Tag Archives: miniature

A new Book of Hours (well 6 pages!)

Page from Book of HoursOver the years I have produced a number of props for television programmes and films, and have also been filmed writing as historical figures with a quill or pointy pen, or demonstrating what I do – illumination with gold and egg tempera, and writing on vellum with quills – as well as being filmed as myself – a scribe and illuminator. Being commissioned to produce six pages for a mock-up Book of Hours for the BBC series of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was a really interesting job to get.

The skin from William Cowley was a dream – both hair and flesh side – and I chose sections that had a clear scattering of brown hair follicles so that there would be no confusion that it was paper ‘pretending’ to be vellum.

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 13.47.25This is a short film clip of the various stages of the book and how it looked once it had been pasted into the book itself.

testing writing



I tested the skin to see how much preparation it required (for all the information you need about using and preparing vellum and parchment, see my video, 3+ hours long on everything to do with manuscript crafts and modern materials), and then experimented with pen nib sizes and letter height so that I could replicate the writing. Once these were determined I was able to rule guidelines and see if my test preparations worked for writing.

The pages are based on the Hours of Joanna of Castille, but the designer has added gold and coloured side panels, and imported mediæval animals and motifs to add interest to the pages. The Hours are quite small – page size is 105 x160 mm (4 x 6 ins approx) – which means that the lettering is tiny – about 2 mm high.

There were two main ways of producing these six pages. One is to start from scratch with the text, and design and lay out the pages, inserting larger initials, designing the motifs and so on. This is rarely a real choice because it adds often more than twice as much to the time, which I certainly didn’t have. The other is to copy an already existing manuscript, which is indeed what I did.

Design transferredI traced the whole page, including the text, to get a sense of the rhythm and form of the script, but decided not to transfer the tracing of the lettering, as this results in rather static rhythm. It did need a lot of concentration to ensure that line endings were reasonably consistent. They looked very even in the original. However, when I was working on the pages I realised that line endings weren’t that consistent in the Joanna Hours. The tracing outline is secured here (right) by red paint – minium in mediæval manuscripts – I use traditional techniques as much as possible.

Book of Hours textI drew lines for the text and wrote out the first page which was actually the second one. It is always better to start not at the beginning if you can, as your writing is often tighter and more cramped when you first set out, and this shows if it’s right at the start. I was fortunate in that I had a transcription of the text; some of it was difficult to decipher, for example, domum or domiun (my Latin wasn’t good enough to translate as I went along). The letter i was rarely dotted, and, with wear, the tiny joining strokes at the top of an n and at the base for a u meant that these letters were difficult to distinguish. This transcription made a huge difference. The red rubrics were written as I went along, but I left spaces for the larger painted initials, and completed them after the writing.

Then it was on to the painting.

tiny monketI very much enjoyed painting the little animals, though these were less than 2 cm high.

There was a monkey (right), a rabbit (below), squirrel and two peacocks (one of them is below the rabbit on the right).














The squirrel eating a hazel nut was fun to paint.






And every mediæval manuscript needs a snail!

Book of HoursThere were also strawberries, thistles, roses, and blue and pink flowers of slightly indeterminate nature.


Book of Hours gold baseThen it was on to the gold. There wasn’t enough time to use the traditional mordant of gesso, so I used a modern medium, raised it slightly, and then applied real 23·5 carat gold leaf. Gold leaf on anything other than gesso is never as wonderfully shiny and smooth as in traditional manuscripts, but it will certainly look really illuminated as the pages are turned in the series.

Book of Hours pagesIt did look reasonably shiny, though, but as the book was going to be ‘aged’ and rubbed to looks as if it had been in the family for some generations, I didn’t worry too much about taking care with the gilding.


These six pages were sewn into one gathering, and this was then tipped into an already bound book which was aged to look as if it had passed through a few generations.


On the rebound – a 14th century book

Cover of choir bookMany 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.




Piccolomini LibraryThese 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.


Choir book before restorationThe 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.


Detail of damaAlso, 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.






Partially cleaned manuscript pageSo 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 Enlargement of cleaned areavermilion (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.



Book sections sewn on to alum tawesThe 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.

A ‘must have’ diary …

British Library diary 2014 coverThe British Library Diary for 2014 is exquisite! Page after page of fantastic manuscripts, in rich jewel-like colours, greet each week. The images are taken from the collection of Royal Manuscripts given to the nation by George II in 1757, but with additional miniatures from selected other collections too. The cover (right) shows the Earl of Shrewsbury, with his sumptuous red velvet and fur-lined robe, decorated with circular blue and gold Orders of the Garter, presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou. It doesn’t look a very happy court, though; no-one is looking in the least bit pleased, and most seem to be actually sneering! The backcloth of blue and red squares shows the arms of England at the time. The claim to lands in France meant that the gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background took precedent in heraldry to the gold leopards of England on a red background.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryThe very sharp printing means that it is possible to see all the details. In this miniature from the Bedford Hours (c.1410–30), Clovis, who became the first king to unite France in 481 when he was 15 years of age, is being helped on with his armour. At the same time his queen, Clothilde, is handing him his shield showing the arms of France. Note the cute little dog looking on admiringly, and the rather pathetic stone lions guarding the entrance. In the upper part of the miniature, God is giving a cloth painted with the French arms to an angel, indicating that Clovis was a Christian and so blessed. In the countryside around there is a rather fierce lion, a rabbit munching a very red apple, and a wolf making off with a sheep, and the shepherd shaking his fists as a consequence.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryAnother book being presented is depicted in this miniature of c.1475. Here the author Jean de Wavrin is painted on his knees in front of Edward IV. The king’s robes again show the gold fleur-de-lis on a blue background, and they contrast with the rather dull grey of the writer’s clothes. Edward’s throne is quite magnificent with a wonderful red back cloth and an interesting trefoil decoration attached quite high up. Two hats are quite fun, and must have looked rather strange when viewed from the front, as the large black plumes on the blue (right) and green (left) hats look as it they would have stuck up rather like coxcombs! The burgundy wallpaper does look particularly fine. Note the arms of England sliding off the bottom of the page, with France in the first and third quarters, which are always regarded as the most important in heraldry, and England in the second and third – less important.

Medieval miniature from the British LibraryThis miniature from the Wells Apocalypse (early 14th century) shows the writing very clearly, and the prescissus, or cut off, endings to the letters are really distinctive. Note the tops of the ascenders of the letters l in the third line, and the bottoms to the letters i, u, s (looks a bit like an f) and i in the fourth line. Some think that these shapes were made by simply turning the pen to its full width horizontally, but the letters l suggest a different method. Note the little tail at the top on the right hand side, particularly with the second l (line 3). This small tail indicates that the letter was started from the right and then the pen was moved down to the left to make the downstroke. The tail wafting in from the left and the thickening of the stroke at the top was then added on afterwards. Similarly, the bottom of the strokes are made by maintaining the pen nib at an angle of about 30° which results in a slanting end to the letter, and then ‘filling’ in the rest of the stroke to make it look cut off at the end. Sadly the woman shown in the initial A doesn’t look too impressed by it all, despite her very elaborate headdress!


Was Moses Born with Horns?

Michelangelo's Moses, with tablets and hornsThis very famous Michelangelo statue from the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, shows Moses with the most exuberant and lush beard, which he seems almost to caress with his left hand, which is at the same time holding the stone tablets of law. However he also has two horns sprouting from his head.





God instructing Moses (with horns), Aaron (as a bishop with mitre and crozier) and an attendantImages of Moses with horns were used in manuscripts, too. This delightful miniature in a British Library manuscript of a rather youthful God, possibly a golden angel peeping over his right shoulder and clearly in a blue sky, is explaining the proper forms of sacrifice to a rather young horned Moses (unbearded, unlike the wonderfully soft curly bearded locks of Michelangelo’s Moses), a young Aaron – shown as a Bishop with his crozier and mitre – and an attendant.







Miniature from the Bury Bible showing MosesA favourite manuscript, the twelfth-century (about 1355) Bury Bible, now in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, has magnificent miniatures (although some are almost 30 cm, one foot square, so not so mini, though more on this in a later blog) painted by ‘the incomparable Master Hugo’. This is one is two-storey and shows Moses, in the upper part he is instructing the Israelites using the recently received laws, and below that, Moses is pointing out the birds and animals Jews can and cannot eat by law. The Jews are recognised by their Jewish hats – brims with a conical middle part. Moses has bright white, very obvious horns. Note, too, the stunning borders, intricate colourful patterns on a black background which are very characteristic of Master Hugo. Another design device he uses is to paint a plain dark green rectangle behind the main figures, which focuses the viewer on the central action. Master Hugo’s palette and painting style is quite simply stunning (more on this later too).

So why should Moses be shown with horns in this way? Was he born with horns? Other images of Moses, before he went up on Mount Sinai show Moses un-horned, so it was when he went to get the tablets of law from God that the horns appeared.

There are some theories about this. First, when Jerome was translating the Old and New Testaments into Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, it is thought that he may have mistranslated the Hebrew word qaran – meaning to shine – to qeren – meaning horn. As Hebrew was usually written without vowels, this confusion is understandable. Horns can also be quite shiny, so context is quite important. This theory seems perfectly reasonable and is one that many find very plausible.

However, when Jerome translated this text into Latin his words were: splendor eius ut lux erit cornua in manibus eius ibi abscondita est fortitudo eius (Exodus 34), which can be translated as: His brightness shall be as the light: horns are in his hands; There is his strength hid.

Now the horns seem to be not on Moses’ head but in his hands!

Others have thought that again there is no confusion by Jerome. The sun’s rays can be considered as horns in shape, and horns can be polished until they shine and reflect the light.

Statue of Pan, with horns, and DaphnisSome feel that horns are a symbol of ancient mystery. Greek and Roman gods, such as Pan (seen right with Daphnis), Triton, Dionysos, and Bacchus were horned, and so the special god-like attributes of those with horns – those who were divine and honoured – may have been applied by artists to Moses once he had received the tablets of law from God.








sculpture of Moses with horns that look like beams of lightOn a recent trip to Rome, I was delighted to see in the Piazza di Spagna, close to the Spanish Steps, at the base of the Colonna dell’Immacolata, a statue of Moses where the sculptor had decided to cover every eventuality. Here is Moses holding the tablets of law and with horns on his head, but the horns are shown as beams of light as well!