Tuesday 7 July 2009

Papyrus, goat skin, carmine, gold and silver ..

Palettes of colour enhanced “display books”, Gospel Books, Bibles, chronicles and works of literature illuminated to herald the power of the owner. Illuminated manuscripts originally referred to those works accompanied by silver and gilt adornments, before becoming acceptable terminology for manuscripts with palettes of colour.

In the strictest definition of illuminated manuscript, only manuscripts with gold or silver, like this miniature of Christ in Majesty from the Aberdeen Bestiary (folio 4v), would be considered illuminated.

Drawings, paintings or decorations such as ornate initials, borders, floral accoutrements would all illuminate a historical or pastoral scene personalised and dedicated to the patron.
The word manuscript comes from the Latin ‘manu scriptum’, translated literally to mean “written with the hands” before any technological developments had come along.

Illuminated manuscripts survive in existence today from over 2,000 years ago, but substantive illuminated manuscripts survive, primarily produced in Ireland, Constantinople and Italy in the 400 – 600 AD period, and are now of art historic value.

These beautiful artifacts of the wealthy, enscribed by the monks in the monasteries in the Late Antiquity period of 300 AD to 600 AD have provided future generations that basis on which art, writing, painting and books have all been derived from. The existence of these illuminated manuscripts as a way of giving stature and commemoration to ancient documents may have been largely responsible for their preservation.

Central European (Northern) type of finished parchment made of goatskin stretched on a wooden frame

The earliest examples were on papyrus, a thick papery substance produced from the pulped flesh of the Egyptian papyrus plant, but most were on parchment, the stretched skin of an animal, as papyrus was not stable in the damper climes to the north. Vellum, the finest of parchments, was used for manuscripts that were important enough to be illuminated, as there would be less likelihood for error as the surface of the material was so fine.

Early script on papyrus would have had angular, multiple stroke letters more suited to the rougher surfaces, while the broad single stroke letter using simple round forms, taken from late Old Roman cursive, took advantage of the new parchment and vellum surfaces.

The majority of manuscripts survive from the Middle Ages and are religious in nature; however from the 13th century onwards, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated.

A 13th century manuscript illumination, the earliest known depiction of Thomas Becket's assassination

Scrolls were the document of the Egyptian papyrus day, but they were limiting by their length and in particular by their fragility, so despite the invention of the folded ‘accordian scroll’ – a scroll that could be read in columns while being unrolled horizontally, scrolls were overtaken with new inventions.

Originally folios, sheets of matching size, both of papyrus or of parchment were cut, sewn and glued at their centres, making the whole easier to be assembled and to be read.

Then the Romans being the first to invent codices (the singular codex is Latin for a block of wood, or book) and the format of the modern book was born: separate pages normally bound together and given a cover. The assembled folios were trimmed and curved, and called a codex, while the cover or case became known as the ‘Hard Cover’: traditional bookbinding had begun.

The use of paper had spread from China, across Asia into Persia and finally gained acceptance from the Byzantium world into the Christian world of the 11th century. As better processes became available the art of illuminated manuscripts declined until the early 16th century when they were only produced for the very wealthy.
The decoration of this page from a French Book of Hours, ca.1400, includes a miniature, initials and borders

Illumination would always have been a complex and costly process; the decorated initial capital, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations would be set out – the text would be written first with ink-pot, and either a sharpened quill feather or a reed pen.

The type of script used would have depended on the local customs and taste, and varied quite considerably across the Byzantine, Orthodox and early Christian areas. Once the text was complete the illustrator would set to work. The sketch pad of the day would have been a wax tablet, the design would then be traced or drawn onto the vellum (possibly with the aid of pin pricks or other markings, as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels). Many incomplete manuscripts survive from most periods, giving us a good idea of the working methods practised.

The paints in the medieval artist’s palette provided a broad range of colours being available from earth minerals, such as red lead, white chalk, black carbon, or from plant compounds buckthorn berries for green, saffron yellow, woad blue, then the rich gold or silver.

Pietro Ottoboni, the last Cardinal Nephew, painted by Francesco Trevisani (1656 - 1746)

Colour choices evolved with the spread of knowledge from across the globe, first from the east across land, then with the Age of Exploration from the lands across the seas. The classic of these and most known today is the cardinal red of Carmine produced from harvested, dried and crushed cochineal insects. The pigment gave us the Catholic Cardinals vibrant robes, and the English “Redcoats” their distinctive uniforms.

Gold leaf, silver gilt, tin leaf decorated and richly illuminated the early manuscripts, following soon with the addition of the natural pigments obtained from various sources, all delicately depicting and reflecting the life of wealthy and noble patrons, shown on these wonderfully illuminated manuscripts on papyrus, skins of parchment or vellum.

Thank you Mr Postman, my mother loves beautiful pictures and she will be so pleased to have an explanation as to how these wonderful illuminated works of art arose.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters


Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Thank you Hilary for the beauty of this work that you have told us about. So much work went into each of them. The photos of them are great. What details they have. All the information you give to us with each post. Thank you for the new knowledge just by visiting your blog.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Liara Covert said...

I received a timeless papyrus calendar as a gift and the texture of the paper still resonates years later. The Egyptian symbols fascinate me.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Deanna and Dan .. Yes - aren't they wonderful works of art. I don't think I did them justice, but just love them so much I thought I should learn a bit more .. so I as usual learnt too

Thanks for being here
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara - how interesting to hear about the timeless papyrus calender - yes I read that there are still a couple of places in the world making Egyptian papyrus specialist papers.

I also read a little about the development of writing .. but that too is another day ..

You offer me ideas for my blog .. and Egyptian symbols will come in one day!

Thanks for your comments
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters

Peter Baca said...

Hi Hilary,

The manuscripts are quite ornate and beautiful! What a priceless piece of history! It is amazing that they have help up over all these years!

Thank you for your post!

Pete Baca
The Car Enthusiast Online

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Pete .. they are quite wonderful aren't they? Glad you think so too. & as you say a priceless piece of history and what they've shown us over the years.

It's great too that we can see them - as these valuable works are put on show for us to go and look at.

Thank you for visiting ...
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters