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Shining Light on Medieval Illuminations: Pigments through the Ages

Shining Light on Medieval Illuminations: Pigments through the Ages

Lecture by Andrew Beeby, Durham University

Given at the Royal Society of Chemistry, on April 2, 2015

Identifying the materials used in medieval illuminated manuscripts gives us an insight into the techniques and skills of the scribes and illuminators, as well as the sometimes complex trade routes of the times. Also, knowing what materials are present gives modern day conservators information about the materials they may encounter. The challenge is to be able to identify materials on a delicate sheet of parchment, typically a folio of a bound manuscript that does not open readily, without contact, sampling or causing any damage. Ideally the technique should give an unequivocal identification of pigments with high spatial resolution and selectivity: a challenge indeed!

At Durham we have used Raman spectroscopy combined with hyperspectral imaging and diffuse reflectance spectroscopy to this end, and have embarked upon a study of the pigments used in manuscripts produced in the British Isles and northern Europe between the 7th and 15th centuries. By studying books of well-established provenance and time and place of origin we are building a map of pigment use, creating a valuable resource for conservators and historians. The changes in pigment choice and use reflect changes in technology transfer, e.g. as book production moved from the monastic to the secular, and of societal change, e.g. the changes in pigment use arising from the Norman conquest.

Andrew Beeby is a Professor of Chemistry at Durham University. His research focuses upon the study of luminescent materials and the use of optical spectroscopy for the study of materials with diverse applications such as molecular probes and light emitting devices as well as the development of instrumentation to facilitate these studies. In 2012 his group embarked up on the use of reflectance spectroscopy and imaging, and the use of Raman microscopy for the identification of pigments in medieval manuscripts.

shining light on medieval illuminations

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