Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Medieval Inks

Saint Jerome Battle Scene Saint Paul Preaching to the Jews and Gentiles of Rome

Above, from left to right: Saint Jerome (detail), from Life of Saint Paul by Jerome and Life of Saint Guthlac, England, probably Canterbury, probably 2nd quarter of 11th century, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 389; Battle Scene (detail), from Book of Maccabees I, Saint Gall, Switzerland, second half of 9th???early 10th century, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Leiden, Cod. Perizoni F.17; Saint Paul Preaching to the Jews and Gentiles of Rome (detail), from the Pauline Epistles, Saint Gall, Switzerland; second half of ninth century Stiftsbibliothek, Saint Gall, Cod. 64.

The exuberant drawing of Saint Jerome with a quill in his right hand, its tip pressed against the ruled pages of an open book, and, in his left hand, a knife used for sharpening the quill and scraping away mistakes, provides a memorable image of the scribe at work. I???ve always marveled at the resourcefulness of medieval scribes and artists in terms of the preparation of their tools and materials. As if the process of creating folios of parchment were not expensive and time-consuming enough, artists also had to prepare their own pigments and pens. Inks could be made from a combination of materials, but almost all featured some kind of ground material suspended in a binding solution. Unlike tempera paints, inks are not generally known to be bound with egg whites, but rather with gums (polysaccharides), such plant saps or animal-based glues, which allow fluidity of line and an even distribution of color. Commonly used pigments included organic materials such as madder, a plant whose root was crushed for its color, and clay; both produced a brownish hue.

Organic materials produced the most stable and basic colors of the medieval palette and offered a variety of bright tones, including my favorite pigment, cochineal???a scarlet color created from the crushed shells of dried insects. However, the most brilliant shades were derived from ground minerals or man-made concoctions. The presence of such materials in a manuscript, even in a drawing, would certainly have connoted rarity and preciousness to medieval eyes. Perhaps the most famous pigment of all was derived from the mineral lapis lazuli, transported from Afghanistan, which offered a deep, serene blue prized for its rarity and beauty.

I have been particularly interested of late by a red-lead oxide known as minium, whence derives the term ???miniature??? to describe the finished illustrations found in manuscripts. Minium was used by early artists to map out compositions that were later painted over, and by scribes to pick out words and initials. While paging through the illustrations of the Leiden Maccabees (see center image above), I noticed bright-red patches that seem to lie underneath the brown lines, perhaps serving as preliminary sketches for more finished drawings. Could this be an example of the technique used in the service of drawing rather than for painted illumination? Several other texts from the monastery where the Leiden Maccabees was created (Saint Gall), feature a similar shade of red ink in their ornamental letters and texts.

In its original manuscript, opposite the lively drawing of Paul preaching (see image above, at right), is a page of text whose ink color offers the very immediate impression of scribes and artists busily at work, sharing ink as they copied and illustrated their manuscripts.

Although medieval manuals do record recipes for making inks, the idiosyncrasies of each artist???s technique for mixing pigments and the sheer variety of materials employed leaves us with an incomplete sense of how artists made such beautifully subtle colors. Because the process of preparing pigments was the most basic chore, it was often assigned to apprentices who studied how to make the colors first-hand and their methods were not recorded in manuals with any precision. Yet the importance of the process is evident in later medieval legal documents, which stipulate that artists should be paid for the amount of precious pigment used rather than for a work???s size or for the amount of time it took to make.

This seems to place a very different value on a work of art than would be the case today, when an artist???s signature or the rarity of a piece might determine its relative worth. Does this medieval appreciation of material have any parallels in the making of today???s art?

???Elizabeth Williams, Exhibition Assistant

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Comments (17)

  1. Christopher Says:

    Then is oak gall now not considered as a source for ink?
    Thank you

  2. Joseph Kopta Says:

    As a parenthetical note, in addition to the fine drawing of Saint Jerome in the exhibition, there is a small brass sculpture in the Linsky Galleries on the first floor of the met, showing a monk sitting backwards on a dragon and writing with a quill and pen knife in either hand. (1982.60.396). Can anyone else think of other examples in the Medieval galleries representing individuals writing?

  3. Betsy Williams Says:

    Dear Christopher,
    Yes, oak gall is still considered critical in the making of ink, though I didn’t have a chance to discuss it in the blog entry. Our conservators tell me that research and discoveries about the compositions of medieval inks continue apace. For oak gall in particular, you might look here: http://www.loc.gov/preserv/rt/projects/iron_gall_ink.html.

  4. Susan P Says:

    Thank you Joseph Kopta for pointing us toward that beautiful little sculpture in the Linsky Galleries. On Sunday, we viewed Pen and Parchment, attended Edward Tufte’s lecture, went back to the exhibition to take a closer look at the medieval diagrams, then went downstairs to see the monk sculpture. It always helps to learn more about our relationship with flatland (word and image on a page or screen) and our experience in 3D/4D spacetime. These are things we visitors sometimes take for granted and know we shouldn’t! So fun!

  5. Alex Says:


    I managed to find a few examples of individuals in the act of writing in the Medieval galleries. I took some photos and posted them to my Flickr account.


  6. Betsy Williams Says:

    Thank you, Alex, for taking these pictures. I’ve also been long intigued by the depictions of people writing or holding books. It seems to me that saints or other holy figures in particular are most frequently shown with books; by the later middle ages, so too are kings and queens. To my mind, such images underline the real importance and indeed preciousness of books: so expensive that only a few could own them, so rare that only the most fortunate could learn to read them. So whenever I look at pictures of people writing or holding books, I always think of what it would have meant to be a medieval person looking at such statues in churches — I’d have certainly be impressed to see them!

  7. Alex Says:

    I completely agree - seeing someone depicted with a book would have certainly impressed medieval me. At the same time, I would have been impressed by anyone shown in a work of art.

    Do you think one could argue that books are seen only in the hands of saints, holy, figures, and royalty because they were the subjects of the majority of art produced during the middle ages?

  8. Betsy Williams Says:

    That’s a great point, Alex — yes, these were the most important players of the medieval world, and the ones who are most frequently depicted. As an interesting aside, you may from time to time see depictions of people holding scrolls, rather than books (a great example in the exhibition is the Evangelist portrait of St. John from the Corbie Gospels from the Biblioth??ques M??tropole, Amiens). It almost always indicates that the person shown is a figure from the Old Testament or a personality from antiquity; the idea being, of course, that the scroll pre-dated the codex, and thus was more appropriate for an ancient character.

  9. Joseph Kopta Says:

    Thanks, Alex, for posting your pictures- I especially like the German enamel. Shifting back to the first post, another point related to the value of codices in the middle ages (or rather the wealth of the owner) was the materials used to create them, especially evident in the later middle ages in Books of Hours. Ultramarine made from expensive lapis lazuli or a quantity of gilding would make a manuscript more expensive and more desirable, not to say only available to just the wealthy.

    One question I have is related to the value of the parchment- would stillborn parchment, such as that used for the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, be valued more by medieval book-lovers than the skin of older animals (which had imperfections)?

    Another question relates to materials of the early middle ages. I know that many early Byzantine manuscript folios were dyed purple (possibly with the cochineal that Elizabeth mentioned) since this color was correlated with the Emperor, a carry-over from Roman Imperial times. But can anyone comment on what the important pigments were in the west, such as those found in Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman manuscripts?

  10. Betsy Williams Says:

    Thank you for these questions. Certainly higher quality parchment was a prized material for precious manuscripts, though it is worth mentioning that parchment on the whole was difficult to come by, given the incredible amount of time and expense required to make it. This makes the achievement of Opicinus de Canistris, who drew diagrams on enormous sheets of uncut parchment, even more remarkable — how in the world did a poor cleric manage to get his hands on such a large stash of (very expensive) parchment? Or consider the large-format Encyclopedia copied in the twelfth-century by the monks in Regensburg, now housed at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. Even though the parchment may not have been as fine as that used for the hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, the sheer size of the pages speaks to the great luxury of the tome (you might calculate it to one animal per page!) Especially charming are instances when scribes tried to hide imperfections in the parchment — such as in the Bodleian Library’s Life of St. Dunstan, where a hole has been used to “support” Dunstan’s flying drapery; or in examples where scribes have stiched together tears in the parchment, carefully joining spare parts to maximize the writing surface.

    Pigments remained relatively stable throughout the middle ages, and most of the ones I mentioned in the post were used in both east and west, in a variety of contexts including painting and textile dyeing. You bring up a very interesting point about “dyed” manuscripts, the earliest instances of which survive from the late antique / early medieval period. A good place to look for the earliest examples of these books in western contexts is in the exhibition catalogue for “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000″, a recent exhibition at the Freer Gallery, Washington (http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/ITB/html/introduction.htm) There is also a tradition in the Islamic world of dyed manuscripts; these include blue manuscripts, such as the famous dispersed “Blue Qur’an” of the 9th or 10th century, written in gold (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/fati/ho_2004.88.htm). I’ve even seen an early Qur’an that was painted in silver on coral-colored parchment! What might this say about the significance of dyed parchment across cultures in the late antique and early medieval world?

    Thanks again for these comments.

  11. Susan P Says:

    Betsy, Joseph, Christopher, and Alex,

    All of your comments have piqued my interest in your field of expertise. (Coincidentally, I am re-reading Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, and find it really curious how relevant the book is to your collective comments.) I know nothing about Medieval art, so your conversation is enlightening. Thank you. Do any of you have more specifics about the medieval inks made of crushed insects? (I have mixed my own “paints”, at times. It’s frustrating.) I marvel at the lasting color values/qualities of the pigments and substrates to which you refer above. Also, if time allows, can any of you comment on the gold used throughout this exhibition? Is it gold leaf? Some of it looks like it’s actually painted. Thx.

  12. Susan P Says:

    I see the “All That Glitters” section now….Sorry, I don’t have time to read all P and P blogs at once…. Thanks anyway. I am still curious about the durability of this ink from insect shells, and if the curators found a recipe for that ink? Also was cadmium used in the exhibition at all? Cadmium is expensive today and still adds to the value of artworks. I’d love to know if the inks described above are more stable than current pigments, relatively speaking, of course. Thx.

  13. Melanie Holcomb Says:

    Dear Betsy, Alex, and Joseph,

    I wanted to add a couple images of writers in the Medieval Galleries of the main building. There are two Ottonian ivories on view (17.190.36 and 41.100.169) with Evangelist “portraits” that show the Evangelists writing. They are on view in the same case opposite the space that is akin to a Byzantine chapel. You can also see them on the Met’s Timeline of Art History, which is another feature on our website.

    Another image that conveys the importance of books is the new page we are showing in the exhibition from the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux that shows the Miracle of the Breviary. The story is that Louis IX had lost his prayer-book, along with his armor, in a battle with the Saracens during the Crusades. He is captured by the Saracens and placed into prison. Just when he realizes he has lost his prayer book, a dove miraculously flies in to deliver the book to Louis in his prison cell.

  14. Eric Hupe Says:

    Dear Joseph,

    Regarding your question about the value of stillborn parchment, I think we can presume that because of it rarity and fineness it would be of higher value. But another less rare source of high quality parchment could be extremely young calves.

    For further reading, consider this book:
    Ronald Reed. “Ancient Skins, Parchments and Leathers”

    Thanks for your comment.

  15. Betsy Williams Says:


    Pigment analysis is a fascinating area of research, and a time-intensive one that often requires years of research. We haven???t analyzed the works in the show, but our conservators here have studied some of the works in our own collections. You might look at Margaret Lawson’s essay in the 2002 publication, Picturing the Apocalypse: Illustrated Leaves from a Medieval Spanish Manuscript. Two classics on medieval pigments and painting include Daniel V. Thompson’s The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting, or The Artists Handbook of Materials and Techniques, by Ralph Mayer, which may answer some of your questions about recipes.

    Cadmium is a more recent pigment, and its presence in a medieval piece allows art historians to determine that the work is a modern forgery. Certainly other pigments, particularly rare minerals, were valued in the middle ages. Medieval pigments are quite stable, though some were more reactive than others. Oxides could eat through parchment, as you can see in the patches of verdigris (copper green) in the Peter of Poitiers Scroll. Silver was also used to embellish manuscripts, and tended to tarnish, as you might see in the portrait of John the Evangelist in the Corbie Gospels from Amiens.

    Thank you for these questions.

  16. Susan P Says:


    Thank you for your thorough response. I have read some of The Artists Handbook of Materials and Techniques but will look more closely now. I’m looking forward to reading Margaret Lawson’s essay, Picturing the Apocalypse and also Daniel V. Thompson’s book. I would not have known about these books without your blog. I have begun to notice a discussion among the general public, and also academia, regarding the lasting value of word and image in print versus the web. Your discussions seem very relevant to me.

    Thanks again.

  17. Vivien Lapa Says:

    When visiting the Hermitage a few years ago, I had the pleasure of walking into a very large room, filled with various texts and manuscripts. One of them was totally in red, ie the parchment was in red. Unfortunately I only have a photo of it and am unable to find out its name or origin. It’s a pity that there are still places which have wonderful works of art, but are not easily shared with the world.

    Thank you for your information. I am doing some research on writing inks and pigments showcased on the 2nd floor in Heidelberg’s University Library, which has an original copy of Manesse Codex. As it is in German I am trying to translate the words and understand the sources of those pigments. Your comments are very helpful.

    Here in Montreal Canada, our calligraphy society, La Soci??t?? des Calligraphes de Montr??al is celebrating its 30 anniversary, and I am presenting a slide show on calligraphy in Europe.

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