Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

Everything is illuminated

Illuminated manuscripts are the best record we have of the elation of colour in the art of the middle ages, as this new Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition shows

One could honour God with prayer, of course, and build cathedrals, amass treasuries, turn choirs into stained-glass jewel boxes, carve portals with saints and sinners. But for the medieval monks bent over vellum in chilly scriptoria colour, too, was devotion: offertories of lapis lazuli, azurite, cinnabar, silver and gold, gold and more gold. Silver tarnished on the page, but gold remained exquisite, inviolable, and monks and scholars found a dragonish greed for it.

War, weather, revolution, Henry VIII, Oliver Cromwell, acquisitive magpies, trophy-hunters and time have stripped gold and pigment from sculptures and ivories. Frescoes have been whitewashed, mosaics scuffed, stained-glass smashed, reliquaries melted and their gems dispersed, but illuminated manuscripts, bound between covers of oak and tanned leather, survive. They are the best record we have of the elation of colour in the art of the sixth to 16th centuries.

This elation is the subject of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts. The exhibition marries 150 manuscripts from the Fitzwilliam collection with new research from the Cambridge Miniare (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) project which, with infrared imaging, microscopic magnification and X-ray scanning, has identified the pigments and painter’s materials used by monks, scribes and professional artists in the illumination of their pages.

The contents of a scriptorium’s cabinet have something of the ‘eye of bat, toe of frog’ about them. The parchment pages are goatskin, sheepskin, calfskin, split and pared down to tissue thinness, or they are ‘uterine vellum’ — the skin of aborted calves. Cuttlefish bones scraped the parchment smooth. Quills were cut from goose, swan or crow feathers. Hair from squirrels’ tails made the finest brushes. Gold leaf could be polished to brilliance with a ‘dog’s tooth’ — a shard of agate.

Black pigments came from charred ivory or animal bones. ‘Sepia’ black came from the ink in cuttlefish glands.

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