Wood-Carving, in general, the production from wood of objects of trade or art by means of sharp instruments, as a knife, chisel, file, or drill. Here only that branch of wood-carving is dealt with which produces artistic objects, belonging either to plastic (as statues, crucifixes, and similar carvings), or to industrial art (as arabesques and rosettes), and which serve mainly for the ornamentation of cabinet work. Carvings of the first class belong specifically to wood-sculpture; those of the second class to wood-carving proper; both are treated in this article. It is indeed not easy to maintain a sharp distinction between these two classes in a sketch dealing with the historical development of wood-carving, particularly as they were frequently combined in the production of artistic objects. Moreover, the lack of objects of industrial art among the remains of the first thousand years makes it necessary, in the following summary, to include also examples of wood-sculpture.
Objects carved from wood were frequently used for religious purposes in antiquity, especially by the Egyptians; the early statues of the gods were of wood. Wood-carving, however, did not receive its real development until the Christian era. On account of the perishable character of the material it is easy to understand that only a small amount of the wood-carving of Christian antiquity still exists. These scanty remains show that wood was then partly used for the same church purposes as today. Mention should be made here in particular of the wood-sculpture from Bawit in Egypt, namely the figures of two saints and consoles which were acquired in 1898 by the museum at Cairo, and the door of the Basilica of St. Sabina at Rome, the most important monument of early Christian wood-carving. In the early period reliquaries were frequently made of wood, as were also the episcopal cathedra; these chairs were adorned with ivory carved in relief, as is shown by the celebrated cathedra of Bishop Maximianus at Ravenna.
Originally the entire art of the Germans was expressed by work in wood; the churches were built almost entirely of wood, consequently, it may be assumed that most of the fittings of a church were of the same material. The adornment of the surfaces, which was produced by tooled work, consisted of figures of animals and interlaced geometrical designs in most peculiar interweavings and turnings. However, almost nothing remains of all the perishable objects of the early period, the chairs, coffers, and doors, with the exception of the small reading-desk of St. Radegunde (d. 587) at Poitiers, and the delicately carved door belonging to St. Bertoldo at Parma. This door is probably of Lombard origin; the characteristic German carving and work in geometrical design on the frame and panels make it a very beautiful piece of art. Such carving in low-relief, as shown on the only well-preserved chest of this era in the cathedral at Terracina in Italy, was common throughout the entire early medieval period. This is evidenced from the two wings of a folding-door of the eleventh century in the cathedral of Puy, one of which bears the legend: “Godfredur me fecit” (cf. Haupt, “Die alteste Kunst der Germanen”, Leipzig, 1909). The statues of saints and of the Virgin carved from wood, and the carved wooden images of the Savior, have almost entirely disappeared, owing to the decay of time and the change of taste. Among those that have been preserved is the celebrated “Volto santo di Lucca”, a crucified Christ clad in a tunic with sleeves that belongs to the eighth century, also a similar carving of the crucifixion at Emmerich, Prussia, a work of the year 1000. In addition, there are several representations in wood of the Madonna, that, however, can scarcely be included among artistic carved work, as they are entirely covered with plates of gold, a circumstance to which they owe their preservation. Such Madonnas may be found, for example, at Essen and Hildesheim in Prussia. Wooden seats, such as were used to a limited extent in the churches during the early medieval period, are only known from miniatures in the manuscripts and from sculpture in stone. These show that they generally were made of rounded posts, ribs, and boards which were seldom ornamented by carvings. Seats of this sort were retained in Romanesque art down to the twelfth century. A very unusual example of a pew made of turned round timber, belonging to the twelfth century, is to be found in the Museum of Industrial Art at Christiania. Strictly speaking it is turner-and-joiner-work.
Apparently during the entire Romanesque period low-relief was the prevailing method used in wood-carving. Examples of this are the superb framework surrounding the doors in Norwegian churches, as at Flaa and Aal, the scroll-work borders on the choir-stall and wooden reliquary belonging to the former monastery of Lokkum (1244) in Hanover, a few small wooden coffers in various collections, as at Cologne and Vienna, and several chairs in the museum at Christiania. Along with this work in low-relief, however, carvings in higher relief began to appear towards the close of the Romanesque period, as, for instance, the doors of the Church of Maria im Kapitol at Cologne and the doors of the cathedral of Spoleto. These latter doors, which were finished by Andrea Guvina in 1214, are the greatest achievement of Romanesque wood-carving; the reliefs are five centimetres high and are ornamented with twenty-eight scenes from the life of Christ. Notwithstanding a few excellent productions, wood-carving experienced, in general no decided development during the Romanesque period. The reason of this was partly the preference of the period for colored effects, which led to the covering of statues with glittering gold and to the painting of reliquaries and chests, partly in the methods of the joiner work of the period. Cabinets and coffers were not formed of frames and panels and joined together by rabbets and mitres, but were made of heavy boards roughly put together. Consequently it was necessary to hold the boards together by iron mountings, which excluded fine carved work. The custom of ornamenting the wooden reliquaries not with carved work but with paintings also prevailed in the East, as evidenced by the reliquaries found a short time ago in the treasury Sancta Sanctorum at Rome (cf. Grisar, “Sancta Sanctorum”, Freiburg, 1908).
If, as already said, it is impossible to write a continuous history of wood-carving down to the close of the twelfth century, on account of the lack of remains, still we are justified in assuming that wood-carving was oftener used for the ornamentation of churches and church furniture during the Romanesque period than it is possible today to prove. For the execution of such monumental tasks as large church doors presupposes great practical experience. Thus, at the opening of the Gothic period, wood-carving had reached such a state of development after hundreds of years, that it was able to cope with the many tasks assigned to it, so that we may justly call it a great era of wood-carving. The Gothic period added to the former needs of the Church in carved wood, such as seats, desks, and doors, many new requirements, above all those which had not been possible before the art of carving had fully developed, such as carved altars and choir-stalls, while the demand for statuary carved from wood naturally continued. Starting with those pieces of furniture that make the smallest demands upon the carver and are generally produced by a carpenter, we will speak first of cabinets or cupboards and coffers. The still existing specimens of these that have come down from the early Gothic era belong almost exclusively to the church, consequently the ornamentation is taken in most instances from architecture, as crockets, tracery, and battlements. In addition carved foliage and figures are found, especially on the doors and the top-pieces. Mention should be made of a sacristy cupboard at Wernigerode, Prussia, that is ornamented with carved masks and animals, and a cupboard ornamented with a grape-vine in low relief in the Arena Chapel at Padua. The coffers are generally made of two upright boards as supports, and two or three long boards stretched between; the ornamentation is generally only on the front. The ends are frequently decorated with single figures, the long side with pointed arches under which stand knights or saints; at a later date the front was also decorated with representations of various scenes. A large and widely scattered group of coffers, which apparently come from Flanders and are generally to be found in England, show on the front St. George’s battle with the dragon and the freeing of the king’s daughter. England has, indeed, the greatest treasure in church coffers lying neglected in the cathedrals. Mention should be made of the fourteenth-century coffers at Saltwood, Oxford (church of Magdalen College), Derby (St. Peter’s church), Chevington, and Brancepeth.
In the same way carpenter and carver shared in the work of making the choir-stalls and altars, which in the course of time were richly ornamented. In the choir-stalls the chief adornment was at the ends, on the supports under the seats or misericords and on the arms of the seats; the ends were decorated with figures of saints and with symbolical animals carved partly in relief and partly in the round. The imagination of the carver had its freest field in the misericords, where in addition to fruits and flowers, the wildest designs of the artist’s inventive fancy may be found, the secular and spiritual, serious and gay, satirical and symbolical. The carving on the arms of the stalls was also often more ingenious than artistic. The backs of the stalls were frequently richly decorated not only with architectural ornaments, as crockets, finials, and gabled hood-mouldings on the baldachino, but also with single figures and connected scenes. As examples may be mentioned the choir-stalls in the cathedral at Amiens (1508-1522). Both of these are exceeded in sumptuousness by the carving on a number of stalls in Spain, as those in the cathedral of Seville by Danchard and Nufro Sanchez (d. 1480). It is impossible here to go into the historical details of the development either of the stalls or of the altars made of wood. Carving was an important feature of these latter, especially in Germany and Flanders. The development of these altars is an important chapter in the history of sculpture in wood. They consisted essentially of a shrine, an open or closed one, ornamented with several figures or numerous groups of small ones. The most noted carved altars were the work of artists who were among the most distinguished sculptors of the later Middle Ages. Among these men were Michael Pacher, who made the celebrated altar at St. Wolfgang in Austria, the high altar at Blaubeuren in Swabia by Jorg Syrlin the younger, the altar of the Sacred Blood at Rothenburg by Till Riemenschneider, the altar of the Virgin by Veit Stoss at Cracow, the high altar in Schleswig by Hans Bruggemann.
Down to about 1350 Gothic wood-carving borrowed its ornamentation from stone carving. Later the more frequent use of wood and increased technical skill led to the abandonment of the rigid laws of stone carving, and to the creation of an independent style which attained freer and more brilliant results by the greater delicacy, finer membering, interlacing of lines, and pierced work. These advantages were used with such skill by the carvers that finally they were conspicuously used in stone-carving also. The creased folds, sharp corners, and edges characteristic of the late Gothic style are probably to be traced back to the cutting knife used in wood-carving. This development of late Gothic wood-carving was largely brought about by the fact that the figures and altars were always painted in a number of colors. The carved work was first covered with a coating of chalk, which was then painted with gay colors and richly gilded, and patterns or inscriptions were impressed upon the seams of the robes and nimbi. This naturally made it unnecessary for the carver to carry out his work into the finest details, as it was to be covered by polychromatic painting. Consequently most of the great carved work of the late Middle Ages is not intended to produce its effect by the details, but by the impression made by the whole. Regarded in this way many wooden altars, by the richness of the ornamental carving, the scenes presented by the figures, and the brilliant decoration of paint and gold, excite a feeling of joy and produce a mystical effect that cannot be produced by a stone altar. Wooden altars are frequently enriched by painted wings. It is, therefore, easy to understand why the carved altars of Flanders, in particular, were largely exported, even as far as Norway and Portugal.
Medieval wood-carving, naturally, was not limited to the production of the pieces of church furniture mentioned above. Besides the choir-stalls other furnishings similarly ornamented were the celebrant’s seat (deacon’s seat), episcopal throne, doors, pulpits, and reading-desks. In addition there was the vast number of statues of the Madonna and the saints, as well as crucifixes, with which the churches were filled at the close of the Middle Ages, and which, especially in the lands affected by the Reformation, were burned by the wagon-load at the beginning of the schism. Notwithstanding this there is a larger amount of carved work formerly belonging to churches in Germany and Belgium than in any other country, although the art of wood-carving created numerous and worthy productions in France, Italy, Spain, and especially in Scandinavia and England. As an instance of English work should be mentioned the beautiful sepulchral figure of Archbishop Peckham at Canterbury; of French work, the doors of the cathedral at Aix (1504). The style of wood-carving in the late Middle Ages was strongly influenced by the art of painting, since several important German sculptors in wood were also painters, or at least owned studios, such as Michael Pacher, Friedrich Herlin, and Hans Multscher, hence, though the undercutting of the drapery was deep and its design bold, the effect was mean and trivial. The pictorial element was encouraged by the ease with which lime and poplar, which were the woods used in Southern Germany, could be worked; in Northern Germany the preference was for oak.
This brilliant period of wood-carving came to an end in Germany and Switzerland about 1530 on account of the religious turmoil. But there were scattered works of high excellence produced in these countries by the art of the Renaissance, as, for instance, the choir-stalls in the cathedral at Berne (1522), which have the naive grace of the early Renaissance, and the stalls in the former monastic church at Wettingen (1603) in Germany, which show the grace and skill of the late Renaissance, the superb stalls in the chapter-chamber of the cathedral at Mainz, the carving on the lower part of which is alive with grotesque figures. Frequent opportunity for artistic carved work was also given by the organ cases, the galleries, the pews, and especially the panels covering the walls of chapter-rooms, and similar ecclesiastical halls. One of the richest panellings in Germany is that of the chapter-room of the cathedral at Munster in Westphalia (1544-1552). Excellent carvings of this period in the Netherlands are the choir-stalls of the Great Church at Dordrecht which picture the entry of Charles V into the city. A fine example of French wood-carving is that of the choir-stalls of Saint-Denis. During this period the greatest triumphs of wood-carving were produced in Italy, the birth-place of the Renaissance. Here this art profited greatly by the development of stone sculpture, and in many pieces of church equipment it sought to compete with work in stone, as in candelabra and reading-desks. However, in Italy it is chiefly the choir-stalls, the thrones of the bishops and abbots, and the cupboards in the sacristies which prove the high artistic development of wood-carving. The ornaments produced in the carved work for churches have in the main the same delicate, attractive grace as those intended for secular purposes. Like the latter they are decorated with vine-work, figures of animals, and fabulous creatures in the most delicate and rich relief. It was customary to employ architects, who were also employed for decorative work in stone, to produce the designs for large works in carved wood, such as choir-stalls. Thus such designs were made in Florence by Benedetto da Majano, in Siena by Ventura di Ser Giuliano, the architect of the church of San Bernardino at Siena. Local tradition seeks to connect distinguished names with the designs for celebrated carved-work; thus in Siena such designs are attributed to Peruzzi, in Perugia to Perugino and Raphael. In general, however, the master who executed the carving usually produced the design. This view is all the more probable as the occupation of wood-carving frequently descended from father to son and thus, as in other branches of work, family traditions arose. This explains in part the often extraordinary technique. We know of a number of artist families of Upper Italy who travelled throughout Italy, exercising their skill in cathedral and monastery churches. Besides these lay master-workmen, various members of different orders gave their attention to wood-carving. Especially celebrated among such are Fra Giovanni da Verona (1457-1525), whose work is to be found in Maria in Organo at Verona, in Lodi, Montioliveto near Siena, and at the Vatican; Fra Damiano Zambelli da Bergamo (1480-1549), whose work is at Bergamo, Milan, Bologna, Perugia, and Genoa; Fra Rafaele da Brescia (1477-1537), whose carvings are at Bologna and Montioliveto near Siena.
The styles of the Renaissance came into vogue in the making of church equipments through the influence of Brunelleschi and Donatello, and appeared first of all at Florence. As far as wood-carving is concerned the effects of the Renaissance are nowhere better to be observed than in the choir-stalls. It was largely Florentine masters who executed the carved work on the large numbers of choir-stalls that have been preserved in Tuscany and Umbria. Thus Giuliano and Antonio da San Gallo worked on the choir-stalls of the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia, the varied grotesques of which are of extraordinary delicacy. In the late Renaissance the purely ornamental decoration is frequently replaced by scenes containing figures. Among the most important works of this period are the choir-stalls in San Giorgio Maggiore at Venice by Alberto di Brule, and those in Santa Giustina at Padua by Taurino and Andrea Campagnola with pictures carved in relief on the backs. Closely connected with the choir-stalls is the choir-desk which consists of a base shaped like a pedestal, a support formed like a candelabrum, and the book-rest. The base and the support in particular are frequently ornamented with rich carving; examples of such work of the late Renaissance are the desk in the cathedral at Siena and that in San Pietro at Perugia. Another piece of furniture that the art of carving selected for embellishment was the cupboard of the sacristy, the doors of which were artistically ornamented. The most important work of this class is in the new sacristy of the cathedral of Florence; on the panels of this cupboard is a carving in high relief of boys carrying a wreath. The work is that of Giuliano da Majano; it contains individual figures, reliefs, fabulous creatures, and ornaments, and its sumptuousness baffles description, and is hardly to be appreciated from illustrations. It exhibits the technique of the art of wood-carving in a completeness that can scarcely be surpassed. However, regarded purely from the artistic point of view, the works of the early and central period of the Renaissance also exhibit a very high level of wood-carving.
The styles of the succeeding periods may be touched on more briefly, as wood-carving produced but little that was new except that the manner of ornamentation was altered. Perhaps the decoration of the confessional might be considered a novelty. Up to this era the confessional had generally been without adornment. In the Baroque period the confessionals were frequently adorned with large carved wooden figures on each side of the door and had a cornice at the top. The exceedingly high altars which towered in the German churches of this period presented a hitherto unknown problem to wood-carving. This was the decoration of the large twisted columns with garlands and cherubs, and the arranging of angels with huge wings and saints in ecstatic and tortuous positions between the columns as well as on the interrupted gabled pediment. The production of carved head pieces for the church pews which up to that time had been left without decoration was also a novelty. Much attention was paid to the pulpit. This was especially the case in Belgium where the pulpit was adorned in a very naturalistic manner with mountains, trees, clouds, and groups of figures. During the Baroque period there was a great demand for wood-carving. In 1614 Archduke Albert in Belgium ordered the speedy restoration in the old style of the ecclesiastical objects that had been destroyed during the religious strife. This command was carried out chiefly as regards the inner restoration of the churches, and in this undertaking wood-carving had a large share. In Germany and Austria during the same era the great work of the Counter-Reformation was completed, one result of which was the building or renovation of large numbers of churches, and the production of ornate church furniture, especially of choir-stalls, organ-cases, and confessionals. These furnishings were generally made of wood and richly decorated with the lavish carving and high relief of the Baroque style, or rather frequently overloaded with ornamentation. The decoration consisted of the same flamboyant ornaments, cartouches, and the same scroll-work as were customary in the secular art of the period.
The heaviness of the Baroque was followed by the airiness of the Rococo style, which was succeeded later by the stiff precision of the Empire style. The lack of artistic depth and force in the Empire style is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in church furniture. This style may have been able to give a delicate, graceful appearance and a brilliant effect to the ball-room, the theatre, boudoir, and the drawing-room, but it failed so far as church furniture was concerned to inspire in those at prayer a religious frame of mind and a sense of devotion. At the same time it must be conceded to the art of carving of that era that it can show important results in purely decorative work, as seen in the altars, choir-stalls, confessionals, and pulpits of the great churches of the second half of the eighteenth century in Southern Germany and Austria. Examples are the choir stalls at Wiblingen near Ulm executed by Januarius Zieck (1780), and those in the collegiate church of St. Gall (1765). Large panels with scenes carved in relief from the Old and New Testament framed in the ornamental work of the art of the period form the main scheme of decoration. This sumptuous wooden furniture in many churches was evidence both of the great technical skill of the carver and of the large amount of money expended by those who built the churches. If, however, their united efforts have failed to produce that homelike, mystical warmth of feeling which appeals to the beholder in so many of the simple unadorned works of the Middle Ages, the reason for this must be found in the conditions of the period, which was that of the “Enlightenment”. Just as a cold Rationalism prevailed in the theology of that day, so to a certain degree it was also evidenced in ecclesiastical wood-carving.