Just like the devil, “Braunfirnis” has gone by a beguiling number of names over the years and many of them are French, including “laque brune”, “fond brun”, “fond brun-rouge” and, of course, Helen’s suggestion of “vernis brun”. Some French writers have even called it “peinture sur metal” and “simple vernis” – terms which should not surprise us today because linseed oil (which is typically used in “Braunfirnis”) was historically the main ingredient in paints and varnishes.
One French term that caught my eye is “émail brun”.
What is émail brun?
“Although émail brun resembles dark brown enamel, it is really something quite different. It is linseed oil which is painted on a clean, annealed piece of copper.
After drying, the layer is fired at a low temperature. After the first firing, the surface is a darkish brown. (...) Engraved lines and surfaces, not covered with linseed oil, were often gilded, thus contrasting beautifully with the chestnut brown surface.”
And here is another description of the technique:
“Email brun (from French: "brown enamel") was developed in the Rhineland area around the time they adapted the champlevé technique. Contrary to the name, it is not an enamel technique rather a lacquering method like niello. A layer of linseed oil was applied to the surface of a copper base which turned a deep reddish brown on heating. Usually the brown layer was then engraved and the engraving was to be gilded. The thicker the applied linseed layer, the darker the final color would be.”
Despite the fact that “émail brun” is something of a misnomer because it’s not technically an enamel, the term crops up in a number of art texts. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, uses the term émail brun here in a description that, interestingly enough, contrasts figures made using émail brun with their enameled counterparts:
“The urna is unusual among surviving twelfth-century works for the extensive use of émail brun, the medium in which the roof panel is executed. (...) The émail brun panel shares qualities of design and decorative motifs with the enamel panel, but the style of its figures is quite distinct. These standing figures are considerably more lithe and their actions more animated than those of their enameled counterparts, suggesting that they were made later in the twelfth century.”
Source: The Art of Medieval Spain, A.D. 500-1200, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1993, p. 278
The term is also used in this description of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England:
"The tabernacled turrets of the Corona Lucis contain a total of thirty-six silver figures of angels and saints. The high wall is ornamented with floral scrollwork in bronze, and a dedicatory text in gold on a background of rare émail brun, an oil varnish burnt into the metal."
And, finally, here is an image of an example of émail brun from the Abbey of Stavelot in Belgium. See: http://arhpee.typepad.com/Theophile par Gearhart.pdf
Description: “Portable Altar of the Abbey of Stavelot, 1150-1160. Underside, with émail brun.”
Local time: 12:31
Works in field
Native speaker of: English
PRO pts in category: 26