Friday, 17 July 2015

Medieval designs from the cloisters

Accompanying this weekend's Medieval Festival (Les Festes du Castrum d'Arcus) in Les Arcs-sur-Argens is a very special exhibition in the Chapelle Saint Pierre, near the top of Le Parage.

It is called 'L'imagier Fantastique du Cloitre de Frejus' and features reproductions of medieval paintings found in the cloisters of the Cathedrale Saint Leonce in Frejus, 15km east of Les Arcs.

The display is particularly interesting to me as a tapestry weaver. The images of strange medieval beasts have always intrigued me.

Three wonderful women are sitting the exhibition - they are artists who work in the medieval style with original materials - and are wearing medieval costumes in the cool depths of the chapel.
I spoke to Madame, who assured me she was 'not creative', just a copyist. Then she showed me her beautiful and intricate work! I was fascinated as well by her meticulously-kept visual diary with its colour and design notes and tiny painted copies of originals.
The upper level of the cloister at Frejus Cathedral, has a wooden ceiling and the beams were decorated with painted panels featuring biblical scenes, mythical beasts and scenes of daily life in the 13th century.
These demons, angels, centaurs, mermaids, dragons, imaginary exotic and domestic animals - and people from ordinary life - have been reproduced on a series of wooden panels displayed in the Les Arcs chapel.

Some of the original paintings and copies on display.
But Madame and her two colleagues are painting on parchment, not wood, with the finest-tipped brushes.

Madame explained that they were using earth (mineral) pigments in the traditional medieval way mixed with blanc d'oeuf - egg white, gomme d'arabia - gum Arabic; and l'eau de miel - honey water.

The egg white is generally used for painting on parchment, while tempera - using the yolk - was for wood. The humidifying effects of the gum Arabic and honey water allow the parchment to remain flexible.

I told her I had visited the town of Rousillon in the Luberon - where the colours were mined from vast ochre pits.

The artists were using red and yellow ochres, umber, lime white, as well as the highly-prized terre verte - green earth - found at Verona, Italy, or taken from malachite or verdigris, and the rare blue ultramarine - which was brought from outre mer - 'overseas', along the ancient Silk Road from Persia and Afghanistan.

Earth pigments ready to be mixed.
The Biblical Apocalypse was instrumental in influencing the medieval artisans - and accounts for the fantastic beasts, described by Saint John in his Book of Revelations (Apocalypse).

I told her that every beast I'd seen looked different.
'Saint Jean described the beasts, but the artists interpreted them,' Madame told me.

She showed me a copy she had made of the seven-headed beast, described in Revelations.

'All the medieval artists followed the saint's description of seven heads,' she continued, 'but the design of the beast itself varies from artist to artist.'

Madame and her two colleagues are also exhibiting their own work - both copies of original illustrated documents or paintings, and  individual designs they have created based on medieval art.

I have already visited the exhibition twice and I know I will return before it ends.

* Once again apologies for lack of accents on French words. Blogger does not seem to support this.


  1. These are wonderful! What does Alan think, he used to use naturals too didn't he?

  2. Yes, Alan was interested. He has 'mined' most of these colours in Victoria's Western District (not ultramarine, of course - but 'vine black' can substitute for a pale grey-blue). Amazing to think he has actually found 'terre verte' in the Grampians region (the site is his secret!).