A very large part of the medieval furniture was painted, but there are two causes why most is lost. First, time causes the decay of the decoration by use of the item itself as well as by changing environmental (moisture) conditions. Secondly, in the neogothic 19th century they found pure oak wood more to their liking. Thus, the furniture was stripped of their paint, though sometimes traces of it still can be found. The original Glastonbury chair has much decorative carving on the armrests that would have stand out better if it was painted. I do not know if this original indeed was painted, but the spruce one now is ... in Red, Yellow and Blue.

Who is afraid of a red, yellow and blue Glastonbury chair?

The broken down Glastonbury chair ready for transport to their new owners, 
the Gelderse Roos historical clothing company

Sunday, 20 January 2019

A not so foldable chair

This post concerns a medieval chair that is nowadays known under several names, most commonly the 'Glastonbury chair', the 'Petrarca chair' or 'sedia Petrarca', as well as 'sedia pieghevole', the latter meaning nothing more than foldable or collapsible chair. There any many misunderstanding and peculiarities on this chair, which I hope to clarify in this post.

The sedia Petrarca in the Petrarca house in Casa del Petrarca in Arquà Petrarca, Italy. It is one of the two medieval furniture items that were supposedly original from this house. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrach) moved in 1369 to this house and lived here until his death in 1374, implying this is a late 14th century chair. The decorative carving style, however, is more like those found on 15th century sedia tenaglia folding chairs. Photos from the local tourism website and LittleWoods blog.

The chair cannot be folded

A Petrarca chair dating from 1590 in its dismantled form (left) and constructed form (mid, right). The chair originates from an Exeter Deanery, that in turn obtained its from a Somerset or Devonshire church. Height: 105 cm, Width: 60.5 cm, Depth: 61 cm, Height: 45.5 cm. Photo copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK.

This is one of the many misunderstandings of this chair: it is not a folding chair. The chair cannot be folded, the rigid seating and the armrest make this impossible. The chair can only be dismantled. You then end up with an IKEA-like parcel with many loose parts that you can take along and (re)construct where-ever you like. This is much more work and complicated than taking a foldable X-chair with you. Probably the X of the legs is what leads people to think it is foldable: all medieval foldable chairs have X legs; however, the other way around is not true. 

The chair originates from northern Italy

In the UK, the Glastonbury chair is dated from 1535; other examples from the UK also date from the 16th century or are of later periods. Somehow this chair remained popular in England and received a revival in the neo-Gothic era, when an article on the Glastonbury chair was published. An excellent article by Gabriel Olive from 1994 traces the descent of this chair type in the UK. No earlier examples than the Glastonbury can be found. However, the much earlier extant examples all originate from northern Italy. 

Left and right: The 15th century Petrarca chair from the Museo Civico in Turin. The left photo shows the backrest with a top plank, but this is actually the bottom plank, as the cut-out parts necessary for the alignment with the seating are clearly visible. The photo on the right shows the correct alignment. The chair originates around Verona, Northern Italy. Made from walnut; armrests have been cut by saw. Ornaments have been punched in the wood. Top ornaments are turned. The bottom plank from the backrest shows a young couple at the fountain of love. Height 107 cm, width 77 cm, depth 57 cm. Now in Museo Civico, Turin, Italy. Image scanned from Windisch-Graetz. Mobel Europas I. Romanik - Gotik.


Chair from northern Italy, 'Etschgebiet', dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Bottom plank of the backrest is missing. Middle plank shows a young couple in 15th century style clothes next to a fountain. Top plank has a coat of arms between two lions  Top pinnacles are turned. Height 108 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Chair from a cloister in Padua, northern Italy, dated from the 15th century. Made from walnut. Arms with sawn profiles decorated with punctured diamonds. Backrest complete and decorated with carved geometrical forms and punctures. Top pinnacles are turned.  Height 110 cm, width 65 cm. Formerly in the Sammlung Albert Figdor. Scanned from the 1930 auction catalogue.

Right: The petrarca chair in the Green room of Museo Bagatti Valsecchi, Milan, Italy. 

The chair is both medieval and early renaissance

Is the Petrarca chair from the medieval period? This depends on your definition of medieval and the medieval time period. Earliest examples of this chair, as well as depictions in manuscripts and painting all date to the 15th century, not earlier. Petrarca's chair itself is claimed to be late 14th century, but the style of the chair is not. I have heard of an inventory list of his possessions that could mention this/a chair, and a name alone is hardly enough evidence that Petrarca sat in his 'Petrarca chair' in the 14th century. It is likely more a myth, like the Frankish King Dagobert sitting in his 'Dagobert chair'.

The chair type can be found in other sources as well. One image of the chair has been found in an illuminated Italian bible from the mid-fifteenth century.

King Solomon sits on a Petrarca chair. Illuminated bible from 1455-1461, Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy. Image from Albion works website, manuscript number unknown.

There are also two known depictions of the chair in 15th century Flemish art. One has been painted by Hans Memling in 1485, on the panel showing Bathsheba taking a bath. The chair is only partly shown but is unmistakably a Petrarca chair. Otto von Falke (1930) mentions another painting (a preaching Apostle) by the Flemish artist Jan van der Meire (died 1471), a pupil of the Van Eyck brothers, showing the chair. This painting used to be in the collection of the painter Franz Reichardt in Munchen. The auction catalogue (1869) of this collection (it can be found online) does not show/mention the painting, so it is unclear what the painting looks like or where it is.

Having Flemish paintings with an Italian chair is not that strange; oil painting from the low countries were very fashionable at that time in Italy and commissioned by rich patrons. There was also a large Italian trading community in cities like Bruges and Ghent, and it is not unlikely that they brought a collapsible chair with them.

The surviving 15th century samples all trace back to Northern Italy; renaissance already had started in Italy in this time period, while northern Europe art still retained its Gothic style. So you could call this chair 'Early Renaissance'  as well as 'Medieval'.

Bathsheba at the Bath, oil on oak panel, painted by Hans Memling in 1485. On the left side a Petrarca chair can be seen. Memling had many commissions from Italian patrons and thus be familiar with this chair type. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart, Germany.

The Glastonbury chair is constructed wrong

The original English Glastonbury chair (see the Greydragon website for excellent photos) and its later copies all have a flaw in their construction plan. Apparently, the person who made the chair did not understand the complexity of its construction, or something went wrong during restoration of the chair. There is a very specific order in which the parts of these chairs are assembled: you must start with the seating, and then proceed with the backrest, not the other way around. In other words, the backrest must be wider than the seating. This is the case for the Italian chairs, but not for the Glastonbury chair. (Another reason why it is more logical that the origin of these chairs is in Italy).

The original Glastonbury chair with its angled armrests. The chair originated from the Glastonbury abbey, dissolved in 1539 and now resides in the Bishops Palace, Wells, UK. There is some unclarity, as there is mention of more of these chairs from this abbey. It could be that they are actually a set of chairs.

With the Glastonbury chair problems arise when the armrest  must be added. There is no way that the armrest can be added in parallel alignment: the sides of the seating are in its way, blocking the construction. Adding the armrest will result in an imperfect angled fit, also making it necessary to drill the holes at an angle for the armrest. The Italian chairs all have a  perfect vertical alignment of their parts.

It is quite remarkable that a mistake made in the early 16th century by a carpenter was thoughtlessly copied again and again in later ages, including today. The book by Daniel Diehl on making medieval furniture contains measurements and drawings of a copy of the Glastonbury chair, yet he did not question this flaw. Master Greydragon (from the Society of Creative Anachronism) measured the original chair, provided many detailed photos of it and provided a construction plan (  Apparently he noticed the flaw and adjusted his own replica chair (he shows a photo of it - with small seating), but he did not update his construction plan. More of these flawed plans circulate on internet. Thus, if you want to make this chair yourself, you need to adjust the existing plans or make your own.

The pre-1539 parts of the Glastonbury chair according to Victor Chinnery and Gabriel Olive. These are made of elm. The remainder is of oak construction. It is quite possible that the restoration process caused the wrong construction. In principle, there is room for the seating rails to be inside, instead of outside the backrest. Scanned from V. Chinnery, Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

The chair is impractical in its use 

Ivory plaque made in Alexandria or Constantinople, around 630-640, representing St Peter dictating the Gospel to St Mark. He sits in an X-type of chair, but with a different form of armrest that does not restrict the movement of your arm. Though imagine how it looks like if the armrest is turned upside down. Image copyright Victoria and Albert museum, London, UK, item 270:1-1867.

I am very surprised that no-one has ever commented on the impracticability of the 'Glastonbury chair' and despite this the chair was profusely copied in the neo-Gothic era. Yes, you can sit in this chair ... and do nothing. You cannot use this chair to write letters and poems, like the great Petrach. You cannot use the chair at a table when you want to eat. You cannot use the chair if you are embroidering. You cannot do anything useful sitting in this chair. Why not? The high knob of the armrest is blocking the free movement of your arm. Writing becomes painful if you try. You can of course make it 'horizontal', but none of the historical examples have horizontal armrests.
The form of the armrest only allows your arms to rest folded over your belly. So you can only use the chair ... to doze.

One of the rare examples of a Petrarca chair with an almost horizontal armrest. Note that this British example is constructed correctly. Early 17th century . Image scanned from Oak furniture. The British Tradition.

Construction constraints

The seating height of the Glastonbury chair is 43 cm, and so do the plans for construction. If you are longer than average, height adjustments to the chair pose a challenge for the woodworker. Just making the lower part of the X-legs (below the connecting rail) longer would make an odd chair, where the legs protrude the seating and rest of the chair. Making both the upper and lower part of the legs longer, would lead to a deeper seat. However, the this would also mean that the armrest must be elongated as well. The third option would be to make both sides of the legs longer without changing the seating. The result will be that the 45 degrees angle of the X will change, as well as the angle at which the legs rest on the floor.

An advertisement of 1909 from a commercial Glastonbury chair maker.


  • Greydragon website: 'Glastonbury chair'. Detailed photos of the original chair.
  • Otto von Falke, 1930. Samlung Dr. Albert Figdor Wien, zweiter band, Möbel. Auction catalogue. Artaria & Co., Gluckselig Gmbh, Wien, Austria.
  • Franz Windisch Graetz. Mobel Europas - Romanik - Gotik. Klinkhardt & Biermann, München, Germany. ISBN 3-7814-0212-6.
  • Daniel Diehl. 1997. Constructing medieval furniture – plans and instructions with historical notes. Stackpole Books. ISBN 978-0811727952. or in: Sacred Spaces issue 8 (1994)
  • Victor Chinnery. 1979. Oak furniture, the British Tradition. Antique Collector's Club. ISBN 1-85149-013-2
  • Gabriel Olive 1994. The Glastonbury chair. Regional Furniture VIII, page 24-41.
  • G. Chiesa. 1971. L'arredamento in Italia. Il Quattrocento. Mobili - Arti decorative - Costume. Görlich edditore SpA, Milan, Italy.
  • Albion Works. website now disfunct.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Woodworking tools in medieval Italy, part 2

A lucky coincidence for medieval woodworkers is that that the bible contains some stories on building, e.g. Noah's ark and the tower of Babel, or the construction of the cross. Furthermore there are several Saints that met a gruesome death with a woodworking tool (Simon with a saw, Matthew with a axe). It is no surprise that some of these scenes were popular as well in fresco cycles in Italy. Previous post showed the building of Noah's ark in the Camposanto in Pisa. Noah's ark was also painted on walls of some other Italian churches.

Florence (Firenze), Santa Maria Novella

The front of the Basilica Santa Maria Novella in Firenze.

The Santa Maria Novella is a church of the Dominican order connected to a large cloister complex, some parts with very lovely medieval frescoes. Church building began in the 13th century and was consecrated in 1420. In the 16th century and later in the 19th century the church was remodelled. The medieval fresco showing the building of Noah's ark, however, is detached from its original wall in the green cloister and now hanging in the museum inside the complex. The damaged fresco was painted by someone in the circle of Paolo Uccello, a Florentine painter and mathematician, around 1430.

Inside the museum, the fresco containing the building of Noah's ark from around 1430.

 A two-handed large plane, with the typical Italian open handles.

 A detail from the fresco: an auger being used.

San Gimignano, Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais

Many frescoes and even more tourists in the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais in San Gimignano.
San Gimignano, the medieval city with its many towers; a lovely place, but swarming with too many tourists - one was me. The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assuntais located in the main square of the town and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Romanesque style church dates largely from the 12th and 13th century, but with parts added in the next centuries. The church is most famous for its largely intact scheme of fresco decoration, the greater part of which dates from the 14th century. The wall of the left aisle had six decorated bays with frescoes containing stories from the old testament that are the work of Bartolo di Fredi, and were completed around 1356. One of these is that of Noah and his family building the ark.
Noah building the ark by Bartolo di Fredi around 1356.

On the roof are three people busy with clawhammers and an auger.

 Below several axes and adzes are being used.

A man using the plane is offered a drink.

From the wall on the other side of the church, Christ bearing the cross, 
and another one bearing a clawhammer and nails.

Siena, Palazzo Pubblico

The Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna with preparations for the palio race.

The Palazzo Pubblico is Siena's  medieval administrative building on the main square of  the city where also the horse races take place. It was built in the 13th and 14th century, and the large bell tower contains a 14th century mechanical clock. Nearly every major room in the palace contains frescoes. The medieval frescoes on the walls inside the building were meant to impress the visitor of the power and goodness of the city. Two frescoes containing woodworking tools - the allegories of good and bad government - by Ambrogio Lorenzetti can be found in the Sala della Pace.

Part of the allegory of good government fresco in the Palazzo Pubblico.

The Allegory of Good Government contains a large plane with the name 'Concordia' on it.  The plane is a typical example of the Italian medieval planes, but also unusual as the wedge holding the iron seems to consist of two separate wedges. Could it be that one wedge serves as a chip-breaker? In the allegory of Bad Government a large frame saw can be seen.

The concordia plane contains a typical double wedge.

Part of the allegory of bad government frescoin the Palazzo Pubblico.

A large frame saw being used on something unknown.

Some more frescoes

Below are two more frescoes containing scenes from building Noah's Ark from elsewhere in Italy (and not visited by me). It is likely that many more of these frescoes with woodworking tools are hidden in other not so famous medieval churches in Italy.

Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, upper vault, 
painted between 1288-1300, likely by Giotto. Image from internet.

 Fresco from the vault of stairs of the Chiesa di San Lorenzo in Palatio, Rome, Italy  
by Baldassare Croce (1558 - 1628). Image from internet.

Monday, 19 November 2018

The annual meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association

A different kind of setting than we are used to at the yearly meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association

Last Saturday the  Saint Thomasguild showed their medieval replica woodworking tools at the annual meeting of the Dutch crafts and tools association (de Vereniging Ambacht en Gereedschap). The club consists of people who are interested in the history and tools of diverse (old) crafts and trades - from woodworkers to dentists. We are also a member of this association. Many members are tool collectors and some have made it their profession as antique tool traders. Many associates are interested in the woodworking trade, and the medieval history of woodworking tools on display attracted much attention. We had interesting discussions and learned new things as well. For instance, the long two-handed saw is called 'opschieter' in Dutch, meaning 'quickie' - a saw that does its job fast (and rough). (when using this 2-handed saw I did not find it quick at all!).

The workbench and the toolchest with the braces mounted on the lid.

We mainly showed them four types of tools - medieval planes, medieval saws, medieval axes and medieval braces & augers - but also brought our workbench with a double screw vise. Of every tool we could show the source (archaeological find or image of the tool in a medieval book, on a painting or as intarsia) and explain the choices that had to be made to fill the 'gaps'. 

Our collection of medieval planes under the watchful eye of saint Thomas.

 Some medieval axes and an adze.


Some photos made during the less crowded time. Most of the time, the room was completely packed with people.