As part of the Polonsky project for the British Library and the Bibliotèque Nationale I was asked to show how mediæval manuscripts were made to create a series of short informative films. To show the process of completing a miniature we selected the ‘Beatus’ page from the Eadui Psalter, (although, to be honest, I immediately regretted it because it was so complicated!). We agreed that for filming, because of time and logistics, I would concentrate only on the central letter B, but aim to complete it after the filming.
The first stage was to trace the outline from a print out of the original. It was such a complicated image that the tracing alone took 5 hours. The tracing needed then to be transferred to vellum. I used my own Armenian bole paper as ‘carbon’ paper; doing this took another 5 hours.Then the outline was reinforced in red, which is the traditional colour; this process took 6·5 hours.
The next step was to lay the gesso with a quill. Gesso is the plaster-based cushion that raises the leaf gold from the surface, and the slight rounding of the cushion, once the gold leaf is attached, really catches the light so it looks as if light is coming from the book itself – truly illuminated. I had made a batch of good gesso and was filmed laying this on the letter B. The interlace at the head and foot of the minim was very complicated and it took a while to work out the pattern and lay the gesso according to the original. I had one day in between the schedule before the next filming session to lay, scrape and prepare the gesso. However, there was so much to be gilded that I ran out of gesso halfway round the border. I made another batch but didn’t have time to test it, and found out as I was laying it that it was rather bubbly. Laying, preparing and scraping the gesso took over 12 hours.
And then for the gold. The stickiness in the gesso is reactivate by moisture in the breath and the leaf gold (23·5 carat) attached immediately. Once secure, the gold is polished to a high shine with a stone burnisher (just visible on the left). Building up layers of gold improves the depth of burnish.
The gold leaf can attach to the surface of the vellum as well, especially after a hard burnish. It was particularly difficult to remove the excess in the gold interlace area.
Well-burnished gold really does catch the light.
Applying the gold, burnishing it and cleaning it up took 14 hours, but the end result was worth it.
It was a difficult to decide what to do about the colours. Although contained within a book, pigments still deteriorate over time; some of the colours had changed even in adjacent areas. So should this copy of the manuscript page be exactly the same as the original that has deteriorated, or should I try to recreate the page as it was? I decided to plump for trying to paint it as it was. Matching the colours was a bit of a challenge!
Painting mediæval manuscripts is a little like painting by numbers sometimes. Each colour is done completely and separately. Here the blue has been done.
And now the magenta red, no doubt it’s madder.
The basic colours have now been completed. At this point, I often feel that any artistic skills I may well have had have disappeared because it all looks so flat.
However, adding tones and shades starts to lift the image.
The white highlights improve the image even more and it starts to take shape.
The black outline makes all the difference, separating the gold from colour and colour from colour, also emphasising what look like folds on draped cloth. Notice the difference between the letter B which has been outlined in black and the rest of the border where there is no black.
And the final result again.
If you would like to recreate your own mediæval image, then my book and DVD on Illumination: Gold and Colour have clear instructions on making and using gesso, cutting quills, treating vellum for painting (and writing), and the process of creating a mediæval miniature shown step-by-step. See here.