I had been asked to speak at the Houghton Library, and teach and give a demonstration at Harvard as part of the wonderful ‘Beyond Words’ exhibition there. Taking a lot of tools and materials on a plane is not sensible, and so I decided to almost finish a tiny miniature shown in the exhibition, which is a cutting from an Italian mid-fifteenth century Anitphonal (Harvard University, Houghton Library, MS Typ 983), and then add some more gold and paint more as a demonstration. The original female martyr, holding her martyr’s palm, had a bit of a double chin and a rather unfortunate expression, so I decided to do a bit of cosmetic surgery on her, and make a few adjustments (if only it was that easy in real life!).
I selected a piece of vellum which had hair follicle markings on it and traced down the outline in red (minium) which is traditional. I then laid gesso ready to receive the real gold leaf.
I planned from the start not to gild it all so that I could show how it was done when I went to Harvard.
Then it was on to painting the base colours. At this point, as always, any painting skills that you think you might have seem to go out the window (!).
However, once the shades and tones, fine lines and details are added, suddenly the whole thing seems to come to life. The face, hair, hands and delicate white tracery on the blue background are very finely painted indeed, the dress and left-hand side of the initial ‘D’ less so. It is quite possible that the ‘master’ did the former, and an apprentice did the slightly less-well executed ‘colouring in’. It was a very interesting exercise and I do hope that Harvard find it a useful addition to their teaching repertoire.