Recently I had the opportunity of joining a conservation team as a volunteer on a fascinating project of various renovations of medieval paintings and monuments at one of my favourite churches. Obviously, as a novice, I wasn't involved with any of the paintings but being alongside some of the world's best conservators I did learn quite a lot in my short time with them in all various roles. Being an artist I was inspired in all directions from the conservation, the team and the environment I was in.
I had been visiting the church on a regular basis but I realised that I had been missing so much history right in front of my eyes in the form of witch marks and hexfoils, thanks to the conservators help I was able to find them on the outside of the church walls and a few I had the pleasure of uncovering inside the church.
What a treat to find medieval graffiti, art from another age, so as a new hobby I've decided to seek out more medieval graffiti with a view of recording what I consider to be important art.
I am no expert of their whole meanings or creation but as I venture on with this project I'm sure I'll have a much better understanding of these wonderful witch marks and other interesting carved insignia.
So, what is a hexfoil? It's a symbolic carving created for protection from evils, a remnant of the medieval mind and superstitions of the day. They are thought to be dated between 1300 - 1800 and generally found in and around medieval churches, barns and other historic buildings.
I was aware from an early age about brass rubbings and gravestone rubbings using either chalk or wax crayons to reproduce a copy onto paper or cloth. To get my eye in on any other possible techniques I read somewhere that those processes could be detrimental and damaging to the original engravings.
So, with conservation in mind I decided to use thin tin foil with a soft brush to gently rub the foil onto the original carvings. It's a very gentle process indeed but very effective without leaving any residues behind or causing any possible damage too. You aren't even touching the original surface with your fingers either as they hold the tin foil in place.
Once I had collected a menagerie of foil copies the next stage was to use the foil imprints as base moulds and to fill with fine casting plaster to produce plaster copies.
Here's a couple of fish carvings I found in sandstone as plaster casts, all ready for painting.
The next and almost final stage was to paint up the plaster copies to represent the original, what stone it was carved on and emphasising the actual carving in the stone with extra shading.
This was part of a design with another name above but unfortunately the name above was ineligible. There was a date associated too that possibly read 1600.
It still astounds me that medieval graffiti when in text is usually old script.
Here's the first hexfoil I found all painted up and varnished.
Hexfoils or witchmarks come from a time when a belief in witches and superstition was part of everyday life. People constantly sought protection from evil spirits, witches or their animal familiars.
The two fish I found carved in the outside wall. I really like these but I didn't know anything about them until my dentist recognised them as a reference to a the fish and loaves biblical story she'd learnt at Sunday school. Interesting to note though, the common daily diet of the medieval peasantry was salmon, brown bread, pea's (mushy) with a salty sorrel dressing. Quite an expensive dish these days.
The 'Gregory' carving all painted up and varnished. I use a satin varnish on these so that there's little or no light reflection, yet adding an extra layer of protection for display.
This one is the common VV witch mark representing the Virgin Mary, virgin of virgins, I really like the added design at the top of the V's, they give it such character.
There were two of these at the very top of the Gregory design but the other carving was very faint.
My first thought about this witch mark was Vestal Virgin which originally dates back to Roman times, this carving was dated 1600. My thinking was Vestal Virgins, in Roman religion, six priestesses who tended the cult of Vesta. Apart from the added design at the top of the V's there are 6 points that could represent the six priestesses. The added triangles or trinities may have been added later to represent the Christian religion. Just a thought.
From a conservation point of view once the delicate foil impression is reproduced once you can easily purchase a detail silicone moulding, pour it over your casting so that you are able to reproduce more plaster copies of the original without ever having to disturb the original stone carving again. Also with more copies, you can challenge your painting to produce your own colour schemes or to accurately record the original colours.
There seemed to be added text between the TW and the GZ but it was really ineligible to capture.
A few more VV engravings, simpler in design to the above ones but still some of my favourites.
I'm unsure about this carving, my first thought on finding it was that it was an inverted 4 symbol but after taking an impression it turned out to be something quite different.
Finally for this location, I found a rather large carving of what I think is a wolf, although, in a recent conversation with conservator, I was informed that it's a representation of a dragon due to it's long curly tail. There may have been something under it's foot but the bottom half was almost ineligible until I produced the cast.
This was an exciting find and the last impression that I've created for this church, from the outside anyway.
I hope you've enjoyed my medieval journey with hexfoils and carvings from that period, there will be more to follow.
If you are inspired to have a go at these yourself or as a project then please ask permission from the building or landowner before you venture out to any location. I am also available for guidance in creating these, contact me through the contact section on this website.
Please check out my day job art while you are here and thanks for taking the time to view.