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January 17, 2024 - "Memento Mori" Bronze Ring

In the Midrealm, the Order of the Bronze Ring is our grant-level award for skill, scholarship, and leadership in the field of rapier combat. Until the MOD was established, it was the terminal order for rapier fighters, and is still considered a great honor.

A friend of mine, Giovanni aus Innsbruck, was made a Warder of the Bronze Ring last year, but his scroll was unfortunately damaged after he received it, and so he asked me to create a replacement. Gio is really, really into "memento mori" imagery and motifs, so he asked me to find a way to include that in his scroll, if at all possible. Fortunately, the Middle Ages are thick with sources that include memento mori, so with only a little research, I was able to find pieces that fit together well enough to create a piece I thought Gio would appreciate.

That's not to say the piece wasn't challenging; first, I had to create a layout that would be pleasing for both me and Gio; we consulted over a couple of meals until we got something we both were happy with. Graph paper is really, really helpful for me, to get a feel for the proportions of a piece.

Even with this layout settled on, I wasn't ready to start the piece. Since I wanted the scroll to include Gio's arms as well as the seal of the kingdom and badge of the order, we had to create arms from scratch and make sure they would pass scrutiny from the SCA College of Heralds. Then, I had to "wordsmith" the usual text so as to include references to memento mori -- in essence, "remember that you too shall die". I consulted with a few poets and bards to find direction, but the words ultimately ended up being my own. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Kai Tseng, Owen Alun, Ursula Mortimer, and Hilla Stormbringer for their assistance. Finally, the art itself was going to incorporate techniques that I don't use very often, namely in the "wet" blending of color and buildup of translucent layers, rather than my usual method of adding "dry", opaque layers in different colors.

Since I'm not terribly confident in wet blending yet, I tested the techniques on a black trading card, to make sure that I could get something that would turn out at all. The skull on this card looks completely wonky, because I decided to work without a reference image. Note to future students: don't do that. (Also, I think my camera lens had a smudge on it, based on the weird blurring of the top left corner.)

Wonky skull, but satisfactory paint blending, so that was nice. The mistakes I made on the card taught me what not to do with the actual piece.

So, on to calligraphy: I was taught to always do the wording first, because words are the entire point of a scroll, or in period, a charter, contract, treatise, or manuscript. Working with Coliro silver is always challenging, because it prefers to go down translucent, and when it's opaque enough to satisfy me, it tends not to flow as readily. Still, I went slowly and carefully, and turned out letter forms that I'm really pleased with.

All shall know that we, Dag and AnneMarie, rex et regina mediterranei, have heard of the tremendous skill, service, and instruction that Giovanni aus Innsbruck has contributed to the rapier community: just as our time upon [the] throne be but transient, Giovanni's skills with rapier, dagger, and grappling remind his opponents that we are all but mortal flesh, and that one day Death shall come for high and low alike. Let there be this day an enduring record; let his skills live on in the memories of both friend and foe, though one day they too shall fade and wither, as the blossoms wither in the field. Yet for as long as memory endures, let him be known as a Companion of our Order of the Bronze Ring, with all rights and responsibilities attendant upon this rank, including the right to bear the badge: Gules, two rapiers in saltire argent within an annulet Or. Given this 29th day of April, anno societatis 57, in testimony whereof we here set hand and seal.

I didn't realize I had missed a "the" until the piece was entirely finished. Gio declared he didn't care, and I declared I wasn't starting the piece over, so that was that. Errors of this sort show up often in period, as well as in SCA scrolls. I'd rather miss a small word like this than misspell the recipient's name, or leave out half a sentence.

If you're a calligraphy nerd, here are the two columns of text in closeup for you to enjoy:

This script is lifted from the Hours of Engelbert of Nassau, a Flemish manuscript dated between 1475 and 1490. It's one of the first alphabets I studied direct from the source, rather than from a calligraphy instruction book.

After this, it's time to start sketching and painting.

I decided that my horse looked a little modern here in this first version of the drawing; the pose is definitely not quite what you might expect to find in a period manuscript, so I adjusted it before painting. Note the changed position of the hind legs below. The head, for the life of me, would not change no matter how I tried. I've been drawing horses since I was eight, and apparently I only have one horse profile that will come out of my fingers now, over forty years later.

We wanted Death on a "pale horse", as is described in the Biblical Book of Revelation. The original translation of the word "pale" suggests the color of dead vegetation, so many such horses in manuscripts come out a light yellow-green. I ended up with more of a ghostly, minty-fresh shade, but I liked it, so I kept it.

In period, Death usually carries an oversized arrow with which to pierce the hearts of mortals. Since this was a rapier award, I changed that up and gave him a sword instead. The shading on his body came out really well; I used at least four different colors here. One of my weaknesses as a painter is that I am often afraid to go too dark or too light, and then my figures end up with poor contrast; here, for a change, I decided to push my mental envelope, and I think it really paid off. I've got two earth browns here, yellow ocher, and just a touch of white.

After that, it was time for the "loincloth" that is around the figure's hips, and it gave me fits. Getting the shading right on fabric is difficult to begin with, and it's not something I have a lot of practice in. This first attempt ended up looking more like a carved chunk of marble than a flowing fabric.

Brightening the top part of the fabric helped a lot, but it still looked too bright.

For the next image, I dulled it all down with a bit of ocher, and that helped a little, but the shadows were still too dark.

At long last, I lightened the shadows somewhat, but something still looked off. What? Ah. The fabric doesn't look natural, right at the hip joint. Death is wearing a diaper.

Here's my main reference image, and you can see the difference in the way the fabric drapes in that same spot. There's still plenty of fabric there, but it looks like a collapsed shroud or drape, rather than a bulky undergarment!

Here we finally have the loincloth as good as it's going to get. Adding some purple shadows around the leg and fabric helped as well so nothing looked like it was just floating in space anymore. Moving on!

The finished miniature, with the badge of the order Gio's arms, and the seal of the Middle Kingdom all in the right. The purple is even deeper here, because as usual, I hesitated at the thought of a strong contrast.

I forgot to take individual pictures of the skulls as I painted them, but they were built with translucent layers of white, then finished with an earth brown and a yellow ocher respectively. A friend said there was an implied tragedy here, that the skulls, meant to represent Gio and his lady, were clearly not buried in the same soil, or the bones would be stained the same color.

The vines are painted in a simple, straight yellow ocher. A surprisingly versatile paint in my palette. I had originally intended to build up the vines in layers, as I had done with the skulls and horse, but my layering kept getting brighter as I went, which you can see if you compare the left side of the border to the right. To fix that, I went back and brightened all of it to the same level the next day.

Since I wasn't going to be able to use just ocher to shade everything, I added a rust red and terre vert for a hint of color. At Gio's request, there is one single rose on the second skull, for his lady.

Finally, I used black on black for a subtle "filler" around and between the vines and leaves, to add density while still keeping to the somber tones of the overall piece. I outlined everything with silver and then I was almost done. But only almost. You'll see why in a second.

A rose for a lady...

The finished miniature...

Gio's skull, without the flower...

And the corrected arms, with a dagger in the raven's beak instead of the ring I started with. We went over those arms for weeks trying to get them right, and then I used an earlier iteration on the scroll! Fortunately, this was an easy correction to make.

Less fortunately, I don't have a picture of the corrected, finished piece, but what I do have still looks quite nice, and I am very pleased with how it turned out, given the challenges I ran into.

Now I'm back to working on Bran's knighting scroll, and somewhere in there I need to work on a friend's Jewish wedding scroll, called a ketubah. It's nice to be back in an artistic groove; this winter really dragged at my energy levels, but I think I might finally be getting back to normal.

Feel free to drop a comment or reach out with any questions you might have about this piece's process!

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