In the quest to understand what manuscripts are, one should first turn to the Latin ‘manuscriptus’, meaning ‘written by hand’, which precedes the word utilised now. Manuscripts replaced papyrus scrolls as the primary object used for recording history and law, conveying biblical stories and creating fictional stories, through the means of text. Manuscripts were generated in four stages: parchment making, writing, illumination and binding, and formed the shape of a book, making them easier to handle and more practical than scrolls. The Anointing of a Bishop from Renaud de Bar’s unfinished Metz Pontifical from 1303-1316 sheds light on the technique of the first two processes. Manuscripts could be created by a single person, for example a monk carrying out a devotional act, or by a holistic team of artisans with specialities in different areas. The former had more religious sentiment, but the latter was cheaper, more time efficient, and potentially produced even better results from the multitude of skills available. In the magnificent Dover Bible shown in the Fitzwilliam Museum, the work of monks and of artists may be intertwined, with the writing process carried out in the monastery of Christ Church, Canterbury by monks, and the illumination, done by hired professionals. This illumination, from grisaille sketching to gold punching, encompasses everything that involved the ‘lighting up’ of the manuscript. As the Fitzwilliam’s Colour Exhibition illustrates with its focus on its namesake, illumination played a vital role in the final versions of many manuscripts, as can be seen in the striking, foliate ‘O’ initial, by artist Cristoforo Cortese, from the Entry into Jerusalem story from a Venetian 1410-1420 Gradual, owned by the museum. These three works all highlight different aspects of the process of manuscript making, and are each unique in their illumination. They were all also chosen by the curator of the Colour Exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for display.
A Pontifical produced in Metz for Renaud de Bar, Bishop of Metz Cathedral and wealthy Lorraine nobleman affords the spectator an overview of manuscript making, as you leaf from the unfinished back, still in the sketching stage, to the front, completed before de Bar died in 1316. A page of the Anointing of the Bishop found in folio 123 depicts an incomplete miniature of the Archbishop, who can be found centrally in the small illustration at the top of the page, anointing the head of a bishop (from the Office for Consecrating a Bishop), above a block of text in black script, switching to red further down the page.
The eight figures present in the scene are all in the foreground, and to either side of the Archbishop, with only a small amount of overlap in the two figures on left and little evidence of foreshortening. The figures are wearing robes in bright colours with golden clasps, along with white bishop’s hats with gold piping. This image is unfinished, with large patches of raw parchment left undecorated, enclosed by a simple black and beige border with corner decoration. The underdrawing of the figures, of the tablecloth and even on the detail of clergymen’s hair is visible due to the lack of pigment. The archbishop is the most complete figure in the scene, with the next being the anointee kneeling below him, and then the small motif of the Virgin and Child in the top right hand side of the scene. The figure of the archbishop has both palms open to the figure in front of him, perpendicular to the plane of the bishop’s face, which is bowed in extreme reverence, and parallel to his gently clasped hands. A luminescent blue background with curled gold detailing leaps out from behind the figures, along with their golden staffs and candle on the table. The rest of the page is brought to life by the mixture of red and black writing on faint horizontal lines, the decorative historiated initialing on the primary letters of sentences, a lowercase H and U, and the bas-de-page images.
The nature of the manuscript technique required a team that would not necessarily have been skilled in representation of perspective or form, concepts even the greatest artists like Giotto and Masacchio were still coming to terms with. This explains the lack of attempts at perspective in overlap and foreshortening, although the incomplete nature of the work makes it difficult to tell whether this was the final intention. Furthermore, ideas surrounding the modelling of form were based upon building up materials and layering paints and binding agents upon one another. This created a tangible weight for the objects and figures, and the page’s unfinished nature prevents the viewer from understanding whether the artist strove to depict voluminous forms. The plummet underdrawings evident show the importance of preliminary sketches in all artwork, but here, in mediums like manuscript and fresco, its extreme importance for the designer relies on a big, sometimes under-qualified team.
The location of the blank parchment is important in elucidating the order in which parts of the painting, including body parts, were painted in manuscript illumination. Faces, as shown in The Anointing of the Bishop, were painted last as they were highly revered as an indication of character, temperament and status, and as the vermillion and lead white tones were applied after the darker tones were applied, so as not to tinge the lighter colours. As was quite common in manuscript illumination at the time, it is likely that de Bar would have commissioned his own portrait be put onto one of the figures, both displaying his wealth and submitting himself to God and the formulae of important ceremonies that this book contained. With the placement of the bishop and archbishop’s hands, there is a verticality generated, producing thrust. This gives a softer transition between the miniature and the rather vertical Textualis writing beneath it, with sharp peaks and bases due to the thin nib of the goose quill, already soaked and hardened with sand, so as not to attract too much attention to the painting rather than the main focus in the text.
The background azurite tones and shell gold tendrils contrast the deep reds and mosaic (powdered) gold of the cloaks, giving the miniature a heavenly glow. The black rulings that can still be seen in the text, made using a straight-edge, highlight the precision taken when writing the manuscript, and give the writing a sense of elegance and regularity that patrons praised. The use of the red ‘ruber’ colour for parts of the writing acted as a medieval highlighter, allowing the most meaningful text to stand out, the word itself giving inspiration for a ‘rubric’ — a heading or important set of instructions.
The Dover Bible is a massive two-volume, 53 x 36 cm bible, made for St Martin’s Priory, Dover, by the Corpus 4 Master at Christ Church, Canterbury between 1150 and 1160, when the Priory was rededicated to the Benedictine community. Apart from its unusual size, it is magnificent in the colours it displays with rare, carefully sourced and carefully applied minerals like ultramarine and indigo, which, after the Crusader’s Conquest of the Holy Land, were much more available due to increased access to Asian trade routes. Folio 242 of Volume II sheds further light on how these pigments were used in the making of manuscripts, and the ways in which teams worked using special model books and craft manuals like Theophilus’ late-twelfth century De Diversis Artibus. On the bottom third of this particular page in the Dover Bible we can see a highly decorated initial ’S’, and another one on the second column, although for pictorial reasons it is represented with sharper corners. The red and gold diagonal line of the S splits the small rectangle in two, depicting one person on either side, engaged in activities.
The person on the left is dressed in a pink robe and hat, with a paint shell in one hand and his other raised up to the letter, adorning it with a black outline using a paintbrush. The background is pale, potentially having faded due to being a cheaper pigment of blue (a mixture with copper carbonate base called azurite), but this seems ironic considering the activity the opposite person is concerned with — grinding lapis lazuli, an expensive blue stone, into powder. The sleeves of his red tunic are rolled up, and he wears a white bonnet, contrasting the dark black of his hair and the malachite background. He is standing hunched over the imitation-marble, porphyry slab upon which he works. He holds a muller in his hand, which is in a raised position, imminently striking the block. Both images are historiated initials, embedded into the text.
As the first known depiction of the preparation of pigments in manuscripts, this work is a fascinating insight into the precise details of illumination, as well as embodying the results. We can assume from their garments that the person on the left is the master, and the rightmost his apprentice, who wears less regal attire and carries out the dirty work. This emphasises the nature of manuscript making as a group task, although this was carried out in a monastery, so probably had a lower commission rate and was probably treated as more of a reverential experience for just a few people than a laborious one where writing, illumination and binding would be occurring at the same time for the same text, only facilitated by the use of quires to separate into around sixteen sheets before binding. We can see the results of their labour reflected in the inclusion of the also-ultramarine stand upon which the slab lies, and the blue artistic stone decoration frivolously curling beside the apprentice. Cennino Cennini states that any colour used on panel can be used upon parchment, but that the pigments ‘must be ground very fine’, highlighting the importance of the task that the artist and his apprentice are carrying out in this scene, whilst the scene itself justifies the actions by being painted in these beautiful tones.
Gorgeous colour extends across the Colour Exhibition, and can be seen highlighted particularly well in another work, that of prolific Venetian artist Cristoforo Cortese from a Venetian Gradual of 1410. Open on the story of the Entry into Jerusalem, we can see a historiated, initial, an “O” painted in ultramarine, decorated with an abundance of golds and decorative patterning. The scene depicts Christ in the left of the scene riding a colt, followed by his disciples, only three of whose faces are visible. Dubiously placed below him in the fields are two small figures laying garments onto the ground and one holding the branches of a palm tree, whilst on the opposing side of the composition sit the fortified gates to Jerusalem, where the Passover will be celebrated. In the upper half of the scene, two trees stretch upwards, and men hang from them waving palm leaves through the air.
Christ stands out in this scene due to Cortese’s placement of him on the donkey, raising him up to a higher level than the other figures present, and because of the rich ultramarine robe he wears over his red tunic, which juxtaposes the pale yellows and greens of the background. The next most obvious figure is the disciple standing behind Christ, who is highlighted because of his robe, painted in mosaic gold — tin sulphide powder mixed with oil — that has a bronze hue reminiscent of real gold dust. The cinnabar red tunic of Christ and that the figures climbing the tree wear juxtapose the bevelled, golden background of burnished gold leaf, that allows light to play on the surface of the work, giving the effect of a divine luminance concentrated upon the city of Jerusalem. On the actual body of the initial, framing the divine scene, sparkle golden beads and small lead white foliage, and Cortese makes the lining of Christ’s robe from shell gold, enhancing the golden theme.
All four Gospel writers describe Christ’s entry into Jerusalem with multitudes of crowds (‘crowds went before him and followed him’) that lay their garments on the road for him to tread on. Perhaps Cortese chose not to illustrate the crowds in this piece as the scene would then become too crowded, and the radiant background might have been obscured, disposing of another element of the importance of Christ for an allusion to the divinity of God instead, bringing this work into a higher realm of religious reverence. Additionally, the inclusion of the many types of gold show the gateway parchment gave to invention, for the methods were simple — all it took was a small amount of tragacanth or Arabic gum and some moisture in the artist’s breath to stick gold leaf to the piece of parchment. Masters also strived to use materials that replicated gold and see what could be achieved with them, and this type of invention is also apparent in the use of mosaic ‘gold’ here, that was really tin.
Alchemy, as a transmutation of more abundant metals (tin and lead) into the appearance of the most expensive ones (gold and silver) became an important aspect of manuscript making, particularly when the patron was low financially, or when there was no patron at all. The use of shiny metals of any kind were very important in this time due to the darkness of churches, out of which metals could twinkle. Artist and author Cennino Cennini himself admitted six colours off his palette were ‘made by alchemy’. The lead white decoration that is still visible on the initial highlight the care that was taken in producing this work layer by layer, to build up a thick, raised surface. A lot of surviving lead white in works from this period is now almost transparent, due to its chemical reaction with other pigments.
Manuscripts show many adaptations from other techniques to produce effects that would work well with the binding agents, mostly egg white and bole beneath gold leaf, although many artists retained the use of egg yolk to give more weight to figures and their faces. The manuscript leaves were well suited to their binding in quires, comprising sequences of stories or comparisons on either side that had meaning when closed up, as can be seen in the presentation of unavoidable death next to miraculous life in The Three Living and Three Dead from the ‘Office of the Dead’. Size could also have limited the design, as the animal skin could only be stretched so far before it would be too thin to use as pages, and ideally borders were left with a few centimetres width blank, as pages would be soiled as they were leafed through by many monks’ hands each day. Altogether, many varied factors, from intended use to region to availability of pigments, contributed to the appearance of manuscripts, of which some contributed to their meaning, and others were simply known restrictions of the medium.
First year Art Historian at Cambridge University and intern at Private Art Education.