Beating the sin out of your body with a mediaeval flagellum may have worked in those times, but to me, this is a shocking use of beautiful writing and wonderful animal skin. I saw a flagellum first in the old British Library, when it was still housed within the British Museum in Great Russell Street. There was a well-used wooden handle, and Biblical texts in a form of Gothic Black Letter written on strips of animal skin, which were attached to the handle. The skin was rather discoloured, which it would be if it had been used to beat the body.
I thought that, following my theme of loving a lot of lettering that is 3D, I’d try my hand at making a modern flagellum. But what to write? Although I love the words of the St James Bible, I thought that to use biblical texts would simply be a copy. I then realised that there were words and phrases that seemed to be beating the living daylights out of the English language – pre-owned, meaning second-hand, faux, meaning fake, compact (with houses and flats) meaning tiny, economical with the truth, meaning lying. I also have a bit of a thing about verbs being used as nouns, and I’m sorry, but it’s the grammar police here, different from (not different to), fewer for numbers (rather than less than), and so on.
We had a great time one evening with our friends suggesting words and phrases, and then I set to. It may be flagellum, but I wanted to make it beautiful. So I chose some really creamy vellum, used Chinese red and black stick ink, and separated the individual words and phrases along each strip with a gold leaf dot on raised gesso. I marked out with pencil and a straight edge the strips on the vellum – the plan was to make long strips and fold them in half, and then attach them together – and set to. Once the gilding and writing were done I cut up the strips using a sharp knife and straight edge (not too clever with the raised and gilded dots, but there we are!), folded the strips in half and then sewed them all together with bookbinder’s thread.
I am not skilled in wood turning, but I know a man who is, our piano tuner! So we discussed the dimensions and he made the handle. I tried ramming the strips into the cup-shape in the handle but they didn’t stay there very effectively, so I then flooded the inside cavity with acid-free PVA, and it held.
Unlike the mediaeval flagellum which had been used and so the vellum strips were quite flexible, this vellum is stiff, and so, when displayed, each strip has to be separately attached to the backing (with white bluetac). I just wonder what people will think of this in years to come!
Ravenna is one of the most amazing places I have been fortunate enough to visit. I was so bowled over the first time we went there that this year we went again, and if you haven’t been yet, don’t leave it too long before you go! For me one of the best places was the Church of St Vitale, the patron saint of Ravenna. The building was begun in 526 and finished in 547 – an amazing feat of craftsmanship in just over 20 years.
It is octagonal in shape and is a mix between Roman styles (dome, shape of the doorways, etc) and Byzantine styles (the capitals to the columns and narrow bricks).
It is the mosaics that are the most spectacular though to me, and perhaps the most famous is that of the Emperor Justinian and his court to the left of the high altar, and his Empress Theodora opposite him. Justinian is wearing a deep Tyrian-purple robe, dyed from a liquid which comes from the murex brandaris mollusc. Each sea creature gives only one or two drops and it’s been estimated that 12,000 molluscs were required to dye a single robe. It’s easy to see why the colour was restricted to the most important people and even Roman Senators had only a broad purple stripe on their white togas!
The Empress Theodora with her court is depicted on the wall opposite her husband, and she is dressed in a rich purple cloak, but this time hers is embellished with a gold pattern and figures processing at the base. As her hand reaches out to hold the gold and jewelled bowl, it pushes her robe aside to reveal a white dress with a magnificent gold thread and coloured border. Of course, all this decoration, the expressions on the faces, and the richly patterned dresses and headdresses are not painted, but are mosaics. The workmanship is simply incredible! Look particularly at the patterns on the clothes of the woman on the right in this picture.
It is interesting in such an old church to see within the mosaics, if you look closely, examples of writing equipment – perhaps an indication of the importance of the written word to Christians. The man to the right of Maximianus in the Justinian mosaic above is holding a jewelled book (more on Golden Books), but there are also images of writing paraphanalia. Here is John the Evangelist holding an open codex, and beside him on a little pedestal table is his quill, quill knife, ink pot, and probably an ink horn. Note the red tabs on the book which are just dropping down. These were used to secure the bouncy animal-skin pages when the book was closed. Quite a few manuscript books had hasps and clasps, though not all have survived still attached to the binding.
In this mosaic the Evangelist Luke is pointing to his symbol, the calf (though looking more like a full grown bull here!), and holding his Gospel. You can make out the hasps and clasps a bit better here. At his feet is what looks a bit like a hat box with a strap to carry it. In fact this was a container in which to keep scrolls, as you can see they are tightly wound and stacked vertically inside – and remember that all of this is made up of tiny pieces of tile.
Many of us don’t fully appreciate the work that has to be done behind the scenes to ensure that manuscript books in exhibitions are presented in the best possible way. In the Victoria and Albert Museum, a choir book made in Tuscany, probably Florence, in around 1380 for a religious house of nuns is one such. It contains the chants to be sung in the Masses for saints on their feast days.
These choir books were usually large enough to be propped on a stand so that all the choristers could see the words and music at the same time. Many of them are quite huge, and there is a glorious collection of these books which can be seen by the public in the Piccolomini Library at the cathedral in Sienna, Italy.
The V&A book, though, was not in a good state of repair. It had been stored upright rather than flat and this had put a strain on the binding such that the front cover and the first few quires were separated from the rest of the book. Handling the book was challenging without causing further damage.
Also, the inside was in a sorry state. It was very dirty, and some of the pigments and gold leaf had started to detach. There is a large chunk of gold leaf that has fallen off in this illumination and the other areas of gold look damaged too.
So the decision was made to completely rebind the book and also clean and consolidate the pigments. Most of the cleaning was done by using a soft eraser, although there was some use of a chemical sponge. The results can be seen here on the right and below. The pigments were also analysed and a whole range of colours including the precious lapis lazuli (ultramarine) and vermilion (cinnabar), as well as red lead (minium), lead white, (ceruse), azurite (citramarine) and organic pink (probably madder looking at the manuscript). The non-destructive tests on the ink were inconclusive, so it is not clear whether it was oak gall or carbon ink used.
The book was rebound, including removing the metal bosses on the covers to enable the latter to be attached to a new spine. A series of photographs of this process is shown on the website page and it is a fascinating record of a true craft process.
In my view, calligraphy doesn’t always have to be two-dimensional. I really like pieces that aren’t hung on a wall, and making calligraphy books is a favourite. I had a different idea from a book, though, and that was to make some calligraphy dice, not just any old dice, but ones made with slunk vellum (very fine skin), with real gold leaf covered dots, and with the numbers written with a quill. First, I needed some wooden cubes which could be covered, and once I had these, the experiments started.
The problem with using slunk vellum, though, is that it is by nature very thin, and so the darker wood could be seen easily beneath the skin – not a good look. I experimented with covering the wood with paper. The paper itself needed to be reasonably robust otherwise it too would show the wood through. However, none of the covering styles I experimented with were suitable as the skin still showed through what was beneath – the folds in the covering paper. In the end I simply used archival quality PVA and pasted this on one side of the wood. I then placed this on a square of paper slightly larger than one side of the wooden cube, and pressed and held down. When dry, I used a knife to trim off the paper close to the edges of the cube, so there were no folds at all that could show through.
Now to setting out the dice. I experimented with various layouts, and needed to ensure that whatever style I chose, I could fit in numbers such as 6 and 1, which have three letters, as well as the number 3 with five letters (normally no problem, but I was working on an area of just over 2.5 cms (one inch), and the lettering was to be written as circles within that, so an even smaller space!). When I was happy with my design, I cut two strips of slunk vellum, treated it carefully (see my DVD for more details of treating skin for writing and gilding and lots more [download the order form]), and used a sharp 4h pencil, compasses, stencils for the circles and a straight edge to set out each face of the dice. Rather than working with small squares of fiddly and curling up vellum, I kept them as a strip for ease.
I made a new batch of gesso (my DVD again), and laid it with a quill, making sure that each dot was round and stood proud of the skin surface. I use a scientist’s crucible for both gesso and pigments and ink, rather than a usual flat paint palette, as the former has a smaller surface area for the moisture to evaporate. Traditionally (!), we use the end of a paintbrush to stir the gesso, as the ingredients for gesso need to be constantly mixed. Using a quill to lay gesso usually means that there are fewer air bubbles, and this was the case in this instance.
When the gesso was completely dry, I polished the dots with a burnisher (you might be able to see the shine on the dots of the top vellum strip). Then to lay the gold leaf – this was 23.5 ct, almost pure, gold leaf. I got up early one morning, because laying gesso needs a certain amount of humidity, and set to. Gilding the dots was a little fiddly, but no more so than in some other jobs I had done. The curved-bladed knife is to scrape away excess gold when the gilding is complete.
And on to the writing. I used a quill, recut so it was sharp (yup, that DVD again!), and wrote the letters and numbers in Chinese liquid ink and in ultramarine Schmincke Calligraphy gouache (the best to use for calligraphy). I had planned for the two dice to look different, one with blue numbers and black lettering and the other with black numbers and blue lettering.
When the writing had dried completely (always leave at least half a day for this on best pieces), I erased all the guidelines, and then carefully trimmed each square using a straight edge and metal rule. Finally, and really carefully, I pasted each side of the dice, and firmly placed the appropriate square of illuminated vellum securely. Usually I would use a bookbinder’s bone folder to press the surface down, but this wasn’t possible with the gilded dots. I allowed the finished dice to dry and here they are.
And why ‘Luck be a Lady’? Well, those of you who are as firm musicals fans as me will know that this was sung in Guys and Dolls by Sky Masterson. The first line in his song ends with ‘tonight’, but I wanted luck to be a lady for more than just ‘tonight’!