Monday, December 12, 2011

Scytho-Siberian zoomorphic art style as illumination

  This weekend some of us in the Shire roadtripped down to Kansas City for Kris Kinder.  Kris Kinder is mainly a holiday market where craftsmen can sell their wares, but it’s also where a lot of meetings take place. There are meetings for specific offices (chatelaine, chronicler…), and meetings for special interest guilds (fibers, scribes…). The arts & science type of groups sometimes have challenges where the members decide on a thing to make. Members work on their pieces and everyone’s are collected and given to Their Majesties as largess (items they can then give out to people as thank you gifts).
  The Winter Scribal Challenge this year was to decorate a bookmark or card with illumination and calligraphy that you did yourself. The idea was that you would be stretching yourself out of your comfort zone if you normally only do one or the other. The pieces that ended up being collected seemed to come solely from illuminators as most only contained a word of text (and actually none in a couple cases…), and there was some fantastic illumination done. I wrote “Home is where the Heartland is” (the name of our kingdom is Welsh for heartland) and was surprised that I was the most verbose. My calligraphy sucks, so it didn’t look great, but I did try, which was the point of the exercise.
  We were each supposed to do two- one to give to Their Majesties and one to give to another scribe who contributed pieces. I think only myself and one other person ended up taking pieces home, so the rest went to Their Majesties. I saw a style on a couple of the bookmarks that I’ve seen before but know nothing about (tri-lobed ivy leaves with bezants scattered about), so I took one to study and practice from.
  Aside from the one class on bianchi girari I attended, I know nothing about illumination styles, and I have yet to actually try any. I wanted to do something Sarmatian for my first non-pre-print illumination, but Sarmatians didn’t illuminate—they didn’t have a written language around which to paint pretty pictures. They do have a very distinctive zoomorphic art style, however.  They used it in goldsmithing, leatherwork, feltwork, metalworking, and all kinds of stuff that’s not painting parchment or vellum. The closest  to it is their tattoos (which I would love to find some pictures or reproductions of).  So what to do?—take advantage of the “creative” in Society for Creative Anachronism.
  I did my illuminations in the Scytho-Siberian zoomorphic style- one a Scythian variant and one a Sarmatian variant. The first, the Scythian piece, is based on a torse and quiver cover pictured in "From the Lands of the Scythians". The colors I used don’t have any particular significance because the artifacts are all in gold; they’re just what I felt like doing.

  You’ll notice this isn’t zoomorphic so much as straight realism. It's because these pieces were made by Greeks with Scythian themes and motifs for the Scythians. Scythians and Sarmatians love griffins. They also love to have predators attacking their prey. I decided to have my griffin attack the big letter ‘H’. See that fin on the neck and head? That’s something that Scytho-Sarmatian griffins have which Western griffins don’t (likewise with the short fin around the back of the jaw and the lion front limbs). The griffin on the quiver is actually shown pinching a chunk of flesh in its beak, so I replicated that here.

   The floral motif inside the ‘H’ and the border both come from the torse. I didn’t draw any birds strewn amid the flowers like on the torse just to keep it a bit simpler. There are several different types of flowers shown (or at least a couple different views of one and a thing that could be a leaf or a flower which I don’t know the identity of). There’s the main vine with branches splitting inside leaves (kind of like on corn stalks), then there’s the really skinny vines which end in the flowers that wrap around those main vines. 

  The Sarmatian piece is the one which actually shows the zoomorphic style. Both designs come from gold plaques shown in "The Golden Deer of Eurasia". For this piece, I painted both gold, in salute to their origin, with complementary colors filling the white space and closed shapes to make it stand out more.

I picked one of the deer plaques and reproduced it inside the H, once on each side, then added more points to the brow tines (based on a third plaque not pictured here) inside the horizontal bar so it wouldn’t be empty.The shape behind the deer is actually a leg that's been twisted up behind the animal. Twisting limbs is fairly common in this style.
 The saiga antelope is my favorite part from both of these bookmarks. I really like this particular version of the zoomorphic style. It has such nice swoopy curves and shapes. Everything just flows together. I had to make the hindquarters less tall than they were in the plaque in order to have it fill the space better, but it’s otherwise a direct reproduction of the plaque.
After drawing and painting him, I feel really inspired to make an entire scroll illuminated in that style. Someday when I have time…

From the Lands of the Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the USSR, 3000 BC-100BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol 32, no. 5, 1975.

The Golden Deer of Eurasia: Scythian and Sarmatian Treasures from the Russian Steppes, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.