New Light on the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Manuscript: Multispectral Imaging and the Cotton Nero A.x. Illustrations
By Murray McGillivray and Christina Duffy
Speculum, Volume 92, 2017
Introduction: Among the striking features of the modest manuscript, London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x., that contains the only known copies of the Middle English poems Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, and Patience, are ten full-page illustrations of the poems and a further two taking up most of their pages.
Formerly these illustrations were treated with some disdain by critics (a typical dismissal is Israel Gollancz’s blunt ‘They are certainly of crude workmanship’); lately they have attracted more measured attention, but some mysteries have remained, including the relation between the ink drawing and the coloration of the illustrations, the pictorial content of the original images in places where these are damaged or faded beyond legibility, and the possibly iconographically significant use of particular pigments by the colorist.
Scientific study using multispectral imaging has allowed us to resolve some of these mysteries and contribute some knowledge to the ongoing discussion of others. Because this manuscript is in many ways a paradox and mystery in itself – containing as it does the unique versions of four of the finest works of Middle English literature, recognized in scholarly consensus as courtly production of the highest literary artistry, but in a manuscript not representing at all a correspondingly elevated standard of craftsmanship – study of the illustrations emerges as one of the ways in which that paradox can be evaluated. The digital methods we have applied in our research have allowed us to see them in ways impossible with conventional methods.