Perception---you have that power.

There is purpose in design. There is information in a setting. There is truth in your environment. Fake or real, it's there.

All images are copyrighted by Heidi Hoffer unless otherwise indicated. Your courtesy in using my photographs must include crediting me as the photographer. You must tell me when and where you've used them and send the link to me showing your use of them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dragons and Other Medieval Animal Zoomorphs


The Musée National du Moyen Âge in Paris, France has the best and most approachable collection of pieces. Medieval works are featured here, including the Celtic chair discussed below. The lighting is difficult for photographers in the wintertime, but manageable using a clever camera. Photography is allowed in the museum with no flash. Photographers must use existing light only. 

What struck me most about the medieval times represented is the penchant for dragons. Even in the Christian religion there is the St. George and the Dragon story, which some scholars believe is a very early story used to undermine the old ways (dragon) in favour of new ways (Christianity) when that religion was introduced to the Celtic lands.
Photo by Heidi Hoffer. All rights reserved.
 This post will discuss the idea of animal likenesses as objects humans use. Their design is either decorative or useful such as mice drawer handles. In the museum there was this wonderful wooden medieval chair from about the year 1000 AD.  Every inch of it was carved with Celtic helmeted men and sinuous dragons. This I photographed at the Exposition: Celts and Scandinavians, Artistic Meetings, Seventh through the Twelfth Centuries.

The first four photographs here are of the wooden Celtic chair; the design of the dragons and other beasts is merely decorative and possibly inspired by a story or myth of power.  I was amazed that an extant wooden chair from the 11th century existed in such good shape, and that the Celtic peoples HAD chairs of this nature in the first place. It’s linear outline or silhouette is Roman or Egyptian, but the décor is heavily Celtic.

The front seat rear rail contains these carving of men and dragons. I thought they looked mostly like dragons trying to break out of an egg.
Photo by Heidi Hoffer. All rights reserved.
 The front rail of this chair seat shows what looks like horses, lions and more dragons.
Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.

The central splat at the back is cruciform in shape, the center of which shows a twisting dragon in a roundel. There are additional serpentine shapes on the cross arms.


Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
 People in the world over have references to dragons in their cultures. Basically, Eastern dragons have good things associated with them, and Western dragons are bad and eat children. Overall, though, the dragon is a power symbol. Perhaps this chair, since the dragon is contained in the roundels and the helmeted warrior on the front seat rear rail looks to be half dragon half man; this chair represents a seat of power.  The ancient Celtic peoples revered their dragons as wise and full of guidance for ruling the land. Celts typically believed the dragon brought the heavens and the underworld together.

For interesting but not necessarily verified reading on Dragon lore, check out Reptilian Agenda’s article  http://www.reptilianagenda.com/hist/h110599a.shtml and neka’s  http://www.slideserve.com/neka/mystery-of-a-dragon-and-a-code-of-the-bayeux-tapestry

For the Musée de Moyen Âge (Musée de Cluny) website check this in French: http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/

The zoomorphic ornament and interlaced designs featured in the chair above are relatively flat, bas relief carvings. A similar central design emblem is the lion’s head seen on the fencing around the l'Hôtel de Ville (Paris), in slightly more relief than the carved wood. 

Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.

In this sense, like the fully sculpted lions that often guard entrances to city buildings, the lion seems to be a security device, proclaiming that power resides within the grounds or building. Indeed, most door-knockers on formal (Roman inspired) facades feature a lion’s head.  This great image of a Medieval Lion Head door knocker  I purchased from Dragoneye at Dreamstime: © Dragoneye | Dreamstime.com  (© Dragoneye | Dreamstime.com)
Old medieval iron door knocker in shape of lion head isolated on white background with clipping path. © Dragoneye | Dreamstime.com
Izzy Burton's photo of a door knocker in Paris also shows the oddly shaped head, and the crossed paws are a delight to see instead of the usual brass ring. With THIS one one actually gets to touch part of the animal in order to use the door knocker as one does with the mouse drawer handles discussed below. Izzy gave me permission to post her photograph in my blog. Here is HER Flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/izzyburton/7920869138/in/photostream

Photo by Izzy Burton. All Rights Reserved.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/izzyburton/
I like the fact that Northern Europeans likely did not get to see lions, and often created their sculptures based on verbal descriptions. Perhaps that is why these lions have such a long bovine faces.

So, door knockers are useful as well as decorative!  In this next image, the actual BODY of the animal is put to use – as drawer handles! In this case, the animal is not morphed into something else. It is a pretty good replica of a mouse, mouse-sized,  and used as drawer handles. (Maybe they are rats as Medieval rats might be smaller than modern rats.) 


Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
  Climbing up the linen fold carved drawer fronts, right where you’d put your hand, are beautifully carved little mice. Make one think of the old nursery rhyme, …the mouse ran up the clock.” Here’s a detail:
Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
The next item is a drinking vessel. It starts out with a round rim and handle like any mug, but it turns into a horn (evoking the old fashioned real animal horn drinking vessels) which ends in an amazing wolf’s head flourish. Again, I rather like the idea that the drinker is imbibing the characteristic of a wolf…
Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
You never see a lamb’s head drinking horn, or a pig-head one, so obviously those animals have a lesser character of strength and virility and cleverness.

Returning to the purely decorative, but in a more three-dimensional way, are these snakes which twine themselves around a crystal chalice. They don’t actually do anything except hold the crystal goblet to the golden base.  The effort and realism here is what caught my eye. I did wonder about the snake which sheds its skin and has a bad reputation in Christianity as a choice for a chalice, though.
Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
Lastly, there are these cute little salamanders which peek out underneath a heavy armoire. The top of the armoire features bull’s heads, and underneath are these little guys who look to scare someone who is sneaking into the cupboard unawares. These carvings are about the size of iguanas in real life, and have no teeth! They serve a purely decorative purpose, and are not useful to humans using the armoire.


Photo by Heidi Hoffer.  All rights reserved.
 If you liked this post on zoomorphic ornament, consider following my blog to see where my design eye goes next! Maybe we’ll stay in Paris for a while.


4 comments:

  1. The medieval chair claimed to be celtic in this blog is actually Norwegian. It is the Tyldal chair, ordinarily exposed in the Historical Museum in Oslo.The most probable link to serpents and dragons, therefore, is the myth of Sigurd the dragonslayer at the beginning of the saga of the Volsungs, depicted in the columns of Norwegian stave churches, too.

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    1. Hi Anonymous. Thank you for the facts about the chair! I can see I more research to do regarding dragons!

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  2. Ole A. Hoel, NorwayJuly 9, 2014 at 6:07 AM

    Nice posting. The "celtic" Chair is actually Norwegian. It comes from Tyldal in Østerdalen, but was possibly from the early cathedral of Nidaros (Trondheim), based on similar stone carvings from the early Church. Similar motifs are also found in a number of Stave Church portals. Age is about 1150. The chair you have photographed in France is either the original on loan, or a modern copy, since the original is in the Historical Museum, Oslo

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    1. Hi Ole A. Hoel. Thank you for the clarifying facts about that chair! It is a gorgeous chair.

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