A Spark of Inspiration

by Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
Editor-In-Chief, The Pennsic Independent

For close to 25 years, Pennsic-goers have found inspiration at the annual A&S Display. This is not a competition—just a chance for artisans around the Known World to share their work on the big stage that is Pennsic. According to Lady Adle Lochlane, department head for the A&S display, this year’s event attracted over 110 artisans to the Great Hall, 78 of whom registered in advance. “Some of our artisans have been exhibiting regularly for years. Duke Cariadoc is always here,” noted Lady Adele. It is always difficult to summarize this event—the displays speak for themselves, and there are always so many different and talented artists. “This display shows the best of the things you did not know were possible,” said Mistress Biatric Aluares de la Oya, Lady Adele’s deputy.
For the first time in many years, I was among those displaying. In between talking about my project (to copy a 13th century Latin manuscript and bind it into a book), I got a chance to visit some of the other projects. These are only a small sampling of the delights to be had at the exhibit.

Lady Elizabeta Aligliaza Toscari of the Middle Kingdom was showing several pieces done in mosaic. One was a portion of the famous mosaic of the empress Theodora in St Vitale in Ravenna. She demonstrated how she carefully cut each piece of glass before gluing it onto her ground material; this is called the direct method. Once the mosaic is created, grout was added (or in some cases, not added) to complete the project. Each of the three pieces she was exhibiting took 4-6 months to complete.

Photo by Master Phillip the Pilgrim
Creating beauty one tiny piece of glass at a time

In a corner of the hall sat Baroness Tatiana Ivanova of Birchwood Keep of the Kingdom of Atlantia. For nearly 40 years she has been creating beaded Russian headdresses, dating from the 13th century up through modern times. She noted how important the Mongol influence was on the designs, especially early on. The later headdresses are unique to various Russian cities and towns. She estimated that the average headdress included over 3000 pearls and took about 120 hours of work.

Photo by Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
Beaded head pieces from around Russia

Eithni ingen Talorgan from Northshield showed an exquisite collection of Birka posaments. “This was a fashion fad of the 9th century,” she said, adding that it was relatively short-lived and not widespread. The posaments are created from silk cording wrapped with silver thread, and were used for trim, drawstring ends, and headbands. The designs look a little like Celtic or Norse knotwork. She was able to see many of the extant pieces in person, even using a microscope attachment for her camera to see how the silk cord was wrapped in silver, and has experimented with various modern materials to see which best recreates the look and feel of the originals. The resulting bands were incredibly delicate and intricate.

Photo by Magistra Nicolaa de Bracton
The delicate art of posament headdresses

Lady Miriam bat Pesach of the Middle Kingdom displayed an illuminated Hallel, (a Jewish prayer service primarily of Psalms 113-118). This was originally a gift for her granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah (as her granddaughter is named Hallel). The Hallel prayers are part of the haggadot and are included in the seder service, so there were a number of period models to base her gift on. She chose several different manuscripts from Spain dated 1300-1350 and married aspects of all of them togther into a single work. “I wanted to also capture the sense of humour in the works,” said Lady Miriam, pointing at some of the whimsical zoomorphic letters. She also pointed out that in the original, the left margins (Hebrew being read from right to left) were justified—if the scribe was in the middle of a word when he reached the end of the line, he would just restart the word on the next line. She completed the project using primarily period pigments; gold gilding with fish glue, slaked plaster and Armenian bole; and a reed pan (cut from bamboo garden stakes from Home Depot).
“I burn things for science!” said Baroness Rutilia Fausta from the Kingdom of Caid. She was displaying a truly astounding variety of Roman arts and sciences—from beautiful carved intaglio gems to ceramics, from tasty food to medications made from earthworms and cockroach guts. Regarding the latter, she mentioned that she had to be sure that all of her items could get through the TSA at the airport. Many of the fouler substances were remedies based on the works of the early first century physician Dioscorides. For instance, the cockroach guts (along with oil) were a treatment for earache. Cow dung and vinegar were a skin treatment, and a diuretic was prepared from earthworms and wine. “Dioscorides has a whole section on dung—cow, sheep, human…apparently human dung with honey is a cure for tonsillitis.” On the slightly less foul side, she shared bath oils—one of rose in almond oil, the other of cypress in Moringa oil—that would hopefully counteract the foul scent of any Dioscorides’ “treatments.”

And there were over 100 more projects like this. No artisan could leave this event without inspiration for three or four new projects, or without meeting fellow arts and sciences geeks from around the Known World. If you missed it this year, put it on your calendar for next year. You will not be disappointed.