Wood Carving

I. Introduction

Wood Carving, art of shaping statues, ornaments, furniture, and utensils out of wood by means of cutting tools, drills, and abrasives. Wood as a medium is light, supple, and workable; it has tensile strength, and separate pieces may be easily joined. It has the natural beauties of grain and variety of texture, although it lacks the weight, durability, and monumental quality of stone. Knowledge of the history of wood sculpture is distorted by the haphazard survival of carvings, which are vulnerable to dampness, fire, and the destructive activity of vermin. Wood to be carved is usually cut and rough-hewn with axes, saws, and knives. Various gouges, chisels, drills, and knives then are used for the actual carving. Pieces are finished with rasps, files, and sandpaper. Carvings may be painted or gilded directly on the surface or over a layer of cloth or plaster, or the wood may be left in its natural state and polished.

II. Distribution

Wood carving has been a basic mode of artistic expression, taking different forms according to the sharpness of the tools employed and the hardness and other characteristics of the available wood. Wood carving was virtually unknown in Babylonian, Assyrian, and ancient Persian cultures. It was common, however, in Egypt: Both the royal images and the ceremonial furniture in the tomb of Tutankhamun, who reigned in the 14th century BC, were fashioned of wood. During the Archaic period (about 700-480 BC), the ancient Greeks used wood for sculpture, but they came to prefer the more durable media of bronze and stone, as did the Romans.

In northern Europe wood has been an important sculptural medium, especially in Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. It is especially prevalent in nautical societies, where wood has been used to make and decorate boats, often with images to strike terror into enemies. Examples range from the prows of Viking ships to the figureheads of 19th-century European vessels. Wood played a significant role in England and France and formed the backbone of Spanish sculpture from the Romanesque period (11th century and 12th century) to the baroque period (15th century to 17th century). Even where carved wood has not played a vital part in figurative sculpture, it has been used almost universally to construct furniture down to the present day.

In Asia, wood carving has been a vigorous branch of sculpture, particularly in the art of India, China, and Japan, as seen in carved wooden Buddhas. Richly ornamental carving survives in parts of Indonesia. In Islamic cultures, where depiction of the human image is considered impious, wood has been used in elaborate decorative carvings. The indigenous cultures of the Pacific—Maori, Melanesian, and New Guinean—are noted for their carved woodwork, especially in canoes, domestic architecture, and ceremonial furniture. The Native North Americans used wood for weapons, utensils, and masks. In addition, the totem poles of the northwestern coast serve as family and clan emblems and sometimes record hierarchies of gods and animals. African sculpture, which consists chiefly of wood carvings, is remarkable for its ceremonial masks and idols.

III. Early Uses in Europe

After the hiatus in the use of wood for sculpture throughout the Greco-Roman world, the carved cypress doors of the Church of Santa Sabina (5th century AD) in Rome mark the beginnings of a new tradition of Christian narrative sculpture. In northern Europe, this tradition was easily assimilated by the Vikings, who had long carved interlaced patterns and imaginary beasts into their ships and buildings (see  Viking Art). By about the year 1000, solemn images of the seated Virgin and Child and of Christ on the cross (usually flanked by standing figures of Mary and Saint John mourning) abounded in churches. Wood, because of its relative lightness, was favored for the crucifixion groups that were set on a beam or rood screen across the entrance to the chancel. The style of these figures, elongated and confined within roughly cylindrical shapes, was partly dictated by the natural shape of the trunk or branch of a tree.

IV. Gothic Wood Carving

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From the Gothic period (12th century to 16th century), many of the increasingly elaborate furnishings of churches were carved out of wood: choir stalls and canopies, screens, pulpits, and lecterns (see  Gothic Art and Architecture). Tip-up choir seats known as misericords, popular in English cathedrals, contain a fascinating repertory of medieval symbolism, both sacred and profane. In Flanders, Germany, and Spain, the tradition of retables—narrative panels of carving or painting (usually devoted to the life of Christ or of a saint) set in elaborately carved frames—for altarpieces was established in the 15th century and survived well into the baroque period. Retables were usually equipped with painted and carved wooden wings that could be closed in front like the doors of a cupboard, both for protection and for concealment. Antwerp, Brussels, and Malines were famous centers of production that exported retables all over Europe. In the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), carved wood often formed the core of items such as reliquary busts of saints, which were coated with sheets of precious metal and studded with gems. By the 16th century, the increasing size and importance of church organs made them a focus of carved decoration. In secular life, coaches for royalty and other dignitaries began to be gorgeously carved.

In the 15th century, wood carving, like other art forms, ceased to be anonymous, and individual artists can be identified. St. George (Stockholm Cathedral) by the German sculptor Bernt Notke is notable; Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider, also Germans, were unequaled in their mastery. The solemn, ovoid faces of Riemenschneider's female figures characterize southern German sculpture of about 1500. In the Rhineland and Swabia the physical properties of linden wood determined an art style of complex undercut drapery folds swinging free from the figure. This construction minimized the risk of splitting as the wood swelled and contracted with changes in humidity. Also fashionable in Germany and the Netherlands were small statues carved out of close-grained woods, such as box and pear. These date from the late 15th century to the baroque period; Stoss and his followers contributed numerous miniature masterpieces.

V. The Renaissance in Italy and Spain

Although the example of ancient Greece and Rome discouraged the use of wood during the Renaissance in Italy, a few outstanding carved statues were created, three by Donatello: his early Crucifix (1409?, Florence); his St. John (1438, Venice); and his most dramatic statue, the St. Mary Magdalene (1455?, Florence). The standing figures of the Virgin Annunciate and the Angel Gabriel (both 1421, Duomo, San Gimignano, Italy), carved by Donatello's contemporary in Siena, Jacopo della Quercia, set a fashion that was widely imitated. The Italians also carved choir stalls and sacristy cupboards, frequently inserting flat decorations in wood marquetry. Secular carvings included beamed and coffered ceilings, as in the Room of the Lilies in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Michelangelo's Laurentian Library (designed 1520s) in Florence had ceilings and reading desks carved to his designs. Linen chests and picture frames were also elaborately carved with designs and figures. In Venice, the decoration of the doge's barge and other craft led to a vigorous school of wood carving, which also produced works for church interiors.

In Spain the art was carried to extremes in retables that often reached the full height of a church interior. These complex structures provided work for many wood-carvers; wood thus became a standard medium of Spanish sculptors for several centuries. It was used to especially good effect by Alonso Berruguete, a Mannerist follower of Michelangelo, in his retable of San Benito (1526-1532, Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain). The ease of carving and the lightness of wood permitted grandiose constructions in Spain that had no parallel in Italy. Sculptors such as Gregorio Hernández, Juan Montañés, and Alonso Cano produced most of their work in wood, with painted surfaces to make the figures appear lifelike.

VI. 17th Century to the Present

In 17th-century England one name stands out: Grinling Gibbons, celebrated for his technical dexterity in undercutting the leaves and flowers of his decorative festoons.

In Flanders there was a late baroque flurry of oak carving in pulpits with landscape settings and life-sized figures forming dramatic tableaux. Wood was esteemed by baroque and rococo sculptors in southern Germany and Austria because its strength and lightness, together with paint and gilt, enabled artists to create the illusion of figures flying in the clouds; Ignaz Gunther was the supreme wood sculptor of this period.

During the 19th century, wood was used mainly for church and domestic furniture and in architectural details. Designs were created in a pastiche of earlier art styles. In the 20th century, the discovery by artists of archaic wood carvings executed in nearly contemporary cultures in various parts of the world led to a sudden appreciation of the expressive potential of the material. Paul Gauguin, a Frenchman, imitated the style he found in the South Seas, and Henri Matisse, a Frenchman, Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian, and Pablo Picasso, a Spaniard, all occasionally resorted to wood. The Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi created abstract works that fully exploited the qualities of the material. In England Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth studied the natural conformation and grain of wood for inspiration in shaping their carvings.

In the United States, where wood had played a prominent part in the 18th and 19th centuries in various forms of folk art, its use as a sculptural medium dwindled in the first half of the 20th century. Although finely carved works were executed by such representational sculptors as Robert Laurent, Elie Nadelman, Chaim Gross, and William Zorach, by the 1940s the trend toward abstract design had ushered in an era dominated by metal. The abstract "sculptural walls" of wood created by Louise Nevelson from the 1950s on—and the work of such minimalist sculptors as Donald Judd and Carl Andre—have revived the use of wood for sculptural forms.

See also  African Art and Architecture; Folk Art; Japanese Art and Architecture; Oceanian Art and Architecture; Sculpture.

Contributed By:

Charles H. F. Avery, M.A., Ph.D.

Historian of Sculpture and Fine Art Consultant. Former Deputy Keeper, Department of Architecture and Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


"Wood Carving," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000

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