The examination of the Book of Kells using micro-Raman spectroscopy

The examination of the Book of Kells using micro-Raman spectroscopy

By Susan Bioletti, Rory Leahy, John Fields, Bernard Meehana and Werner Blau

Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, Vol.40 (2009)

Book of Kells - Initial

Abstract: The Book of Kells, Trinity College Dublin MS 58, is one of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures, and as such all aspects of its production have attracted academic attention. Until recently, studies of its dyes and pigments have relied exclusively on techniques such as visual and optical microscopic and spectroscopic examination, and comparison of the appearance of the pigment with specimens prepared using ancient or medieval recipes. These studies have yielded interesting results, but, due to the limitations of the examination techniques, they have remained incomplete and somewhat speculative. This article presents the results of a pigment analysis that took place between 2004 and 2006 using micro-Raman spectroscopy. In total, 681 sites over the 4 volumes of the Book of Kells were analysed using 2 separate laser wavelengths (632.8 and 532 nm), making this the most extensive Raman spectroscopic investigation of a single medieval manuscript. In this article several pigments are identified, in particular, blue (indigo), red–orange (red lead), yellow (orpiment), green (vergaut), black (carbon and iron gall ink), and white (gypsum). In addition, purple (orcein) is also discussed.

Introduction: The Book of Kells is a large calfskin-parchment manuscript codex, dating from around 800 CE, of the four gospels based on the Vulgate text.[1,2] It contains 340 folios (680 pages), although originally it may have had 370 folios. There are 34 full-folio decorated pages featuring symbols and portraits of the Evangelists, Christ, the Virgin and Child, and illustrations of events in the life of Christ. Since 1956, the manuscript has been bound in four volumes, one for each of the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Book of Kells has survived as one of the greatest examples of medieval Christian art. It is renowned for the richness of its decoration, which ranges in complexity from full-page compositions based around words, initials and portraits, to small details used to augment and emphasise text.

Despite numerous studies of its history, iconography, materials and techniques, many questions remain about its origins and production, and there have been discrepancies and differences of opinion in published descriptions of the range and type of pigments used by its scribes.

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