Illuminated Manuscripts: Art and Science

Medieval artist and his paintsIlluminated Manuscripts: Art and Science

Lecture by Stella Panayotova

Given at the University of Toronto on March 8, 2012

What can we learn about medieval art? In a lecture given at the University of Toronto, Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, discusses how her research using scientific observations and pigment analysis is shedding light on how medieval manuscripts were made.

Panayotova, who is also the director of the Cambridge Illuminations and Miniare Research Projects, began her talk by pointing out that there are misconceptions about the abilities and techniques of medieval artists. She points out the most artists would have learned their craft in workshops and through collaborating with other artists instead of by studying written treatises. She adds that the typical medieval artist was “expected to multitask,” working one day on a manuscript and the next on a church window or painting.

Illuminated manuscripts, which she describes as “as portable art gallery,” were the main form of knowledge from antiquity to the sixteenth century. Being bound in durable casing, these works were largely spared from the elements and are for the most part intact. Panayotova finds that unfinished manuscripts often provide rich details to our understanding of artist techniques.

Some of the most common pigments used by medieval artists included:

  • minium – red colour made from lead; this is from the word ‘miniature’ comes from
  • cinnabar/vermillion
  • Brazilwood – made from a dye coming from southeastern Asia
  • ultramarine – which came from Afghanistan and was costly as gold
  • azurite
  • indigo – which came from India and could appear as black or blue
  • orpiment – a vivid yellow hue
  • saffron
  • malachite
  • terre verte
  • verdigris – which was made by exposing copper to vinegar or wine

The trade of pigments during the Middle Ages involved long distances, as many of the products came from Asia. There was expansion of this trade during the 12th and 13th centuries as the Mongol Empire took over the Silk Road, but with their collapse trade began to decrease.

Panayotova then turns to the newly emerging forms of technical analysis and what they reveal about medieval art. Infra-red reflectography can study what is underneath the image we see and reveal original sketches and early changes made by the artist. Imaging spectroscopy, on the other hand, is used to distinguish the materials used by an artist – for example, what was used to make a particular blue: azurite, ultramarine or indigo?

These and other techniques help to reveal much about how individual paintings were made, as well as to see more general trends in medieval art. For example, we now know that egg yolk was used as a binding agent for these various paints.

Stella Panayotova notes that very few institutions have the resources to be able to carry out these non-invasive examinations of medieval artworks, but she is hopeful that there will be more collaboration between institutions as well as between those who study medieval art and those who can develop technologies that can peer into these works. As Panayotova says the study of medieval art allows us to better understand how they “convey beauty and meaning” and even centuries later can “still provoke powerful responses in its viewers.”

See also this video where Stella Panayotova discusses medieval manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, including a rare example of a Dutch medieval manuscript.

See also: Secret histories of illuminated manuscripts: the MINIARE project

See also Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art

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