Thursday, 10 July 2014

More on the bench: Hunting for a direction

What the heck is it?
What I am about to describe has never been done so completely in English, as far as I know. The images were afforded a mere quarter of a paragraph in Gunther Heine's 1990 article about the bench. I can't say with the same surety say that it hasn't been done in French or German, but if it has, I haven't yet found it. Given my focus on geography of art, the landscape images were demanding that I take a closer look so I took a flying visit to the Museum of the Renaissance in Ecouen, to look at the those images specifically. This is what I constructed in transit so it's rough and ready.

I need to orientate you so you can piece together a map of the bench in your head. Imagine you are standing at one short end of it, looking all the way down towards the good light and the window. That illuminated end is the end with the image of the man in his workshop and the elaborate coat of arms of the Elector of Saxony. But you're not there yet, you see the monogrammed AM in the landscape. Crouch down and move to the right. Underneath the long jousting tableau, which you've already admired, there is the first square picture. There are four of these, two either side of the end pieces.

This one shows a workshop, yet cleverly drawn to include both exterior and its place in the landscape, as well as the interior. The bare mountain meets the sky, and a river or path comes down past the little building. Inside a man stands by a bright clean bench, and the wooden structure of the open front is clear to see. What is less obvious are the smooth shapes in the foreground; is the smooth banana shape a rock, part of the workshop or even a canoe? Hanging from a long pole protruding from the open dormer window, is a curious round spiky contraption. One end of a rope is attached to the hoop and the other is fastened to something beyond the picture frame. There is clearly an industrial process taking place but I need to work out what it is. It's not a hoist because surely that pole would be too slender; and the roof angle is all wrong.

The next two square images are simple city/town scenes. The first is a perfectly composed view of a tower with outhouses in a quiet landscape and no people. The second is hard to read because of the deterioration in the decoration, and even the adjacent carved wooden leg has disintegrated in parts. However it is clear that the previous quiet prosperous street/warehouse scene is echoed. The final square is obviously a watermill. The designer has used the bench's large bolt and incorporated it into the picture as the centre of the wheel. It is a large simple building with a characteristically sloping roof and dormer windows for attic light and ventilation. Five steps enable access to the raised door; whether this is river or street access, it's hard to tell.

The other twelve images depict various methods of hunting animals, birds and fish. They can be split into two broad themes; hunting 'in nature' covers eight, whilst the remaining four depict a procession with a staged court hunt.

My interpretation of the first long scene after the small square differs from Heine's entirely. Rather than a women bleaching laundry and peasants bathing and punting, I see it as a depiction of the Saxony's fresh water fishing industry which would have abounded in the many rivers. From people fishing from little boats, the box-traps in the water by the quay, fishwives offering their wares in wooden tubs, the scene is busy and prosperous. The landscape behind has been heavily affected by industry with evidence of wood husbandry like coppicing and tree felling, as well as quarrying. The large city in the background appears well protected and orderly. The forest, rivers, mountains, therefore, are being harvested.

The second scene is similarly prosperous but this time it's taking place on well maintained farmland. One mounted man holds a falcon, whilst others work together to spread large pieces of netting over the ground. Someone is scattering seed. The landscape behind is bare of forest and the few trees that remain are large, almost talismanic features. This method of trapping small bird is well documented in various manuscripts. The next one takes place in a woodland clearing, where tree stumps are the only remains of what once grew. Deer have been chased into a trap by men on horseback with their dogs. Men in subdued colours, with their spears wait behind thickets and trees for the kill. Remaining near the edge of the forest, the fourth panel shows a two part narrative of the injuring and death of a wild boar.. The scenery behind is resolutely domesticated with rolling hills and walled town.

The slaughter continues dramatically on the fifth image. Whereas the central foreground point in each image up until now has been massive trees, the focus here is the fall of a large black /brown bear to a group of baying mastiffs. One the left a group of men move into the scene with spears, whilst on the left the wild wood closes in. But the bear will never escape into the dark forest again. The final long image on this side returns to the hunt of the sky but rather than small birds found amongst farmlands, they are hunting forest fowl. The dark wildness is represented by the draped foliage and spikily branched trunks. These are clearly coniferous trees which do not allow much light on to the forest floor and as the men and dogs look up the would see the dark birds shadowy against the canopy. With their crossbows and spears, this is an active piece with which to end on.

The first and last long images on other side, as I've mentioned, conclude the wild or natural hunting theme. As the men with their clubs and dogs set off in pursuit of a fox in the first, a hare runs for its life - and loses it - in the other. However the central four images seem the most most important. They feature a staged hunting event, which would be organised as part of court celebrations. Men would hunt animals to the death in front of a audience of dignitaries, ladies and others.

Every staged event requires a curtain or backdrop and this is provided, as well as festooned tree trunk in parody of the natural drapes depicted on the other side. This sequence of images shows the entrance of a rider through a gap provided by a smart yeoman. However the two most important players in this are the hunter and the hunted, who appear at the far left and right of the scene. There doesn't seem much doubt that it is August galloping into the image wearing a distinctive plumed hat, with a large black mastiff in front. The beautifully depicted deer makes a desperate run for the fake forest. 

The next climactic scene is chaotic but the most important. The mounted man in black has his sword raised and is urging his black mastiff on; he rides in for the kill. The spectators in their mock grotto look on and you can almost hear the applause. More killing is taking place all around but his is the one that is being watched. Because this is the central panel in this sequence, I think that the two panels after it can be it read from right to left. So far on this side, the narrative has been from left to right. This means that the panels also converge on the climax of the elector's kill. Compositionally the horses and riders seem to make more sense read from this new direction. 

The story appears to be the arrival of an important person; in a procession of mounted men, he is the one riding on a white horse, though not as richly caparisoned as the elector. However on close inspection he appears to have a portrait or similar attached to the front side of his saddle. His clothes and cloak are in rich cloth and he also has an elaborate hat. Although not the elector, he is probably an equal. Footmen run ahead of him, appearing in the next scene. This view that opens up is stunning. The visitors would see the city, Dresden possibly, appearing through the woods, glowing golden in the light. The dogs and their handlers wind their way towards the top of the hill to enter into the mock hunting festivities. Or heading home if the visitors have missed the show. The narrative is rather ambiguous here. That brings us back to the the thin end of the bench.

The natural hunting images form a horseshoe shape around the bench with the staged hunt at the centre point. Not only that but the scenes above also depicted a feast and the centre point of a procession. It is indeed a noisy, exciting and adrenaline pumping part of the bench. I wondered why they were arranged in this way; was it because that was the point at which the Elector turned the detachable wheel to draw the wire? I don't know I have to look at the plans again? Perhaps it was the way it sat in his long gallery so he could face that part of the decoration. Your guess is as good as mine.

This frieze of images open up a world which we have now forgotten. The relationship between humans and animals in the sixteenth century was evolving with the onset of technology but the Elector, for all his interest in new invention, was a traditional sort. He loved jousting. He appeared to love hunting to the point of obsession. This is why I am focusing on these images, rather than the flashier, intellectual and religious satire that was taking place in the frieze above. Those images are obvious, these are less so, but they are on the bench for a reason and that is why I am investigating them . 

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