‘Small’ painting began with illustrated books

      Miniature paintings started with books known as “illuminated manuscripts.”  These are handmade books where the text is illustrated or enhanced with decorations.  This includes fancy decorated initial letters that begin pages and paragraphs, borders and tiny illustrations. They are very small works of art, usually 8 x 10 inches or smaller. 

      The earliest preserved examples date back to around 400 AD, and they likely could have been in existence before then.  Many of these early illuminated manuscripts were made by scribe monks in monasteries, who copied ancient religious and scientific texts and embellished them with fanciful designs.  Later, professional scribes and artists created books for rich clients.

A 13th century miniature painting from an illuminated manuscript. This is the earliest known depiction of Thomas Becket’s assassination.

      Illumination, with its tiny artwork, was a complex and often costly process.  The text was usually written first.  Then sheets of parchment or vellum (animal hides specially prepared for writing and painting) were cut down to the appropriate size.  Once the page layout was planned, the scribe used a pointed stick to lightly draw lines for the text across the page.  He then lettered the text with the ink pot and a sharpened quill feather or reed pen.

     Once the text was complete, the illustrator set to work.  He used a wax tablet (the sketch pad of that time) to plan out the design of the page.  An elaborate Gothic page might include several kinds of decoration:  a miniature in a frame, a decorated initial beginning a passage of text, and a border with foliage (called foliate patterns) or amusing and fantastical pictures incorporated into the designs (known as drolleries).  These illustrations were traced or drawn onto the vellum.  Sometimes different artists specialized in different parts of the decoration.

     The medieval artist’s palette was quite broad, considering that all colors had to be made from natural substances.  Medieval artists, like today’s artists, liked to have a wide range of pigments on hand, and unusual ingredients such as urine and earwax were used to prepare some of the colors.  Minerals were ground to powder and mixed with a binder such as gum Arabic.  Plant parts, insects, and scrapings from stoves also went into making some of the colors.  The sources of color for medieval miniatures are fascinating.

     Reds were made from mercury sulfide, often called cinnabar or vermilion, in mineral form; red lead or minium (this is where the word “miniatures” comes from; and colors made from crushed insects such as cochineal.)  Rust (iron oxide) or iron oxide-rich earth was also used for red and red-brown.

     Yellows were often based on plants, including tumeric and saffron.  Yellow earth colors and orpiment (arsenic sulfide) also provided a source of yellow.  Greens came from buckthorn berries and other plant material, as well as from copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite.

     Ultramarine blue was made from the precious rock lapis.  Blue shades also came from the minerals azurite and smalt, or plants such as woad, indigo, folium or turnsole, most of which are barely known today.

     White came from lead or chalk.  Black was produced from charcoal, lampblack (the black substance left on the outside of stoves and lamps after burning), burnt bones or ivory.  Iron and gall (from the parasitic galls on oak trees) also provided black.

     Gold came in leaf form (hammered extremely thin) or it was powdered and bound in gum Arabic or egg (this was called “shell gold”).  Silver was made using either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold.  Tin leaf also made a silver color.

     Illuminated manuscripts are the best surviving specimens of both medieval painting and very early miniature painting.  In fact, for many areas and time periods they are the only surviving examples of painting.

Kay Sluterbeck/AAPJ

Published by on March 2013. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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