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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Whittler And His Art

About fifty years ago a land owner in an inlet off the fjord at Christiana (medieval Vik) spaded down in a clay hill and found a Viking Queen's "How" or land burial in her ship, beached by her men - a thousand year old treasure of Scandinavian wood carving.

The ship's high stern was carved from pointed arch to bottom with scrolls and monsters. Piercing and open work carving on the Queen's bed head showed scaled sea serpents (or dragons) on the flanks of the uprights which ended in monster heads curved backward against their necks.

With the Queen were a wagon, sled, and other items ornately carved with coiled and interlaced serpents, their heads joining the coils or showing through their centers. Were these interlacings the secret runic writing of Scandinavia? The knife, chisel and gouge have been called her pens. Her ships, churches, furniture, tools and weapons were marvelously carved.

Sailor adventurers from Vik, called Vikings (Goths, Norsemen or Normans) sailed north and east past Lapland, crossed the Atlantic to America, toured the Mediterranean, and raided and traded along the Low Countries, France, England and Ireland. They left the influence of their interlaced carvings, animal headed implements and the pointed arch of their ship sterns on Celtic and Gothic art.


In Egypt and Mesopotamia wood had to be imported and was precious. Tutankhamen's tomb had some beautiful carved wood. So did earlier tombs, such as the carved portrait sculptures of the Lady of Sakkara and of Sheikh el-Belied. Carvings favored naturalistic animals and plants, the lotus leading.

The Bible tells of ebony from Ethiopia and cedar from Lebanon. Carvers made knopts and flowers for Solomon's temple. The prophet Nahum spoke of Nineveh's fine furniture. Bas reliefs and signature seals show carved couches, chairs and tables.

India carved gods, scepters, throne chairs, jewel boxes and fans from hard or sweet scented woods. China's ancient carved panels of interlaced lines and flowers are preserved by lacquer coatings. So are her folding screens, chests, trays and other wood carvings of tomb, temple and palace.

Japan's 8th century Gigaku religious masks and 16th century No Masks for her No Dramas are in her museums. Her carved cherry wood blocks for Japanese prints, her flowered Ramma panels for home air circulation above her sliding screens, and her Netsukes (fancy medicine case buttons) are famous.

Doors from Tamerlane's Tomb at Samarkand show carving of Kufic lettering, flowering trees of life growing from vases (as in Persian rugs), and the ancient Babylonian star and pointed cross. Persia's wood carving showed Kufic lettering thru flowered background, curving vines, intertwined palm leaves, and the grape, pineapple and pomegranate.

These, polychromed for wood preservation and bright color, enriched ceilings, walls, window frames, doorways and furnishings of palace and mosque from Turkestan to Morocco. The Moorish "bee's nest" technique of carved and fitted wood in cell effect was a favorite in Mohammedan countries, including Spain.


Perhaps the ancient Varangian guards took Scandinavian carving to the Golden Horn (refugee Constantine called the city Constantinople), now Istanbul, when 'they gave their protection to the Byzantine king. Or maybe they learned it there from the artistic Persians. For this great trade center of fur, amber, iron and corn radiated the art wares of the East. Maybe here the trading Greeks were jolted from their primitive carving of expressionless wooden gods to become the supreme sculptors of the world. Certainly they taught their carving art to their Roman conquerors, but little Roman wood carving has escaped the wars and the enemies of wood. Some cite Saint Sabina's carved doors as truly Roman, though done in the 5th century A.D.

Christian Byzantium combined Scandinavian, Asian, Greek, Roman and Christian art in a medieval high culture scattered and lost with Byzantium's burning by the Crusaders, and later the Turks. But wood carvers escaped by the rivers to Scandinavia, and Russia, the Low countries and Germany; and over the trails to the East and South, and throughout the Mediterranean.

Spain spliced the Christian dove, fish, angel, cross and crown onto her Moorish carvings. Italy's travelers brought back the curves, flowers, fruits and animals of Persia. These, blended with her own patterns, made Italy's wood carving some of the most elaborate in the world. Her 16th century cassoni or marriage chests, ornately carved in high relief, are examples.

France, Germany and England forsook their Viking and Celtic interlacing and monster heads, their primitive scratching and chip carving. Along with Spain, they moved up from Gothic arches (as across chest fronts and chair heads and skirts) ; from linen fold paneling (like vertical folds of cloth) ; and from trefoil and quatre foil (like three and four leaf clover).

They left low carving (kept flat to save it from being knocked off in its rugged life) and took up higher carving of flowers, leaves, running vines, fruits and shells. These grew into excessively carved curves and figures of Louis XV type with free flying acanthus leaves, and real and mythical figures of humans and animals, almost "in the round." Chippendale was the conservative of this high and excessive carving style.

Grinling Gibbons cut deep. His swags and drops of high rounded, naturalistically carved birds and shells, fruits and flowers"flowers so delicate they nodded with the air currents," are tops in highlights and shadows, in carving craftsmanship. His mirror frames, over-mantels, and wall panel columns as cabinet, chair and table legs, or decorations are extremely valuable today.


Herculaneum and Pompeii, dug from the ashes of Vesuvius, brought back Greek and Roman gods, vases, lamps, fluted columns, friezes and cornices. Wood carvers adapted them to European and American homes. And Louis XVI furniture, in this Classical mode, is considered some of the finest wood carving ever made.

America topped her doorways, fireplaces, windows, panels, highboys and desks with entablatures like Greek temples, sometimes adding the eagle. She used fluted or reeded columns as cabinet, chair and table legs, or took up Duncan Phyfe's subtly curved legs. Her carved decoration generally followed Europe's.

Colonials carved spice boxes, chests, settles and benches, chairs and cradles, tables and beds with simple chip carving or more elaborate patterns. Birds, animals, flowers and fruits were favorites. Even the pineapple, pomegranate, and pine cone were used, though their Eastern symbolism was lost. American ship builders used sea monsters, running and interlaced patterns, but the trend was toward American heroes, American girls, and Indian chiefs as figure heads for the prows of their ships.

Cigar store Indians symbolized Indian tobacco. Carved ducks made hunters' decoys. Butter, cake and cookie molds fancied up the foods. Store, hotel and stable signs, bootjacks, gun stocks and pistol handles, toys, frames and tools, all came from the American whittler.


Slow growing ebony, teak, oak, and hickory; easy-to-carve walnut, mahogany, white pine, pear, apple or cherry; and sweet smelling sandalwood, fir and cedar, all have made carving history. A piece of flint, a jade knife, the fire-sharpened stick-chisel, a bit of horn, some hammered metal tools, and forged ones, all have carved wood into weapons of hunt or war, and tools for cooking, building and the home.

Primitive Africans cut wooden images with short legs to symbolize their ancient pygmy gods. They carve masks we collect, and whittle daggers we use for paper knives. The Maori carve ridge poles and house panels of bold beauty. And even as the Vikings honored their sea monsters, American Indians have honored their gods of lightning, rain and thunder, their bison, beaver and bear.

India carves sweet odored sandalwood fans and trinket boxes, hard wood Buddhas, taborets and chairs. China's teakwood chairs and tables, some simple, some with high and ornate carving; her camphor wood chests; her richly simple Kwan Yin Goddesses of Mercy, and her smooth, fat little gods of plenty are known to art lovers.

Swiss carvers of workshop and farm sculp and paint peasant people of great charm. Oberammergau continues her century old holy figures, including her miniature Virgins. While American Indians here and in Mexico and South America, show their wonderful knife and chisel art in old Mission and cathedral beams and furnishings and altar pieces. They still patiently whittle their masks, Indian figures, and religious objects, such as Kachina dolls, to the joy and enrichment of travelers, and collectors.

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