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