Art at the Time of Robert II Revisited

Notes from Friends of Dundonald Castle (SCO 31541) Talks Series

By Gwen Sinclair 

Another widely spread audience joined us for Friends of Dundonald Castle SCIO (SCO 31541) online monthly talk series on 29th July. This time it was my turn to give a talk where I wanted to impart a wider appreciation of what was meaningful at the time of Robert II (1315/16-1390) by looking at artistic developments, as well as the progression of human skill – with some surprising results! I’ve studied art for a number of years, and have a BA in digital art – which is a culmination of learning and practicing techniques, both ancient and modern, static and motion, digital and hand-rendered- and which, as it turns out, all began by learning art history, although I’m not sure that I fully appreciated Giotto di Bondone (c 1267-1337), who my very enthusiastic tutor imparted was the culprit for the real beginning of art as we know it… 

His huge body of work in medieval Italy allowed us to neatly begin by looking at my collated pieces of the period, and no matter what I thought then, Giotto really is impressive – not only as being the first artist ever recorded to produce realistic facial expressions and naturalistic perspective, he even created emotive atmospheric backgrounds. Over the course of Giotto’s lifetime he continued to develop this style, and his work was believed to have later become a major influence on Michelangelo (1475-1564) who painted the remarkable ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the early 1500s – reputed to have taken 26 years-where he mostly lay on his back on scaffolding!  Dedication indeed!

Italian artists like Giotto began to achieve notoriety, not only for developing this conceptual realism, but for other revolutionising techniques such as applying fresh pigment to fresh lime plaster for painting directly on to walls – becoming known as fresco. These advancements were to become a major contribution to the future of art. I explained that this was probably because Italy was the centre for trade in Europe during the 14th and 15th century, and so had their fair share of wealthy merchants willing to pay for art. This wealth trickled down to the artists who by and large worked for merchants, or the church, who benefited from this wealth. Subsequently we find probably the first well known and wealthy artists on a similar scale to Damian Hirst or David Hockney today!

In other parts of Europe painting began to commonly feature figures which became reasonably realistic, and yet at the same time there was a certain disproportion about them. Most probably influenced by the Italian artists, a taste for realism developed across Europe – most likely because artists were patronised mainly by its closely linked royal families – as became the case after Robert II’s grand children successors from James I (1406-1437) onwards –  who all married outside Scotland into Europe’s royal families.  This portrait of John II is a good example of one clearly modelled in a kind of Italian style. Generally, though it wasn’t until around 1370 to 1410 that Europe’s artists began to create more realistic representations of the world around them. Notable are the paintings by Master Bertram of Minden at Hamburg (c1380), which are nice examples showing us the beginning of more realistic facial expressions outside Italy. 

In itself fascinating, I wanted to show how medieval people went about creating their art materials in the days before Millers (the second oldest art shop in Scotland est.1840). Thanks to Cennino Cennini, a Florentine painter (c1360-c1427), who had perpetuated the traditions of Giotto, who left us Il libro dell’arte – a craftsman’s handbook written c14th century – which provides the first known explanation of using dried, crushed organic matter such as yellow ochre and burnt ochre clays (for yellows and browns), mollusk shells (for tyrian purple), lapis lazuli (for ultramarine blue), lead (for white) and soot (for black) which were then mixed with egg to bind these pigments into paints.  We also find an artist’s studio replicated something of a chemistry lab where they would have equipment to heat the organic compounds to produce a variation in tone!

Cennini further advised on the making of artist’s tools – such as gathering twigs which had been left to blacken in the baker’s oven of an evening, to produce charcoal for preliminary sketches.

For vair brushes, you must pull the middle hairs out of six or eight cooked vair tails, and soak them in a drinking glass of clear water. Afterwards, you must trim them until they are all the same length. Then gather together enough that you produce the thickness that you want for your brushes: some to fit in the shaft of a vulture’s feather, some to fit in the shaft of a goose feather, some to fit in the shaft of a feather from a hen or a dove.” Cennini

I had made a guess vair was possibly hair taken from the tails of cooked hares, but I received a message shortly afterwards from one of the viewers that vair is in fact squirrel!  Indeed, it seems that cinderella’s slippers, in the original telling of the tale, were made from vair hair – which I can imagine would be a lot more comfortable than glass! Many thanks for that – its always interesting to be able to add to our bank of knowledge about the medieval period!

It seems that animals didn’t only feature in the production of their materials, such as parchment or vellum used as painting surfaces – made from dried and stretched calf skin –  but both real and fantastical animals featured highly in their manuscripts, tapestries and sculptures from this period.  The Oxford Bestiary and The Aberdeen Bestiary are both excellent examples of early books accompanied by fascinating animal illustrations. These show that medieval artists probably hadn’t actually seen some of the animals they wanted to paint, and we looked at some lovely examples including leopards, who do have spots of course, but not necessary evenly spaced polka dots! 

Many illuminated Manuscripts (hand written texts with added gold leaf) survive – the most famous being The Book of Kells c800 AD – thought to have been wholly created or begun on Iona.

Gold became a popular method to depict the halos of the divine, or to ensure that the work glowed with an other-worldliness – perhaps even giving rise to the thinking that artists themselves were directed by forces beyond our world. Astonishingly, medieval artists used almost pure 24 karat gold forged into very thin leafs, since the higher the purity of the gold the longer it lasted!  I noted the lavish use of gold, which would’ve made art very expensive to produce, giving us an indication of how important illuminated art and its meaning was to medieval society.  Gold panel paintings involved many artists called illuminators who firstly made gesso (an under-painting layer) using a mixture of plaster of Paris ground up with white lead and clay to create a warm, pinkish red base-colour. They then used a flat brush called a Gilder’s Tip to add honey mixed with dried egg white to help the gold leaf to stick on.

The illuminator should then breathe heavily onto the manuscript page, and the dampness of his breath makes the gesso slightly tacky again, and the gold leaf could be carefully placed on the artwork, with overlapping edges. The illuminator then should take up a burnishing tool to create a glittering, brilliant surface” which he instructed “should be made from a dog’s tooth mounted on a handle, or even better,  the tooth of a lion, or a wolf. “  Cennini

Across 14th century manuscripts, we find strange marginalia – or illustrations set beyond the text – such as half man-beasts, and often, killer rabbits. It seems that medieval artists liked to create ‘the world turned upside down’ as an almost earlier Surrealist period, not unlike the works of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst. Killer rabbits crop up in France, Belgium, Germany and the British Isles, and are incredibly detailed cartoon-like illustrations such as the Smithfield Decretals Manuscript ( London 1340s), which has a cartoon-strip running across the pages almost as a secondary narrative to the text.  Rabbits brandish weapons, capture and kill men, and use a snail with a human face as a means of transport!  I proposed that these killer rabbits could well be the result of a minstrel who was travelling around Europe at the time recounting a tale about an apocalyptic rabbit world, or perhaps since rabbits could easily decimate a whole patch of cabbages in one sitting – this could well have been an early form of satirical cartoon art showing that their food supplies were never safe – and hence, neither were they!   

Sadly little of the art from 14th century Scotland remains – perhaps because this was a period of social change, of invasion, of conflict, of plague, and of the last vestiges of the 13th century mini ice age. Whilst Italy was awash with wealth, Scotland only probably had a few decades of relative peace and prosperity to speak of towards the end of the 1300s – this meant that money was probably spent on defence rather than decoration.  However, it’s my opinion that artists would’ve been well known, and probably reasonably well paid, but would not necessarily have had the financial advancements which Giotto’s art had given him – where he started life as the son of a shepherd, and ended it with great swathes of land he had bought himself, as a man paid well for his talents and advances in conceptual realism. The few pieces which survive from Scotland are sculptures made from stone or cast metal and continuing the strange animal theme, at Dundonald Castle there are various sculptures of heraldic shields which adorn the outside walls, as well as a most curious design of two lions with tails between their legs.

The Savernake Horn, made of 12th-century elephant ivory, later decorated with 14th century enamelled silver depicting 16 hawks, a unicorn and a lion, is another fine example of Scottish art –  thought to have been made for the Earl of Moray – meaning that it could well have been in the family of Robert II’s first wife Queen Euphemia who was first married to John Randolph, the second Earl of Moray.

An excellent example of Scottish art from the early 1300s is the 2.7 cm diameter Kames Brooch, which possibly came from Kames – a castle and estate on the east of the Island of Bute. It’s thought to have come from the court of Robert I the Bruce (1306-1329), or I wondered even, from the High Stewards of Scotland who owned the lands in Bute at this time. It contains six wyverns – imaginary wee wingless dragons with only 2 legs thought to symbolise courage and strength, or even offer protection. Each has an arrow head tail which might appeal to the medieval archer who would seek to send a lethal arrow, have scales like chain mail, deep set tiny eye-sockets containing blue glass balls, and exquisite detail in the line of their backbones.

From c1314-1318, The Bute Mazer is a maple and silver drinking bowl which shows more of the artistic skill from Scotland.  It has a lion taking prime position, with the shield belonging to the High Stewards of Scotland placed between its front paws –  surrounded by the shields of more of Robert I’s chief councillors, as well as more wyverns. It has been suggested it was a drinking bowl made to celebrate the wedding of Walter 6th High Steward of Scotland (1309-1327) and Majorie Bruce – daughter of Robert the Bruce, who were the parents of Robert II. We noted too the position of the lion’s tail which comes up between its legs – much the same as the mysterious Dundonald lions, which could be a potential link to both sculptural pieces, although both artists are unknown.

We concluded by looking at 19th century artists such as William Morris, Rossetti and Edward-Burne Jones who sought to recreate the techniques from medieval mastery, as a way to rebel against what they regarded as the loss of human skills due to industrialisation in the Victorian era and often their designs and paintings depicted medieval imagery.  Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) seems to have drawn influence from a 14th century codex (early form of book) from Germany – where we can see the pose of its characters are similar to that of The Kiss from 1907. Klimt was also a fan of using the medieval practice of adding gold leaf, which appeared in his work for around 10 years.

We considered the probability that later artists may well have given rise to romanticism of the medieval era –  when in reality we found that the art of the 14th century shows us that it was a time for the desire for realism, for wanting to explore the natural world in their study of animals, and their art attempted to define human ideals such as morals, strength and courage. It shows us also the serious consideration they had for the future of their souls. They appear to have valued artistic contributions in their world, and also possessed a strong sense of humour and irony – as our audience found out – and for which at times I struggled to keep a straight face!

Gustav Klimt: The Kiss 1907

We can’t be sure exactly what art Robert II would’ve had at Dundonald Castle, but I imagine as the home for two of Scotland’s 14th century monarchs, and their families, I explained that I considered it could well have been a stunning place in its heyday – with beautiful tapestries, ornate furnishing and even paintings or frescos on the walls. Interior decorative art which survives are two sculpted busts set inside the upper reaches of a window in the Laigh Hall – most probably added when it was built for the start of Robert II’s reign. They are thought to be effigies of the king, and his 2nd wife, Queen Euphemia (1372-1386).

Once again thank you so much to everyone who attended this latest monthly talk,  which will be available to Members of Friends of Dundonald Castle (SCIO) to watch again any time via the dedicated members area on our website.  Watch out for more talks coming soon covering a wide variety of subjects from the effects of climate change on our national treasures to medieval witchcraft!    


Source: Giotto-Perizzi chapel


By Paul Hudson from United Kingdom – File:Savernake_horn_(9080212128).jpg, CC BY 2.0,

The Bute Mazer image by David Taylor

Bute Mazer by dun_deagh –, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Scene from the Smithfield Decretals depicting a rabbit beheading a man.

By William Morris – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

Images of works by William Morris from his home in Walthamstow by Gwen Sinclair

By n·e·r·g·a·l – book scan from the Oxford Bestiary, Public Domain, –  birds in gold

Aberdeen Bestiary Images

Abbey of Kells – Scanned from Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 a.D. : From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland,

Giotto: ‘Lamentation’ fresco  c. 1305–06 in the Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy by wiki commons 

La belle Iseult by William Morris public domain 

By Gustav Klimt – Google Art Project, Public Domain,

By Meister Bertram von Minden – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain,

John II By Anonymous (Paris) Formerly attributed to Girard d’Orléans, Public Domain,

Busts at Dundonald Castle from Dundonald Castle Guide book

Dundonald Castle lions from Dundonald Castle Guide Book;  illustration by Gwen Sinclair 

The Kames brooch from © National Museums Scotland