Tag Archives: quills

Illuminating a miniature

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Another group of lovely people started the day early at the end of May 2018 to spend three days learning the traditional skills and techniques of the mediæval illuminator. Usually the group is limited to eight, but someone was coming from the Middle East and so the group was actually nine – it still allowed for intensive personal tuition.

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Everything is supplied and work stations are set up for each individual.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

We focused on gesso first, gilding gesso which had already been laid for practice of the techniques, then making gesso and considering the role of each constituent ingredient. Gesso had already been made for the each person to use straightaway, so at the end of the course participants had a good amount of gesso to take home with them to do more miniatures.

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Gesso is best laid with a quill, so next, the group cut their own quills from swan feathers. Everyone did very well with sharp quill knives cutting good quills which they took home with them after laying their gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Then it was on to laying gesso on vellum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

The next morning, gold leaf was laid on the carefully prepared gesso.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

This is highly skilled and takes some time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Before painting the ‘best’ piece, another miniature was gilded and painted as a practice piece. This meant that the final miniature was as good as it could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Patricia Lovett 2018

© Patricia Lovett 2018

Adding colour to the gold really brings the image alive.

Everyone went home with two miniatures on vellum, the practice one and the carefully gilded and painted best piece.

Comments from the group:

It has been the best course I have been on so far, not only for the quality of the course but for your immense kindness and generosity.

You are a very generous teacher. I feel that I have learnt a lot. Everything was very clear and to the point, and you were very kind to answer all the questions with more detail than I expected.

IMG_0991I am very pleased that I could come on this course and would love to follow it up with another!

Excellent! Would do it all over again without a second thought! Natural talent in teaching! Thank you so much.

An amazing experience – moments to cherish. Left feeling very motivated and very relaxed after 3 days of total absorption in another world.

Detailed, clear and very supportive teaching. Fantastic to hear so much of the background without it being a lecture.

SUPERB! The best possible introduction to these arts – miniatures and gilding – and the practical support makes this course EXCEPTIONAL!

IMG_0992I loved how any question, even ones with minimal relation to the course content, were welcome and thorough explanations or commentary were given. Support, even if the results were less than what we’d envisioned, was enthusiastic and honest, but left us with hope for future efforts.

FABULOUS COURSE – will highly recommend this to my students.

It has been fantastic to learn so much about the skills needed and how to create illuminated artworks. Would highly recommend courses with Patricia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quills and Quill Knives

Image-1An unusual quill knife in a manuscript image on Twitter made me look again at quill knives. This one had the necessary curved blade (don’t get me started on straight edges for cutting quills!) but a strange curved hook shape which seems to end in a point. I’ve really thought about why this shape of knife was developed and can’t see any real advantages for it over what I would call a ‘normal’ quill knife as below. It would be really difficult to sharpen that inner curved edge, so what would a dull inner curved blade be used for. Has anyone got any suggestions?

 

 

IMG_0101This is a trusty quill knife which I use when being filmed cutting quills. The shape of the handle sits really well in the hand, but for me the blade is rather too long and the lower part of the blade (the bolster or shank) should have been inserted more into the handle for better control. The blade is of steel, but not stainless steel, so there is some rust. Some years ago I was told that it wasn’t possible to get a good sharp edge on stainless steel, but according to Robin Wood MBE, who knows a thing or two about blades, modern stainless steels are much improved and these are what he uses for his tools and axes so they must be good.

IMG_0642So what’s important about a quill knife? First that it has a good handle that sits well and is comfortable in the hand; it is also important that it is substantial. I teach quill cutting as part of some of my Calligraphy courses, and in the three-day Painting a Mediæval Miniature course I run at the end of May each year. For these I use X-Acto knives (see image) which have good solid handles. They are sold with a pointed blade, but I buy curved blades and replace the pointed blade with these. In my opinion it is easier to replace a curved blade when it dulls for quill cutting than sharpening 16 knives! (And the blades aren’t wasted as they are then used for scraping mistakes from vellum, and then for cutting vellum and paper. And at the very end of their life, they’re used to sharpen pencils!). I would never cut quills with scalpels because the barrel of a quill is tough and a scalpel can so easily turn in the hand; having control of a razor sharp blade is paramount in my opinion!

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Then the blade itself. First it needs to be reasonably short. There is strength in a more stubby blade that isn’t there in a longer, perhaps more flexible blade. And because cutting a quill requires only a short section of the blade, a knife with a longer blade where the whole edge slices isn’t necessary.

CIMG2507So how to cut a quill? If you want to see how it’s done then it’s all explained in my Illumination book and associated DVD (see here for details). The feathers used are the first five flight feathers of large birds. The differences between the first five flight feathers are explained in the book and DVD.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0977Once the feather is hardened, it is prepared and the nib then shaped.The first step here is making the long scoop cut.

 

 

 

CIMG0985Then the sides of the nib are shaped.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0991The long tip is trimmed to a manageable length.

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG1205And finally the end of the nib is shaped to make a quill that writes.

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

All modern pen knives – and the clue is in the name – have a curved blade. I’m not getting into ‘quill knife wars’, but every part of logic leads to the blade being curved so that it can ‘rock’ over the similarly curved end of the barrel of the feather when trimming the nib tip without splitting it. I do appreciate that there are those who swear by a straight blade, and these are sold on many websites, but it’s a curve for me and my students!

 

 

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

Quill knife, courtesy of Alan Cole, © Museum of Writing, University of London

The images of historical quill knives have kindly been provided by Alan Cole of the University of London’s Museum of Writing to whom I am very grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

A Chronology of the Penknife (Finlay, 1990)There is an excellent pictorial history of the shapes of pen knives from the early 8th century to 1698 produced by Michael Finlay in ‘Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen’ (Carlisle, UK, Plains Books, 1990) and reproduced here. (Thank you to Alexander Devine of the Parker Library for kindly sending this to me.)

 

 

 

 

So what would an ideal quill knife look like? For me it would have a short, slim, razor-sharp curved blade (the curve being on the outer edge of the blade), the blade should be inserted well into the handle, and that handle have a heft that sits well in the hand. An additional refinement for me would be the insertion somewhere on the handle of a crochet hook, perhaps pulling out in a way similar to a modern pen knife attachment. The crochet hook catches on to the membrane inside the barrel of the feather and is used to pull the membrane out. If the membrane isn’t removed it gets in the way of writing the letter-forms.

IMG_0644Classes of children were often large in the past, and until machine-made pen nibs were adopted in schools in the 19th century, one of the tedious jobs of a school teacher was to cut and trim the quills of the pupils in their classes. With often more than 40 students per class, a great deal of time would be attending to pens. What a boon it must have been when the quill cutter was invented, however, these were used almost invariably to cut a feather tip only into a point for Copperplate-type writing, To write letter-forms shaped by a broad-edged nib, it was back to the quill knife. This is a quill cutter with a curved blade to trim the quill, and then the part that cuts the quill and makes the slit is at the top.

 

Writing with a quill is magical – it is, literally, feather-light – and it becomes almost an extension of the arm. The downside, of course, is that the quill needs to be trimmed about every paragraph, and then recut eventually.

 

Patricia Lovett: Exhibition at Sevenoaks Library 2017

Patricia Lovett and Lord Sackville 7oaks Library-1I was delighted and honoured to be invited by Sevenoaks Museum to put on a small exhibition of my work at Sevenoaks Library. It is small because there are but two shelves in a display case. However, I was thrilled when Lord Sackville kindly came to see a piece I had done on stretched calfskin vellum with leaf gold on gesso of the Sackville family coat of arms which is on display (Photo kindly taken by Roger Lee).

 

IMG_0521Because there is restricted room, many of the pieces are small, and these certainly are! Two dice, about an inch long on each side. Here’s more about them in a previous post.

 

 

 

CIMG2505This piece came about in a way because of a large new Roll of Honour I had been asked to do by Plaxtol village, more details here. I loved painting the cob nuts and hops at the base of this panel and did this again to decorate this poem by Poet Laureate Andrew Motion.

 

 

 

 

CIMG2794Many subscribers to my free online monthly newsletter will know that I love using colour in a pen. This is what I did here, combining red and blue, to indicate the two people in this piece, one finding ‘in this shadowland of life one true heart’ and the other being that true heart. Those phrases that I found particularly poignant, I wrote in one colour and added shell gold background to the letters (powdered gold in gum Arabic base) for emphasis.

 

 

 

 

CIMG0563This butterfly and caterpillar piece is on stretched calfskin vellum, with the writing in shell gold. The caterpillar, feeling that its world is at an end, is sheltering under the shape of a hill, whereas the butterfly, which the caterpillar turns into when that world doesn’t end, is flying free from a valley-shape.

 

IMG_0523I know that some people may think this a little weird, but I had wanted to make a flagellum since I saw one on display in the British Library. Flagella were often used during Lent to ‘beat’ the devil out of a sinner’s body, the strips of the flagellum having biblical texts written on them. This seemed rather archaic, but I do hate the way business-speak contorts the English language.

 

IMG_0525So I wrote out all those phrases and words which I find so annoying – faux=fake, compact=small, I hear what you say=I’m not actually listening, economical with the truth=lying etc. and figured that these were beating the living daylights out of the language we love! With Chinese stick ink and vermilion ink on strips of vellum, with the phrases separated by gold leaf dots on gesso, it seems a fitting combination of new words and old techniques. here‘s more.

 

 

CIMG0596This is a simple copy of David as Psalmist from the Westminster Psalter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CIMG2912And this one I wrote about recently in a blogpost – again combining colours in the pen as I write, ‘controlled random’ writing. It is a verse from Rabindranath Tagore’s poem Gift, and worth reading in full. More about it here.

 

Eadui Basan – Edwin the Fat or Parchment?

Eadui PsalterEadui Basan was a monk who worked from Canterbury in Kent during the earlier part of the eleventh century, and his distinctive hand has been identified in a number of manuscripts. One of the ones I particular like is that of the Eadui Psalter, on the right. The whole page is united by the arched and pillared frame, yet divided by two lower arches. The hand of God holding a scroll with text is giving a blessing at the top, and blue lines indicate the heavens. Within the right-hand lower arch the monks of the foundation are shown in outline. This wasn’t because the artist ran out of ink or time, but it was the stye to colour people in outline only as they weren’t worthy of full-colour painting. In the left-hand arch sits St Benedict, and around his halo is written in Latin ‘St Benedict Father of the Monastery’. The saint sits resplendent in full colour, his hands open in blessing, with lots of gold leaf. At his feet is a small, kneeling figure grasping the feet of St Benedict and holding a book, again in full colour. There is no halo or other indication of sainthood so we must presume that he isn’t; around his waist is a belt on which is written ‘zone of humility’, and yet he is in full colour! It has been presumed that this is in fact the scribe of the book – Eadui Basan.

Grimbald GospelsEadui also worked on the Harley Psalter, another fascinating book (though what mediæval manuscript isn’t?), and the Grimbald Gospels, on the right. This shows his wonderfully clear script, and stunning gilded initials. Many will be familiar with the rounded letter-forms of Caroline Minuscule, which have a low x-height – often of only 3 nib widths – long ascenders and descenders, and a distinctly forward slant. A little later in time and across the English Channel, scribes slightly extended the x-height to 4 nib widths, but reduced the ascenders and descenders; they also made it more upright. Examples of English Caroline Minuscule are in the British Library’s Ramsey Psalter (Harley 2904) written in the last quarter of the tenth century. Some decades later, Eadui Basan takes this hand and runs with it. He forms letters based on an oval letter o, rather than a round one, and extends the ascenders and descenders creating the most wonderfully fluid writing style.

Corpus Christi PontificalAnother impressive book is the Corpus Christi Pontifical, right. A pontifical is a book of instructions for a bishop or archbishop including details on how to consecrate a church, ordinate a bishop, and even how to conduct a coronation. It is just possible that this book was used by Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown Harold Hardrada in 1066 and also Ealdred, Archbishop of York for William the Conqueror.  The characteristic regular and rhythmic script contrasts with the coloured Versal initials. It is a most pleasing book and one of the gems at the Parker Library. It has been conserved and re-bound in recent years in the most vibrant red leather, how appropriate for a Pontifical!

 

Eadui CodexIn the Eadui Codex, now in Hanover, we even have his ‘signature’, which is the coloured paragraph in the middle of the page right (and enlarged below): Pro scriptore precem ne tempnas fundere pater. Librum istum monachus scripsit EADUUIUS cognomento BASAN. Sit illi longa salus. Vale seruus dei .N. & memor esto mei (which has been translated as: Father do not neglect to say a prayer for the scribe. The monk who wrote this book EADUUIS second-named BASAN. Let there be to him long health. Good Health to the servant of God .N. and be mindful of me).

Slide067 copy

 

 

So was he ‘fat ‘or was he ‘parchment’? I always understood that the Old English translation of ‘basan’ was ‘fat’ as in David Dumville’s English Caroline Script and Monastic History. Studies in Benedictism, AD 950–1030. However a paper by Tracey-Anne Cooper has looked at the ‘surname’ and does not refer to the Old English translation but suggests instead a Latin one. She thinks that it could refer to the substrate used by Eadui for his books, and that ‘basan’ or ‘bazan’ or ‘bazin’ means ‘sheep-skin tanned in oak- or larch-bark’. Without wishing to split hairs, I would think that, with the craft processes so much more a part of their daily lives than now, those naming Eadui would be fully aware that the skins for parchment or vellum aren’t tanned as are those for bookbinding, shoes, bags or clothes, but treated in a completely different way. Yet another example of mediæval manuscripts sometimes presenting more questions than they answer!

Gilding and painting a mediæval letter

CIf you ever wanted to learn how to cut a quill, what the difference is between vellum and parchment, how to deal with real gold leaf and use it in mediæval miniatures and illuminated letters, and how to paint them, then this course is for you. We shall be covering the techniques of gilding and traditional skills, and you will go home with your own initial letter, gilded and painted on vellum, and with gesso laid with a quill that you will have cut yourself.

 

 

Lovett courseI’m running a 3-day course in May – Saturday 23rd May to Monday 25th May 2015 – at my studio in Sevenoaks, Kent. Everything is provided – feathers for quills, vellum, gold, burnishers, paints, brushes, etc.

And tea/coffee and snacks and a light lunch is also included in the price.

 

gilding courseClasses are kept deliberately small so that individual and personal attention is emphasised.

 

Previous students have been kind enough to be very complimentary about the courses I’ve run:

Excellent – patient and with expertise, generous with materials and information, good humour welcome!

owlHighest level of coverage and specialisation. Everything was well thought out. Help and encouragement was always given. Patricia was very professional and enthusiastic.

Very good introduction and explanations of how to paint a mediæval miniature and the techniques used. Very encouraging to all students.

One of the best course tutors I have had.

Excellently taught – enthusiastic – well thought out and relaxed in a clear and concise manner.

I have achieved a long held ambition, and, thanks to Patricia and the relaxed atmosphere she created, I have amazed myself.

I honestly don’t think the course could have been better.

Every day has been excellent and I have achieved more than I thought I was capable of. Thanks for everything.

Please contact me if you want more details and the application form.

Shakespeare and writing

Tom BatemanIt is so heartwarming when production companies take their projects seriously enough to ensure that things are done properly, and this was the case with the forthcoming production of Shakespeare in Love in London’s West End.

I was asked to teach actor Tom Bateman (right), who is William Shakespeare in the play, how to cut and use a quill.

The teaching session was in the Playhouse Theatre and that particular night was the Press Night, so the red carpet was out (I knew it wasn’t for me!) and preparations were being made for that evening. I’ve never been at a Press Night and it all looked very exciting.

We found a quiet room off the bar, I set knives, feathers, ink and hand-made paper up on a table, and Tom looked for a bin – essential for quill cutting.

I went through the stages of quill cutting, with quickly drawn diagrams, and explained the process as I cut and changed a swan’s wing feather into a usable pen. Then it was Tom’s turn. At first he didn’t realise quite how tough the barrels of feathers are, but once I’d shown him how to place his thumbs and the angle of the knife for maximum effect, he was well away. It’s so marvellous teaching people who pick things up quickly, and Tom had a good quill cut in no time.

Then it was on to the writing; I had some hand-made paper with me that had a slightly textured surface, which would have been similar to the paper used in Elizabethan times (and at this time it is more likely to have been paper than vellum or parchment). Tom enjoyed the ‘tooth’ between a well-cut quill and the paper, and the scratching sound of the quill nib – there’s nothing like it! I also explained how precious paper was. The screwed up rejects of paper thrown over Shakespeare’s shoulder in the Shakespeare in Love film as he suffered from writer’s block were very unlikely. Paper was just too expensive to be wasted like this!

So all stages of cutting and using a quill were revised again, and Tom was happy with the process, so, armed with my DVD to remind him of what he had learned, he was then off to buy a quill knife (I use X-Acto knives with replaceable blades, removing the pointed blade that it comes with with a curved blade that are sold in sets of five) and feathers to practise.

I’m looking forward very much indeed to the production at the Noel Coward Theatre, and will be eagle-eyed to ensure that the quill is cut properly (if it writes and you end up with the right numbers of digits after cutting it, it’s fine!). It will also be interesting to see if Tom has any little ‘starting writing’ processes – I did suggest one to him, and if he uses it, you know where it came from!

Thomas Cromwell and quills

Quill stuffWriting with a quill is similar to, but not the same as writing with a metal pen. It takes a bit of time to get used to the pen being ‘featherlight’ and also to control the ink flow. As part of the preparations for the BBC TV Series Wolf Hall, I was asked to teach Mark Rylance, the actor playing Thomas Cromwell, how to write with a quill.

I got everything ready with some already cut quills that I trimmed in preparation, and also took along a couple of feathers because I thought it would help if Mark knew how the quill was cut from the feather to understand it all better.

Mark Rylance writing with a quillRehearsals were in south London, and I was due to do the teaching during the short lunch hour. I had about 10 minutes to get through what is often at least an hour. First I showed him how to write, and then he had a go on his own, realising that it’s similar to, but not the same as using a metal pen. Dealing with wet ink is also sometimes a problem.

 

 

 

Mark Rylance and his quillThen I showed Mark how a quill was cut, and suggested he had a go himself with another feather. As with most people, he couldn’t quite comprehend how tough a swan’s feather can be, and I had to position his hands exactly (see my DVD) so that he could put maximum force into the first cut. For a beginner he made a very good job and then had a go at writing with it. Here he is with the quill he cut.

 

 

 

Quill writingIt wasn’t possible to teach him the historical writing style for documents in such a short space of time, so we left it at that, knowing that even if the camera didn’t pick up his writing the text, it will show him using a quill properly. I was also able to correct them on the use of a sander (that DVD again), and how to prepare the quills for use (ditto!). This is the writing on the day – some of it Mark’s and some mine.

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).

 

 

rabbit

 

 

 

 

peacock
squirrel

 

 

 

 

 

The squirrel eating a hazel nut was fun to paint.

snail

 

 

 

 

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.

 

St Vitale, Ravenna – secret pens and ink pots

16436-san-vitale-basilica-ravenna-view-northRavenna 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).

San Vitale RIt 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!

San VitThe 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.

 

Ravenna mosaicIt 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.

 

29205-san-vitale-basilica-ravennaIn 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.

 

 

 

San VitaleThe Evangelist Mark indicates a very ferocious lion as his symbol, and again, on a pedestal table, are his quill, quill knife, ink horn and ink pot.

 

 

 

 

 

San VitaleAnd lastly, here is Matthew with his winged man symbol. Perhaps rightly so as the first Evangelist he has both writing equipment and a box of scrolls. Note the lock on the front of his scroll box.

 

St Cuthbert’s Gospel – a rare jewel

St Cuthbert's Gospel 1St Cuthbert’s Gospels is one of the most covetable books I have ever had the privilege to see close up. Being within a foot or so of a seventh-century book that was found in the coffin of the important Northumbrian saint, St Cuthbert, was an amazing experience. When the coffin in the shrine of St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, the book was found placed there with other objects such as St Cuthbert’s pectoral cross and precious textiles. It fits in the hand, as you can see on the right, and could so easily have slipped into my pocket if no-one had been watching!

 

 

St Cuthbert Gospel, coverWhat is quite remarkable about the book is that it is still in its original binding, and as such is the oldest European bound book. Deep red leather covers wooden boards. On the front cover a scroll pattern and straight lines (which make a neat frame) have been outlined, possibly with cord or even carved wood which was then glued on to the cover. This meant that, when the red leather was pasted on, these areas became raised from the surface. In the surrounding border and in the upper and lower blocks, an interlace pattern has been indented and also coloured; the yellow pigment is more obvious than the blue in this photograph.

 

Coptic bindingThe gospel is a coptic binding, which means that, rather than the sections of folded pages (gatherings) being sewn on to wide tapes and these then attached to the covers, the gatherings are sewn with thick thread in a sort of chain stitch (see right) and these hold the sections of the book together and are then attached to the wooden boards (as you can see on the right). This is how codices (books as we know them) were first made and they rarely have covered spines. The wooden boards of this book (right) – made when I was at college – would then have been covered by red leather and tooled to get the effect of the St Cuthbert Gospel.

Coptic book openThe binding is particularly flexible, as you can see again here with that college-made book. When I was being filmed writing the first page of this book at the British Library I was able to speak to the conservation book binder, and he said that the spine is still completely flexible, and it would be possible to turn the book round completely on itself so that back and front cover could touch – of course he hadn’t done this!

St Cuthbert Gospel, f. 1Inside the book the text is written in the lettering style of Uncial. There are very few ascenders and descenders and the letters are essentially majuscule. The Gospel of St John starts with a long versal I in red (versals are letters where the thicker strokes are constructed out of two or more pen strokes, rather then simply changing the nib to the thickest angle and making one stroke); this letter is followed by a smaller letter N. The red ink has smudged slightly over the years. The rest of the text is in a dark brown ink. As with most scribes when writing an important manuscript, the first few words are rather tightly written, but by line four things are more relaxed, although it is only in the second paragraph that the scribe really gets into his stride. Notice, too, that the first two words (In principio – In the beginning…) are written with more pen nib angle changes than for the remaining Angled Pen Uncial script. This page, too, because it is the first page, is more discoloured and worn than the rest of the book.

St Cuthbert's Gospel 2And the remarkable aspect of this book is how even and pleasing on the page the text is. There is considerable consistency to the lettering, and it is quite easy to read with very few contractions, unlike some manuscripts written centuries later. Look out for Lazarus at the end of the second line on the right, for example (obviously this page is about the raising of Lazarus). It is written per cola et commata, that is the length of the line is determined by the sense of the text, and a subsequent clause starts on the next line. You may also be able to see the fuzzy ink indicating an erasing at the start of line 8. The scribe has scratched out whatever it was written in error and the vellum skin is rougher at this point. Look out, too, for where the ink is running out and so the scribe fills his quill for the next letter. In the second to last line the letters TT in quattuor have had additions to the start of the serifs on the crossbar (look closely, and see that the crossbars are fainter at the beginnings and ends, and so the scribe has added tiny strokes with a full quill of ink to emphasise them).

Look also at the free Calligraphy Clips page on this website for how to write this style of lettering (it’s the latest set I’ve put up so you’ll need to scroll to the bottom).

photoWhen the St Cuthbert Gospel was saved for the nation, the British Library made a film to celebrate this, and I was lucky enough to be asked to show how the first page was done. I tried to be as ‘period’ as I could. I knew that a plastic ruler wouldn’t quite cut the mustard, so I found a piece of wood to draw the lines (rather large, but it was real wood), and fished out an old bradawl from the tool box to score the lines. There is no sound on this clip, but it does show how the page would have been set out, and how the letters were written.

The book is now at the British Library, and they were thrilled to own it now, as is evident on this BBC World News item with Dr Claire Breay (a couple of seconds in on this clip). It is usually on display in the British Library, and for many years it was shown closed – very frustrating to we scribes! Conservation experts have indicated that it can now be displayed open so everyone can have a chance of studying the wonderful script for themselves.