Medieval Woodworking, Architecture, Social Power, Space Shuttles, and Hand-Carved Wood Waffle Irons

Excellent adventure or bogus journey? You had to be there. March 20, 2012

At one of the major museums, an hour's drive from our place, they have a display (a small room, maybe 10' x 10'?) containing the reconstructed walls and ceiling treatments of a highly-figured room that must originally have come from a palace, castle, royal estate, whatever (15th, 16th century?).

If you're not a woodworker, you can't possibly understand what this kind of work must have entailed. I wanted you guys to see what must have been a monstrous amount of work and a great deal of time from planning through finish.

I can't imagine what it was like to dedicate yourself to such a project nor how satisfying it must have been when it came together. I'm assuming there are a number of experienced carvers here who would appreciate this better than I. I'm not an art historian so I'll make no attempt to describe what you're seeing. The pictures speak for themselves.

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Forum Responses
(Architectural Woodworking Forum)
From contributor D:
That is indeed some fine work. Add in the level of tooling and equipment and the complexity is magnified. They had an abundance of wood, but it was not easily worked, for sure.

My favorite place to visit is the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. The house is fantastic and the level of wood craft is all over the top. More linenfold door panels than anywhere else. I first went there as a child and it knocked me out then. Return visits are just as exciting.

A sidebar is that Gifford Pinchot was the forester of the estate woodlands, and the National Forest Service grew out from that.

From contributor J:
Okay, unlimited grotesque (as in style) hand carving which was the hallmark of medieval baroque architectural. If you look closely however you can see that the carpenters weren't opposed to taking a few shortcuts if they could get away with it... You may notice that many of the arc moldings are not smooth cut radius segments, but formed instead from a lot of little straight pieces (yuck).

These guys were not stupid, however. They knew that nobody could see this small detail from standing way down on the floor and looking up at a dark vaulted ceiling. To me this makes the whole project seem all too familiar and the guys that worked on it my kinsmen.

From contributor O:
Good eye!

From contributor M:
I have to laugh when people are under the assumption our forefathers were all great master craftsmen. I can't tell you how many old homes and buildings I have worked on that under all the paint and heavy layers of shellac revealed the true story. Balusters cut wrong and scabbed back together and mixed in on a straight run, slivers of handrail glued in to make up for miss cuts, scabbed together treads, and the list goes on. Had some huge Gothic shaped windows in from a historic church that the builder was all frazzled about reproducing. As it turns out the back of the jambs were simply saw kerfed every three inches or so and the kinks up close were very pronounced, but in their application it looked great. Heck, the stop was even small segments butted together!

I guess my point is what you are seeing in the fine detail is probably more the norm than not. It is, however, impressive that they were able to pull off what they did, good, bad or otherwise, with the tools available.

From the original questioner:
In my home, there is a living room with one corner whose walls are radiused (7') and, sure enough, the original builders took standard, 2 1/2" ogee and cove crown and cut a number of 4" pieces for the curve. Yuck. I replaced all of it by creating a crown consisting of 5 pieces (layers), 3/8" thick, so I could bend them into place, one at a time.

In reference to the work above, though I wouldn't want my entire house to look like that, I still love this very old, very handmade looking relief. Feels like some rare treasure.

And, yes, contributor J - after you pointed out that the curved molding was cut in sections, I did feel like those woodworkers weren't so terribly different from us after all. Very cool. Thanks, guys.

From contributor L:
I'm not a fan of this type of design. It succeeds by overwhelming the viewer. When each small element is looked at, you see it was executed in the most efficient manner available at the time. There can be a certain charm to the handmade texture.

From contributor J:
Well put, contributor L. Not only do these kinds of embellishments overwhelm the viewer, they overpower the viewer (which is exactly the point). Gothic, medieval or baroque architecture (complete with saints and gargoyles) was supposed to overwhelm and scare the hell out of the peasants and make them more subservient to church and state. Such is the power of architecture!

When viewed from below, this ceiling is a mind-numbing mystery (like medieval heaven). Only the Church and State can comprehend such things and intercede in our behalf. No wonder you're not a fan of this sort of design... It is by design, an assault on the mind! Artwork often is.

From the original questioner:
One of the ways those in power, stay in power. Great painters and composers (Michelangelo, DaVinci, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.), all commissioned by the Church (often the only decent paying patron around). Here's another shot I took at the museum that day.

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From contributor D:
Contributor J raises a great point on the link between architecture and power.

The space shuttle of the 1400's was the regional Cathedral, pushing the envelope and skills of every person in every trade as it rose from the surrounding town. Once completed, the peasants, who could neither read nor write and lived most of their life ankle deep in crap, could walk up to these glorious structures and see god. Not only was there little or no crap on the floor, but the light was multi-colored, the air smelled good, and heavenly voices also filled the air. Enough to make anybody drop to their knees and beg forgiveness.

The Church and what government there was used this to their advantage to levy taxes, muster armies, and torture and burn offenders, real and perceived. The populace was dumbfounded and slack-jawed, willing to accept whatever version of "too big to fail" they were fed. And architecture made it happen...

From contributor J:
To the original questioner: Besides being the fanciest waffle iron I've ever seen (the Madonna really will appear in your waffle), what is this wonderful looking thing?

From the original questioner:
Looks like a ball-o-religion to me. What am I, a priest? Here's the full photo it came from. I'm guessing it's not something you hang around your neck (like a pendant). Could make a waffle with it (though it seems the waffle iron manufacturer was a tad overzealous)

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