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Painted Leather in History

For Educational Use Only
By John J Kouns

           Currently references for painting on leather consist of only a few examples in the available online research; in total – a single box, a roman shield, a scabbard and a cover, along with a single statement from Spanish Leather (Waterer, 1971). So it is well overdue that the following examples be added, let alone the simple explanation on why there are so few examples currently, and the techniques used for painting leather in ancient fashion. Now let us look at more examples of painted leather in history.

           The first item is a ceremonial parade shield by Andrea Del Castagno called, "The Youthful David" c. 1450, Egg Tempera on leather. I was very surprised that this beautiful work was not amongst the known references listed above since it was described on page 31 of "Renaissance Painting" which is volume 3 of the 20,000 Years of World Painting Series. This piece is currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. This colorful reference book also lists a picture painted on parchment. Parchment and vellum which until the 15th Century was rawhide leather, vellum being the higher quality of the two, are processed in the same way as all other leathers until the tanning process. Note that the use of vellum from rawhide did continue for special books for some time after the use of paper started. Since this type of leather is not technically tanned, historians and museums do not technically consider it leather. If it were to be considered as such I would have to list more period illuminated manuscripts than I care to count. Let alone the first known painted self-portrait of Albrecht Dürer, "Portrait of the Artist holding a Thistle" c. 1493, originally painted on vellum. This work was later transferred to canvas for preservation purposes.

           With the advent of the digital age it has become much easier to obtain more examples of other leather items that are painted as many of the museums and auction houses are now turning to the Internet to enrich the lives of others and/or to turn a profit. The "Veil of Monica," a Spanish 15th Century Painting on tooled leather mounted on wood is listed as sold by 134 sales. There is the oil painting "A young man holding a carnation," an Italian 16th Century Painting on tooled leather-mounted on canvas, which is currently in storage at the Victoria and Albert Museum England. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (29 September 1571 – 18 July 1610) painted two versions of a jousting shield called, "Medusa" – the first in 1596, and the other in 1597-1599, depending on the source. The first version, also known as "Murtula" (48×55cm) by the name of the poet who wrote about it, is signed Michel A F (Michel Angelo Fecit); this copy I presume to be painted on leather, since it is listed by the Caravaggio Foundation as being painted on leather, and is in private hands; the second version, commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Maria Del Monte, is slightly larger (60×55cm), painted on canvas mounted on wood, and is not signed; it is held in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

           Leather ceremonial shields were a popular venue for painted leather. A 16th century parade shield made in Venice is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This round lacquered leather shield has Ottoman-inspired motifs, uses a polychrome (the practice of decorating in variety of colors) technique, tooled, embellished with silver leaf, and is given a yellow hue by means of a translucent yellow varnish. The St. Louis Art Museum has a Pavise (Archer's shield) made out of wood, painted leather, iron, and boar skin that dates from before 1467. The National Museum of the Middle Ages (Musee National du Moyen Age) Paris, France also has an archer's shield on display from the late 15th Century that is very detailed. It depicts a young David in shepherds cloths slaying an armor clad Goliath whose head had just been hit with a stone and has blood running down his face.

           "You or Death," an image of courtly love, is a late 15th century parade shield currently on display at the British Museum. This shield depicts a lady in courtly dress and a knight kneeling in front of her. The knight wears a suit of plate armor with the helmet, gauntlets, and a pole-axe lying at his feet. Death emerges from behind, his hands outstretched and about to seize him. The scroll above the knight's head could either represent the knight's speech, or be a declaration of the motto of the scene: "vous ou la mort" ("you or death"). Not only does this painted leather shield represent a fine piece of painted leather art, but it is also a keen representation of the knightly virtues. The British Museum even has a picture display on the reconstruction/repair of this marvelous work. I should mention that the Victoria and Albert Museum has a write up on ceremonial leather shields with an actual crosscut picture of a leather covered ceremonial shield undergoing restoration.

           Home decorations were another venue for painted leather. Leather mural hangings and panels were another form of painted leather. The origin of these pieces is the same as the origin of modern leather working itself which is traced back to 800 A.D. in the Moorish regions of Spain, specifically the Spanish city of Cordoba. The well-furnished castle or palace in the Middle Ages, let alone the grand houses of the Renaissance had to be adorned with these pieces if you were to be considered anybody of status. As John W. Waterer stated in his book Spanish Leather, they (the leather panels) "vied for pride of place with the contemporary silk velvets and rich tapestry hangings." By the early 15th century, the techniques used by the artists of Cordoba were copied all over Europe. Many of these pieces of art are in storage at museums around the world.

           The Victoria and Albert Museum has many examples, I will mention two such examples, both dated ca. 1500-1600 that were very impressive. The first Museum number: 707-1890 are very colorful panel pieces in which both green and red grounds are employed with gold and silver gilding. A ground is the background color. Since the green and red colors are on the same panel pieces, they had to be spot dyed or painted. The second Museum number: 823-1898 is an interesting piece. It uses a green ground for the panels with gold gilding, having a painting in the upper left panel. The painting depicts a man and two women; the women are at the door of a chamber; the man is lying in the bed.

           Boxes, coffers, coffrets, and caskets (a box or chest, not a coffin!) are also now available in abundance on the Internet. A writing box dated ca. 1525 is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum, British Galleries, room 58e, case number 7. This walnut and oak box is lined with painted and gilded leather. The decoration includes both late Gothic elements and early Renaissance ornament. It is presumed to be made in the court workshops during Henry VIII's reign from 1509 to 1547.

           This box is lined with leather and is painted with the heraldic badges of Henry; his first queen, Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536); along with the royal coat of arms. On either side of Henry's coat of arms are the figures of Mars, the Roman god of war in armor, and Venus, the goddess of love and fertility, with her son, Cupid. The compartment lids are painted with the figures of St. George and the Dragon, along with the head of Christ. The front shows the side view of a male and female head, and the falling flap is decorated with head profiles of two figures from Greek legend: Paris, prince of Troy, and Helen, the Spartan queen whom he had abducted.

           A coffret dated 1300-1400 is also on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Medieval and Renaissance, room 10a, case number 2. This piece is oak, covered with painted leather and iron fittings. The written text that accompanies this work is rather extensive. It references by book and page the historical content, and even goes into the manufacture of medieval leather containers. It states about the final process of these type of leather containers, "the object is decorated with coloured dyes, usually with some paint (tempera)."

           A traveling box, Ming dynasty, early 15th century China, is located in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is constructed of wood with a leather covering and is decorated in oil-based paints with lotus scrolls issuing from a ribboned vase – a common theme in Sino-Tibetan art. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland has two different leather boxes. The first, a casket that is decorated with courtship scenes and was originally painted. The second is a coffret, which is listed as being originally painted with red and blue against the natural leather background.

           Another type of painted leather is found in the form of book, document, missal, and instrument cases. These cases were made with the Cuir bouilli (boiled leather) process and painted. The 15th century book box on The Metropolitan Museum in New York website is not on formal display, but their picture clearly shows a painted crest on its front. The Victoria and Albert Museum website has two cases that are cuir bouilli moulded leather, tooled, incised, carved, stamped, and painted. The first is a missal case ca. 1450, Gallery location: Medieval and Renaissance, room 10a, case 2. The second, a document case ca. 1475-1525, Gallery location: Medieval and Renaissance, room 64, case SS, shelf 4.

           The British Museum has a book carrier case dated 14thC-15thC that is stamped, painted, moulded and incised, and a spoon case that is also stamped, painted, moulded and incised. There is also an archer's bracer (cuir bouilli) that is engraved with the coat of arms, an inscription, and punched background decoration, which, as stated by the museum, as being originally gilded and perhaps pigmented.

           With the expansion of our digital age more examples of painted leather will obviously come forward. After all, leather was the medieval equivalent of plastic in our current society. But why have there been so few examples until now? Scientifically it has to do with ph, humidity and other environmental factors. The best way to explain it in simple terms is to describe an experiment that I conducted. I took several strips of leather and painted them using one of the possible medieval methods with linseed oil and oil-based artist paint mixture. I laced some into my cyclone fence, here in Oklahoma. I took several more strips and buried them in my vegetable garden. Over the course of several years I watched as the strips on my fence slowly lost their paint until after eight years in the Oklahoma weather, you could only barely make out the linseed oil paint on them. However the ones I buried in the vegetable garden, which was watered daily throughout the entire summer, turned a dark-rich brown color and lost their paint within a year. I'm sure modern scientific methods could probably find traces of the paint that the naked eye could not. On special note, a piece that I kept indoors colored with lamp black was just as dark and intense as the day when it was painted; and it still is, which is more than I can say for some pieces that I dyed at the same time using current dyes. The latter were faded and had to be re-dyed. I also have made a ladies bodice belt painted in my technique that is now 20 years old and the lady still wears it and it looks the same as I painted it.

           What method did I use? I simply thinned down the oil-based artist paint with linseed oil while heating it on an oil burner with a tea light candle. This procedure is similar to the procedures used in period for making certain paints. The paint bonded with the leather quite well (especially the lamp black!). But was that the way leather was painted in period? The answer could be yes, but technically, no. Since there is no information about spot dyeing leather and only small bits on vat dyeing, this method is very possible. After all, paints, inks, dyes, and all forms of coloration were mixed as you went throughout most of the ancient times, normally by the apprentices for the masters to use in the art world. This painting method would seem to be much easier to use for cuir bouilli or those leathers that utilized or required oil saturation, from a leather worker's point of view, of course. As far as documented evidence, the answer would be no.

           So how did they paint on leather? The answer is actually quite simple. It is the same way they painted everything else – a primer coat of gesso made of animal hide (normally rabbit), glue, and the addition of chalk or gypsum in the glue which would render the surface white, but was not a requirement since charcoal was normally used for the initial sketch after the surface was prepared. The surface preparations included lightly sanding to remove lumps, and then apprentices made the paint. Pigments and binders were mixed with egg yolk for the use of egg tempera which dried quickly, and had to be done in small batches and applied using a scratching technique. Oil-based paints were when the pigments were mixed with binders and linseed oil, normally. Oil paint can be easily traced back to the 5th – 8th century, although recent finds in Egypt date oil paint well into the BCE. Oil paint did not gain popularity with the Renaissance Masters until the 15th century. Glair was also used. Glair is a liquid derived from foamed egg whites for use with the pigments and binders (Gives a glossy look to the paint). Then the master painted on the prepared surface that he made his initial sketch on (with charcoal, normally) or directed his apprentices to paint.

           Through modern science, we have found that humans all the way back to pre-period ancient times painted everything they could. Analysis and scientific studies have found that they even painted the numerous statues throughout time using variations of the same method of a gesso type primer, then paint. I even found a piece of painted leather that dates back to ca. 1550-1458 B.C. This fragment of goat hide leather was very colorfully painted. It even had a dyed red patch of leather that held a leather tie to it. It was found while clearing a Middle Kingdom tomb some 200 yards east of Hatshepsut's temple at Deir el-Bahri. While this "Fragment of a Leather Hanging (?) with an Erotic Scene" is not on formal display, it is part of the art available in The Metropolitan Museum of Art's website. I really find it hard to believe, that from 1550 B.C. to 1300 A.D., mankind somehow forgot how to paint on leather. The hyperlinks throughout this body of work and the references listed below are well worth checking out. Lastly, to all those leather workers out there. Here is more ammunition to prove what we all know in our hearts to be true. They DID paint leather!

For further information, I suggest you read the following written references:

Argan, G. C. Renaissance Painting. Dell Publishing Co., New York, N.Y., 1967.

Blair, John, and Nigel Ramsay, editors. English Medieval Industries. Hambledon & London, 2003.

Cherry, John F. Medieval Decorative Art. British Museum Press, 1991.

Kite, Marion, and Roy Thompson. Conservation of Leather and related materials. Elsevier LTD., 2006.

Osborne, Harold, editor. The Oxford Companion to Art. Revised edition, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Salzmann, L. F. English Industries of the Middle Ages. London Constable and Company LTD., 1913. (copyright free PDF version available at archive.org)

Thompson, Daniel V. The Craftsman Handbook: Il Libro dell' Arte. Dover Publications, 1954.

Thompson, Daniel V. The Material and Techniques of Medieval Painting. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1956.

Thompson, Daniel V. The Practice of Tempera Painting. Dover Publications, 2011.

Waterer, John W. Spanish Leather. London: Faber & Faber Ltd, 1971.