Monday, December 26, 2011

Confessions of a woodworker...

As I visited several countries in Europe recently, this included a fair bit of wandering through historical sights and tourist places. A first time for us, my wife and I were taking it all in and observing such a deep level of history, with all its complexities. You have to remember that for someone from Australia, there is a fascination about walking into a building which is a more than two hundred years old! Other than caves and natural features which give evidence of human occupation going back 60,000 years, there are no buildings in Australia which are over 220 years old. So these huge old structures across Europe so many centuries old hold a particular fascination for us.

Due to the religio/political shaping of European history, there are a great many very old cathedrals and churches remaining, many of which are key features on the tourist trails throughout much of Europe. Hence we visited many of these huge old buildings. As so many of these are made from carved marble and stone, the visible woodwork mostly consists of doors, sometimes panelling and furnishings.Don't get me wrong... I am very impressed at the extraordinary level of craftsmanship which has been applied to amazing marble creations and embellishments in these buildings. However, |I confess that my heart particularly responds to the warm glow of ancient beautifully crafted timber furnishings in these cathedrals and churches. So with this confession in mind, it is appropriate that at this point we look at a common wooden furniture item found in these places of worship - the Confessional.
Beautiful woodwork in this confessional. Zagreb Cathedral.
Nice carved detail in the face frames around the doors.
Confessionals were commonly made as booths, offering privacy in an enclosed space where a person makes their confessions in the presence of a priest,  who sits on the other side of a divider which provides a degree of anonymity for both parties.  These very old pieces of furniture in the cathedrals and churches were made by skilled people in the days when quality and attention to detail where normal expectations, and remain as inspiring examples of craftsmanship. A feast for a woodworker's eyes, it's a shame these confessionals are mostly housed in very dark or poorly lit places!

A little more rudimentary in style. Notre Dame, Paris.
 The variations in the styles of the confessionals is fascinating. The contexts in which these big pieces of furniture sit is often amazing. The grand buildings around them tend to dwarf them as they often sit in dark corners surrounded around and above by incredible carved marble and painted frescoes.

It's dark, and no flash allowed. A different style of confessional, Chiesa del Gesu, Rome.

Amazing marble context:  Confessional dwarfed in bottom right of picture. Chiesa del Gesu, Rome.
Some confessionals have amazing carved pediments and panels. Others have complex joinery with layers of mitred mouldings and detail. Others are more plain, but have the most wonderful veneered panels instead. This one in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore is just one of those. It lets the wood do the talking.

Confessional set into an alcove. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.

Something which struck me about the confessionals in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican was the way in which the back of these substantial pieces of furniture were shaped to follow the complex marble wall details behind them. They also had amazing carved pediments and layering of mouldings creating grand columns on bases. Very nice veneered panels, too!

Wonderful detail in this confessional. Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

A closer look at the external square columns.

A closer look at the centre round columns on square bases.

Side view. I love the way the backs are scribed to fit the complex wall profile!
Spectacular pieces of furniture in the old cathedrals and churches are not limited to the confessionals. There are often amazing carved choir stalls, seating, other sanctuary furniture and pine organ facades.  The level of workmanship is sublime, the timber used is often so very beautiful, and the tell-tale signs of so many decades or even centuries of use are fascinating in themselves. Confessionals hold their own secrets. Ah, if these furniture walls could speak...

Yes, I confess I am a lover of fine furniture, rough furniture, practical furniture - wooden furniture. It is the stuff which has been made by the skilled hands of craftsmen long departed which particularly casts its spell on me, as with these old confessionals. A close look at the detail usually reveals to me the tell-tale marks of hand made furniture - the small mistakes, the over-cut, the scribe line, the planing tear-out, etc. Rather than detract from the piece, these marks are both reassuring and exciting. They bring me closer to the person who toiled over these creations to earn their daily bread, and a recognition of the methodology and tool use which both he and I would often share.

The process of making things with our hands is so satisfying. Woodworkers throughout the ages have found deep joy and meaning in the creative process and the application of their skills. 
Yes, I confess I am smitten.

1 comment:

  1. I also have a wood workshop which has developed a lot for the last few years, possibly thanks to anegis consulting and their outstanding support.