Medieval Manuscripts in Living Colour

Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.
Book of Kells, Folio 32v, Christ Enthroned.

By Danièle Cybulskie

Not every medieval manuscript involves colour, but the ones that do are unforgettable. A quick glance at The Lindisfarne Gospels or The Book of Kells is only enough to whet the appetite. But how did medieval people get such magnificent colour, and how can it still be so brilliant a thousand years later? Here’s a five-minute look at colouring manuscripts.

As I mentioned in a previous post about scribes, illumination was the last part of creating a manuscript before gathering and binding. This was to prevent the many mishaps that could occur to a painstakingly-crafted painting, from spilled ink, to flaking off the gold leaf, to cats wandering around over the drying pages. Some existing manuscripts have sketches for illumination that was never carried out, suggesting that the illumination was also a very expensive part of manuscript creation – in these cases, it’s likely that the money ran out before the illumination could be completed. The expense of illumination also explains why the most lavishly illustrated manuscripts were often presented as gifts to royalty, the aristocracy, and the church.

Part of the reason why illuminated manuscripts were expensive and treasured was the time put into drawing and painting. Looking at some manuscripts, you can see that the same section has been painted in with many careful brush strokes to give the picture a deep colour. Chances are, the painter didn’t paint a whole bunch of colours at one time (risking muddying the edges), which meant drying time between layers and between colours. Celtic artists also challenged themselves by creating elaborate knotwork, which would have taken precision and time to paint well. This was not a quick process.

The other reason illumination was costly was that creating paint in different colours required the painter to acquire many different ingredients, some of them rare. A good base for paint was eggs, since they mix well, stick well, and have a consistency that is not too runny. (You can check out a video on egg tempera here.) Red is the most common colour in medieval manuscripts, used for painting as well as inking important information like saints’ days, and it was fairly easy to find ingredients to make it. In Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators, Christopher de Hamel lists some potential red ingredients as cinnabar, vermillion, Brazilwood, Madder, and dragonsblood (p.62). Blue involved azurite or the very expensive and rare lapis lazuli (p.62); green could be malachite (p.62) or plant-based; yellow could come from saffron (in the same way that food was coloured yellow with saffron); and of course colours could be mixed with each other to create new colours. Every one of these ingredients involved some processing, from grinding minerals to steeping plants in hot water, adding to the painter’s time and effort.

Depending on what the illuminator was creating, a quill pen could suit, since it can get a nice flow of ink very unlike today’s ballpoint pens. Otherwise, a brush was used. De Hamel suggests that in some manuscript pictures featuring illuminators working we might actually mistake a brush for a pen, since both brushes and pens used quills – brush bristles were inserted inside the hollow centre of the quill (p.62). Painters could use horsehair, as we sometimes do today, but it’s more likely that fine work would be done with brushes made from softer fur, like ermine and squirrel (de Hamel, p.62).

The most spectacular part of many illuminated manuscripts is gold ornamentation. As with paint, glue could be made out of eggs, and the gold leaf brushed on extremely carefully. (De Hamel’s book has a great section on how to apply gold leaf.) Using gold leaf was a task for those with steady hands and steady nerves, since it was not only expensive, but also necessarily thin. A good sneeze could ruin a lot of hard work. After the gold was applied, it was burnished in order to shine brightly for readers, and much of it still shines brightly today.

Parchment made of animal skin was a great choice for creating books, because its porous nature holds ink and paint extremely well. While paint and gold leaf eventually will flake off with heavy use, medieval manuscripts were tough enough for regular use without much damage. As most of these books have been stored with their covers closed for much of their lives, opening an illuminated manuscript can easily present readers with colours that are as brilliant today as they were a thousand years ago.

For a great book on manuscript creation, do check out Christopher De Hamel’s Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators. For a beautiful kids’ storybook which teaches how manuscripts were made, and even what paint was made out of, have a look at Marguerite Makes a Book. For everything you ever wanted to know about manuscripts, follow Erik Kwakkel online; and finally, for a visual treat, check out The Book of Kells.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

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