Thousands of years before the development of what is now known as “artist’s canvas,” linen and cotton were used for everything from mummification and tapestries to Venetian paintings. These versatile materials still hold great value today in just about every industry. However, in the world of art, canvas is at the core of some of the most cherished creations. Now that you know the important role canvas plays in the world today, let’s take a look back at the role it played around the world thousands of years ago.
Canvas and Egyptian Mummies
Flax was first cultivated in the Nile Delta 10,000 years ago. When mummification was developed in Egypt approximately 3000 B.C., linen was used to shroud the deceased. Linen, provided by the family of the deceased, was soaked in herbs and ointments, then wrapped and wrapped around the body—from head to toe. This tedious, yet creative, process also called for the individual wrapping of the fingers and toes. The archival quality of linen fibers, together with Egypt’s dry climate, have enabled the linen to survive in good condition for almost 6,000 years.
Canvas and Shroud of Turin
The world’s most famous piece of linen is the Shroud of Turin . It bears the ventral and dorsal image of a crucified man that many believe to be Jesus of Nazareth. The shroud is 31/2’ x 141/2’, with a weave pattern of herringbone twill that weighs eight ounces per square yard. While carbon dating done in 1988 indicates that the age of the Shroud is medieval in origin, others believe that it is the burial cloth of Jesus and is 2,000 years old. Questions of authenticity aside, the Shroud of Turin serves as an excellent example of the archival qualities of linen.
Canvas and Wood Panel Paintings
Medieval wood paintings were primarily done for churches throughout Europe from the 10th to 14th centuries. Detailed instructions for Florentine artists, from the early 15th century, for the making and preparation of wood panels can be found in Cennino Cennini’s “The Handbook of Crafts.” The wood should be fine grained, free of blemishes, and thoroughly seasoned by slow drying. The surface is prepared with layers of clean white linen strips soaked in gesso.
Wood offered a wonderful surface that could be cut and constructed to any size or format. In addition, wood was easy to transport from the artist’s studio to the site of installation. However, one thing to keep in mind is this: wood is an organic material. This means, unless it is properly sealed, wood is highly susceptible to damage by outgassing, weather, insects and simple age. All of these issues are evident in medieval wood paintings where you will find cracking, warping, and even termite damage. Wood may also contain excessive amounts of oils, sap, and moisture which can adversely affect the surface of the wood as well as the paint upon that surface. Additionally, wood has the disadvantage of dramatically increasing in weight as the size increases.
Canvas and Tapestries
Tapestries are intricate and beautifully decorated pieces of woven fabric usually hung from a wall or draped across a piece of furniture. By 2000 BC, tapestries using loom technology dominated Peruvian and Andean textiles. In 15th century Europe, tapestry imagery used many of the same bearings of three dimensional space and naturalistic detail seen in Flemish paintings. However, the technique of weaving placed a limitation on artistic freedom, and the entire process made them very expensive. This meant that only a very fortunate few could afford them. Besides being expensive, the dyed fabric of tapestries is very susceptible to pollutants from the environment such as smoke, dirt, and dust.
Canvas and Venetian Paintings
The use of large canvas paintings instead of frescoes for wall decoration developed in Venice in the early 15th century. These first paintings were done with tempera paint on linen. Most were decorations for private homes or inexpensive substitutes for tapestries. Canvas paintings were considered less important and less expensive than frescoes until Venetians began to exploit the technique of painting with oils on canvas in the late 15th century. Oil paint, with its binder of linseed oil, is relatively flexible and could stand the stress of a flexible support such as linen canvas, whereas tempera paint could not.
The Switch from Tempera to Oil Paint
Paintings on canvas allowed greater flexibility to artists who could complete the work in their studios and then carry the rolls of canvas to the location where they were to be installed. Pigments were being ground much finer than the earlier panel paintings, and the coarse Venetian canvas was sealed and made smooth with a prime coat of lead white. The flexibility of the canvas support, together with the radiance and depth of oil color pigments, made oil paintings on canvas the preferred medium.
Linen and the Development of Oil Paint
By the 15th century, Belgium was the top producer of flax. Growing flax and the advanced technology of weaving linen among Flemish mills made linen canvas readily available and inexpensive. The flax plant is also the source of linseed oil, which is the binder for oil paints. Imagine that!
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