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Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  1

Inside the Scriptorium Cupboard:
The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Manuscript Illumination

My journey as a medievalist began when I was a little kid, when Disney released the film
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The opening credits were done in the style of early
Gothic manuscript illumination. I was fascinated--I could not imagine how they ever
found a medieval manuscript that already had all the cast and crew’s names printed, in
nice Lombardic capitals, and which depicted, in that wonderful 12th c. style, images from
the film: of witches and wizards, and even of Nazi soldiers in a submarine! It simply did
not occur to me that a modern artist could create a work in an older period’s style. This
experience prompted me to explore the Middle Ages more deeply, through books and
other films, and to try my hand at medieval calligraphy. This was the beginning of what
has become a rather practical study of the artistic culture of the Middle Ages.

When I first began to imitate medieval art I was naïve. I used colored inks to fill in my
pen lines, resulting in messy, blotchy work. It didn’t look like medieval manuscripts at
all. When I became a more serious artist I worked with readily available modern
materials, but in a medieval style. I used modern gouaches available from the local art
store, and traced and painted designs on fine watercolor paper. As I explored this style
more deeply I learned that I was not using the same materials and techniques medieval
scribes used, and as a result my work was inferior to theirs. So I began to experiment.

The first technique I attempted was to ditch the gold-colored gouache and try to lay fake
gold leaf on a ground of dried Elmer’s glue. While appropriately tedious and
“medievalish,” the results were not exactly what I had hoped. My gilding did not
resemble the sumptuous stuff I saw in the Getty and Huntington Library, or even the
photos of modern illumination I had collected in my many books. Incrementally I began
to research, experiment with and add to my repertoire proper period materials and
techniques: real parchment, 24K gold leaf, handmade gesso, pure ground pigments,
various home made tempera, etc. Each of these materials produced finer and more
authentic-looking reproductions. Each was vastly superior to its modern, fake
counterpart, both in the look of the finished product and in the more alchemical,
indescribable, experiential aspects of the creative process. Paint “floats” magically on
the surface of real parchment differently than it behaves on paper. There’s a satisfying
scratchy sound when using a quill pen. White lead is simply better than modern titanium
Apparently for my convenience, some kind soul has uploaded the opening credits on YouTube: http://
This indescribable quality of “artist as alchemist” is discussed at length in James Elkins, What Painting Is,
(New York: Routledge, 1999). He argues that artists learns the “feel” of materials, rather than their
scientific properties: “Long years spent in the studio can make a person into a treasury of nearly
incommunicable knowledge about the powderiness of pastels, or the woody feel of different marbles, or the
infinitesimally different iridescences of ceramic glazes.” (22)
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  2
white. Real vermillion tempered with egg yolk is about as silky and sumptuous a paint as
is possible to be. I even arranged for private apprenticeships with two master artists in
this style. The apprenticeship experience expanded my skills and understanding of the
uses of these materials a hundred-fold. I began to incorporate presentations and mini-
workshops in illumination into my history and art history courses. I expanded out to
offer workshops for adults, and have had a great time sharing this passion of mine all
over the country.

Shared below for the Colloquium is a much more annotated version of the packet I
provide to my workshop participants. It includes descriptions of materials and
techniques, the ancient recipes I have used and adapted, and resources useful to the
modern scribe/illuminator. I must admit that I am not a “stay-in-period” fanatic. There
are some ancient ingredients, like the toxic, alchemical pigments, to which we have
understandably limited access. There are others for which the modern manufacture is
superior to its period counterpart, like plaster of Paris. In my workshops I use ancient
materials and recipes when practical, and take advantage of being a 21st century artist at
other times. You'll be happy to know that I leave out the toxic ingredients, the materials
that take forever to make and, of course, the recipes that call for dung. I leave in,
however, the use of gall, ear wax, facial oils and other useful ingredients. My workshop
students have fun and end up producing small works which, because of the purity of the
materials used, will be as brilliant and colorful a thousand years from now as they are

The Sources

Of course, one source for the materials and techniques of medieval illuminators are the
manuscripts themselves. Simple visual observation of a manuscript can yield much
useful information. To enhance visual examination, scholars and scientists have
developed a dizzying array of machines and procedures to analyze the composition of
pigments, and to view microscopically the various layers applied by the illuminator to
discern their techniques. In addition, there survive many treatises from the period which
describe, in varying levels of useful detail, the scribe/illuminator’s craft, offering advice
from how to make vermillion to how to render flesh and sky, from choosing between the
yolks of eggs from city hens or country hens, to choosing pretty girls rather than old
Clarke describes several “increasingly sensitive, reliable, unambiguous and non-invasive techniques”
including visual examination, UV-visible spectroscopy, near-infrared imaging (NIR), and micro-Raman
spectroscopy (µRS). Mark Clarke, “Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Pigments” in Studies in Conservation, Vol.
49, No. 4 (2004), 231-244,, accessed April 3, 2010
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  3
women as servants. Vinas has identified no less than 22 edited medieval treatises written
by and for manuscript illuminators. The most widely known (and most useful to the
modern illuminator) of these sources are the following works:

The Clavicula is an early treatise containing almost 300 chapters describing recipes and
techniques (with variations) for a huge number of medieval crafts, ranging from the
manufacture of pigments, glues and tempera to almost a hundred gilding recipes, to how
to poison arrows and construct battering rams. It is the basis for many subsequent MSS
which contain copies and even more variations of its recipes. This is the earliest extant
Summa on diverse crafts.

Written by the artist/monk Theophilus Rugerus, the Schedula provides an extensive array
of recipes, descriptions, and instructions for a variety of medieval arts and crafts. The
arts of glassmaking and metallurgy are particularly well-represented, but there is also
much information on painting, pigments, gilding, and other crafts associated with
manuscript illumination, esp. in Book 1 and the Addenda.

Cennino Cennini’s invaluable treatise, by far the best known and most widely used recipe
book, contains a wealth of information about late medieval painting techniques and even,
as we have seen, a bit of useful lifestyle advice as well.

Cennino Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, The Craftsman’s Handbook, (New York: Dover, 1954), 39. Regarding
the secret recipe for the manufacture of of a usable pigment from an inferior piece of lapis lazuli, Cennini
writes that “making [this pigment] is an occupation for pretty girls rather than for men; for they are always
at home, and reliable, and they have more dainty hands. Just beware of old women.” Of course, pretty
workshop apprentices work out so much better than the homelier ones...
Salvador Munoz Vinas, “Original Written Sources for the History of Mediaeval Painting Techniques and
Materials: A List of Published Texts,” Studies in Conservation, Vol. 43, No. 2 (1998), 115-120, http://, accessed April 22, 2010.
Cyril Stanley Smith and John G. Hawthorne, “Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the World of Medieval
Techniques,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), pp.
1-128,, accessed April 2, 2010. This source contains the entire text of
the Mappae Clavicula in the authors’ Latin edition, English translation, and in facsimile of one of the
important extant MSS.
Theophilus Rugerus, De diversis artibus (c. 1100), trans. Robert Hendrie (London: John Murray, 1847),
accessed October 11, 2010. A Google web reprint which contains the entire MS and addenda in Latin and
Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, Il libro dell’arte, The Craftsman’s Handbook, trans. Daniel V. Thompson
(New York: Dover, 1954).
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  4
Making an Illuminated Manuscript

A medieval illuminated page is made of parchment, ink, gold and paint, used in that
order. A book was written first, then gilded (or “illuminated”), then embellished with
color, then sewn and bound. This order of work was important to minimize errors and
facilitate easier work. The scribe worked first, writing the entire text of the book on
every unbound page, carefully noting the pagination and orientation of the pages. Scribes
work first because the chance of an error is highest at this point of a book’s production.
Sitting all day at a work desk, a scribe copying from an exemplar is bound to grow
fatigued, misspelling words, omitting words, or transposing or dropping entire lines.
These errors can sometimes be corrected, sometimes not. If a grievous scribal error was
made on a page already gilded and painted, the entire page (and all those hours of work
and costly materials) would be wasted.

It is interesting to note that the scribal arts do
not have a patron saint; but they do have a
patron demon, Titivillus. Titivillus is charged
with filling his sack with errors a thousand
times a day. He ascends daily from Hell to
cause and collect scribal errors, slips of the
tongue during services, or other misdeeds to
fill his sack; “and these he hauled to the Devil
below where each sin was duly recorded in a
book against the name of the monk who had
committed it, there to be read out on the Day
of Judgement.” Titivillus became a patron
by providing errant scribes with an excuse for
their errors: “the Devil made me do it!”

The materials pertinent to the scribe’s task are
the parchment ground on which the text is written, the lead or silver styli with which the
pages were ruled, the iron-gall ink and the quill pens with which the text was written.

Parchment is the carefully prepared skin of an animal. There are many types of
parchment, which can have a wondrous variety of colors and textures. Any mammal will
do, although the most commonly used animals are calves, sheep, goats, deer and reindeer.
The word "parchment" has come to mean any prepared skin, and the word "vellum"
denotes calfskin only. The finest form of vellum is made from the skin of stillborn
Marc Drogin, Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique (New York: Dover, 1980) 18. Drogin
goes on to report, ironically, that “for the past half-century every edition of [the Oxford English Dictionary]
has listed an incorrect page reference for, of all things, a footnote on the earliest mention of Titivillus.” 20.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  5
calves. This “uterine vellum” or “slunk vellum” is the
softest, whitest, thinnest surface available for the
scribal arts.

The fresh skin is placed to soak in a bath of water for
several days, and then in water and lime, to soften the
flesh and dissolve fat and oil and hair. It's then rinsed
again. The skin is then stretched on a special pegged
frame to be scraped clean using a moon-shaped knife
called a lunellarium. This scraping removes the hair,
fat, and any sinewy residue that remains. The skin is
then dried, scraped with pumice, remoistened, then
stretched and dried again.

To prepare the surface to accept ink or paint it must be lightly sanded with powdered
pumice to raise a suede-like nap. This process is called "pouncing." I have used fine
sandpapers as well. If a particularly fine ink line is desired, a final sizing with ground
gum sandarac is necessary to act as a resist, but only on the portion of the page to be
written on, otherwise it makes painting difficult.

There is no mention in the early treatises of methods of ruling manuscript pages.
Comparison of MSS reveal that unbound manuscript pages were ruled for text in several
ways. One way was to score the parchment with a hard-point stylus, creating a visible
furrow. Another way was to fold the pages of a signature, line the top page carefully,
then to prick through all the pages at the endpoints of each line with an awl. These
prickings could then be joined up with a ruler and stylus. Some scribes used pricking
wheels as well to work more quickly. Another method, first observed in manuscripts
dating from the 11th-12th centuries, was to use a stylus made of graphite, lead or silver.
A scribe also could rule the pages with a pen and ink, usually red or brown, but other
colors were used as well. There was no fixed standard for ruling a medieval page, but
one does observe several patterns: no attempt was usually made to hide ruled lines, the
lined portion of the page was usually just as long as the page was wide, and border lines
usually extended to the edges of the page.
Here is some video of portions of this process at PERGAMENA, the only remaining commercial
manufacturer of parchment in North America, Jesse Meyer. His workshop was featured on the Discovery
Channel show Dirty Jobs in 2008. and http://
These methods are described in Christopher de Hamel, Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators,
(Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1994) 23-26.
Jonathan J.G. Alexander, Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work, (New Haven: Yale Univ.
Press, 1992) 38.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  6

The ink of the Middle Ages was a hand-made mixture often called iron-gall ink. The
scribe begins by collecting from oak trees the little gall nuts, marble-sized (or larger)
nodules which form on the branches after the gall wasp has laid its eggs on a bud. The
tree forms a blister around the site, which becomes the gall nut. When the wasps inside
mature the larvae excrete an acidic
fluid which enables them to bore a
tiny hole in the nut and escape. The
empty gall nut is crushed up and an
infusion is made with distilled
water. The scribe then strains this
infusion and adds to it copperas
(ferrous sulfate, or iron salts, made
by pouring sulfuric acid into a pit
filled with iron filings, not
recommended for home!) and
some gum arabic (as a thickener)
to create a purply-black acidic ink
perfect for etching itself into
parchment. Iron-gall ink tends to
fade to a sepia-brown color over
time, which is the color we most associate with medieval manuscript inks. Erasures were
made by “surgically” scraping the letter off the surface of the parchment with a “pen
knife”, a small, curved blade like a scalpel. Indeed, most depictions of scribes from the
period show him holding a quill in his right hand, and a small knife in his left--the knife
for sharpening his quill and for erasing mistakes.

The making of pens was such common knowledge in the scriptorium that no mention of
it is made in the early technical manuscripts. There are many visual depictions of
scribes holding and using their pens, however. Books of Hours are full of images of the
four Evangelists, St. Jerome, St. John of Patmos and other scribe-saints. We can learn
much from these depictions, from what the pens looked like to how they were held, what
was the angle of writing, etc. Pens were made from the last five or so wing feathers of
geese or swans. A right-handed scribe would use the feathers of the left wing, and vice-
versa. The feathers were hardened by letting them sit for a few months, or by curing
them in a pot of heated sand. Once a feather was hard, the scribe cut off the very tip,
removed the pith, and carefully cut the nib. The nib would have to be recut many times
Indeed, Christopher de Hamel notes, “The cutting of a quill must have been entirely obvious and so
familiar to every educated person from ancient Egypt to nineteenth-century England that it was not thought
worthy of mention.” 27-29. Cennini does, however, give us an entire early chapter in which the cutting of
quills is described (p. 8) and discusses the use of quill barbs as an eraser for a charcoal drawing (p. 75).
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  7
throughout the day to
retain its crisp ink line.

The next part of the
process is the actual
“illumination,” the
laying of gold which
catches the light
bouncing off its raised,
curved surface. Laying
gold onto parchment
requires both the gold
itself as well as
something to which the
gold can adhere. The gilding must be done at this stage, before the painting, because the
excess gold swept off will adhere to paint and mar a finished illustration or decoration.


In the Middle Ages, gold beaters would place a Florentine florin or Venetian ducat or
other gold coin (or slug) between two pieces of hide, and whack away at it, spreading it
out thinner and thinner. Cennini reveals in an extensive section covering all types of
gilding that a goldbeater can produce between 100 and 145 leaves from one ducat.
Today, gold comes in the same 3X3 leaves, usually in books of 25. This gold is perfect
for large areas where you can lay entire sheets at a time, like a panel background; but for
small applications it is tedious. It is often called "surface" gold. Thankfully, modern
gold also comes adhered to a tissue-like backing paper, a handy convenience for small
work. This more convenient form is commonly called "patent" gold. In either case,
because modern gold leaf is so much thinner than medieval gold , it is necessary to lay
many layers of gold to reach the level of reflectivity and brilliance our medieval
counterparts were able to obtain.

Gold also comes in powdered form, like a pigment, and it is mixed with gum arabic and
painted with a brush. This is called "shell" gold after the mussel shells used to store it in
the scriptorium. An illuminator can save the flakes of gold leaf left over after gilding and
Cennini, , p. 84.
Thompson, in a note on Cennini’s description of how to buy fine gold, provides comparative weight
measurements of medieval vs. modern gold leaf: “The Venetian ducat weighed 54 troy grains, so Cennini’s
best leaf weighed something like a half a grain, and his thin leaf, about a third. The best trade leaf
nowadays seldom weighs over a fifth of a grain,” which equates to about 270 leaves per ducat. p. 84-85n.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  8
make his own shell gold. Theophilus and Cennini both give recipes for shell gold
(although Theophilus’ recipe is extremely complex). The Mappae Clavicula presents a
dizzying array of recipes (over 80!) for all types of manipulated gold--for painting,
drawing, lettering, solder, scores of chapters on gilding on various surfaces scattered
throughout its 294 chapters.

To adhere the gold to the surface of the parchment, one can use garlic juice (yes) or rabbit
skin glue, or gum ammoniac for a matte, flat effect; or burnished gesso for a brilliant,
raised and polished effect (with more work, of course!).

RSG is a gelatin glue made from boiling hides, especially those of rabbits. It comes in
sheets or tiny grains. The grains are easiest to use. (See recipe below.) Other hides can
also be used to make glue which is slightly stronger than that made from rabbit hides.
Theophilus provides three glue recipes: one made from skins and stag horns, and another
made from soft cheese (yes), and a third made from a mixture of parchment fragments,
eel-skin and fish heads. Cennini gives a recipe for goat hide glue, and mentions the
suitability of fish glue in certain applications. Modern fish glue is made from sturgeon
and is tackier than RSG, useful in dryer climates or when a stronger adhesive is needed.
It is a tricky thing to learn just how much glue and of what type works best for each type
of gilding. I have tried rabbit skin glue in my gilding and experienced problems getting
the gold to adhere; I have tried fish glue, which is too tacky, and which stays tacky
seemingly forever, but which guarantees adhesion of the gold; and I have tried
commercially available cow hide glue, which seems to be somewhere in the middle. The
trick is to have a gesso which dries hard enough to be polished, but which retains enough
hygroscopic tack for the gold leaf to adhere.

Gum ammoniac is a resin from the herb Dorema ammoniacum. It hardens into amber-
colored tears (mixed with branches, grit and other detritus), which can be softened in
heated distilled water and strained to give a sticky liquid which, when tinted, can be used
for flat, matte gilding. Although I can find no reference to gum ammoniac alone as a
gilding mordant, modern scribes and illuminators refer to it as such.

Theophilus, XXX, p. 36-39; Cennini, p. 102.
Theophilus, XVII and XVIII, pp. 20-23, and XXXIII, pp. 42-43 The Mappae Clavicula also mentions
parchment, ox, fish and cheese glues..
Cennini, p. 10, 14, 66-67.
Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting (New York: Dover, 1956) 209.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  9
"Gesso" is a word used to describe so many different substances it can get a bit
confusing. Usually it is a generic term to describe a plaster-based ground used for
priming or preparing surfaces to be painted. Here's a Gesso-101 course:

GESSO = Bologna chalk (calcium carbonate) mixed with rabbit skin glue, used as a
priming surface for panel painting

GESSO GROSSO = ground, roasted gypsum or alabaster dust, commonly called "Plaster of
Paris," which sets up hard like concrete when mixed with water.

GESSO SOTTILE = "slaked plaster" = gesso grosso which has been rendered inert by rinsing
and rinsing with distilled water. This process used to take at least 30 days, but modern
plaster of Paris is so finely produced it can be done in one day. Gesso sottile is a silky,
soft and extremely fine powder, feeling a lot like cornstarch or talc. It's worth making
some yourself--1) it's fun; 2) it's not sold ANYWHERE that I know of, and 3) one batch
will last you for years and years of gilding.

GILDER'S GESSO = a mixture of gesso sottile, pigment, clay/bole, and glue used as a raised,
polished ground for laying gold leaf. (See Recipe below.)

The Medieval palette consisted of natural earth colors, ground minerals, vegetable and
insect dyes, and artificial colors manufactured in arcane alchemical processes. Here is a
sampling of the basic palette:

Ochre - natural yellow earth. Ochres come in a huge array of colors, from whites,
yellows, reds, greens, purples, even black. They can also be roasted to alter their colors.
Cennini calls ochre “an all-around color” suitable for flesh colors, for draperies, for
painted mountains, and buildings and horses, and in general for many purposes.”(27-8)
Terre Verte - natural green earths, used as a pigment and as a mordant for gilding.
Cennini calls terre verte a “fat” color (30), by which he means it does not want to take
much water. This green is an olive color, used primarily for flesh undertones.

I suppose if you had access to a scientific supply catalog, you could get calcium sulphate dihydrate
(CaSO4 2H2O), which is the modern chemical equivalent of slaked plaster. Of course being industrially
made it would be superior to the homemade variety... I looked into it--I found a single manufacturer-- Yulan
Plaster in Hubei, China--but the minimum order is 24 metric tons. It's best to just get out the plastic bucket
and the wooden spoon!
In the interest of brevity I have put in parentheses the page references in Cennini corresponding to what
would have been a cumbersome series of footnotes in this section.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  10
Malachite - a green carbonate of copper, is rarely mentioned in the medieval treatises, in
spite of its widespread use. Cennini calls it “blue-green” rather than malachite.(31-2)
Azurite - mineral salt, a blue carbonate of copper.
Ultramarine - pure ground lapis lazuli. There was only one source in the medieval
world for the purest lapis lazuli: Badakhshan, Afghanistan. This blue mineral had to
make the journey to Europe all that way, and is thus called “ultramarine”. Cennini
gushes, “Ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all
other colors; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality
would not still surpass... Let some of that color, combined with gold, which adorns all the
works of our profession, whether on wall or panel, shine forth in every object.”(36)
Orpiment or Auripigmentum (☠) - a yellow trisulphide of arsenic, a naturally occurring
mineral salt which can also be alchemically manufactured. Cennini calls it “a handsome
yellow more closely resembling gold than any other color.”(29) He also reveals, quite
emphatically, that orpiment is very toxic, and warns the artist to “beware of soiling your
mouth with it, lest you suffer personal injury.” The natural mineral is reported to be non-
toxic, although I would not put it in my mouth. It is primarily a color for panel
painting, as it reacts adversely to parchment, and with other pigments, especially those
containing copper or lead.
Realgar (☠) - another yellow mineral salt, a disulphide of arsenic. Like its cousin,
orpiment, realgar can be manufactured.
Cinnabar - natural red sulphide of mercury. This mineral is used to extract pure mercury,
which is then alchemically combined with sulphur to form vermilion, a pigment exactly
the same as cinnabar (?). I guess vermilion is a purer color than cinnabar...

Woad/Indigo - a blue dye, extracted from plant matter. Indigo is native to India, but
woad is native to Europe. Both were used for cloth dye and for a blue pigment useful
especially as an ingredient in compound pigments. Thompson makes much of the
difficulty and the horrible effects of woad manufacture: “farms ravished, countrysides
laid waste, city wards made intolerable by the reek of the woad works, waters poisoned,
to produce the blue cloths, and incidentally a blue pigment, that the Middle Ages loved
and admired.”
Turnsole or Folium- a dark, transparent blue made from the seeds of the Crozophora
plant. This color was used in illumination as an ink for flourishes on capital letters, and
as a glaze to deepen other blues.
Dragonsblood - a brownish red color made from the sap of a shrub. It was primarily
used as a glaze, or as an ingredient in compound colors. Its name comes from the belief,
perpetuated and elaborated by medieval writers, that this color was “a product of a titanic
Ralph Mayer, The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques (New York: Viking, 1985) 48.
Thompson, Materials and Techniques, 139.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  11
battle between the dragon and the elephant which ended in the mingling of the blood of
the two combatants.”
Crimson - a red dye, made from the insect kermes. All of these vegetable and insect
colors are transparent and used as glazes or in compound colors.

Vermilion (☠) - a red sulphide of mercury. Cennini chose to omit a description of the
manufacture of vermilion (24), but the older MSS do contain the recipe (not to try at
home!). The Mappae Clavicula begins with a recipe for vermilion which calls for the
heating of pure sulphur and mercury in a clay-coated flask, then collecting the results
after red vapor is visible. Theophilus says to
wait until you hear a noise inside the flask.
Ceruse, or Lead white or Flake white (☠) -
white acetate of lead roasted to an oxide. This
recipe is consistent across all sources. To make
white lead one suspends a thin sheet of lead in a
pot containing strong vinegar. Seal up this pot
and bury it in dung for a length of time (several
weeks) and then send your apprentice to collect
the crusty white flakes on the lead sheet. These
flakes are then ground into lead white. There is
no mention in the the Mappae Clavicula or in
Theophilus of the dangers of toxic lead pigments.
Cennini offers advice to the artist on how to
purchase the good ceruse from the apothecary
(34), perhaps as a way to avoid its dangerous
manufacture. Thompson reports, “Medieval writers warn against the dangers of
‘apoplexy, epilepsy, and paralysis’ which attend the manufacture of white lead,” although
he tantalizingly does not cite his sources.
Minium (☠) - an orange tetroxide of lead made in the same way as ceruse, except that
after the white flakes are collected they are roasted, first to a white color, then yellow,
then to orange.
Verdigris - alchemical, a blue-green acetate of copper. Manufactured in the same way as
white lead, only a sheet of copper is suspended over the vinegar. The copper in this
pigment is incompatible with lead, so, as Cennini warns, “Take care never to get it near
any white lead, for they are mortal enemies in every respect.”(33)
Thompson, Materials and Techniques, 124.
Smith and Hawthorne, Mappae Clavicula i, 26.
Theophilus, 45.
Thompson, Materials and Techniques, 92.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  12
Lamp Black - the collected soot from burning a candle or oil lamp
Charcoal Black - made from burning vines, esp. willow

Medieval illuminators used several different binders to temper their pigments for work on

1. GUM ARABIC is the hardened sap of the acacia tree (or any fruit tree, really). It is
soaked overnight, heated in a double boiler, and will remain liquid for a long time. It is
often mixed with honey or glycerin. Gum arabic is the most durable and shiny of the

2. EGG GLAIR is a fluid made from the white of an egg. Whip an egg white to a stiff
peak meringue, cover it, and let it sit overnight. In the morning you will find a watery,
colored liquid at the bottom of the bowl. This is glair. It will stay OK in the fridge for a
couple of days, but then needs to be thrown out and remade. Glair is an extremely
common ingredient in many of the recipes from the treatises. Some Medieval and
Renaissance artists preferred using “distemper”--spoiled, putrefied glair--but it smells
bad. Some say to put a clove in it, or a drop of clove oil, or just to buck up and use it,
stink and all. Glair is a delicate and silky binder.

3. EGG YOLK (TEMPERA) is another common temper for illumination. Separate an
egg, carefully dry the yolk by rolling it across a paper towel, pick it up between two
fingers and pierce it into a bowl, careful not to get any of the membrane in it. Dilute it
with some distilled water and a drop of white vinegar and you have a wonderful painting
tempera. Yolk yields a very velvety and rich effect with your pigments. This is also the
preferred temper for panel painting.

Various Recipes

These recipes are those that I have adapted over the years for my illumination workshop
students. They are based on the ancient recipes, but adapted somewhat to modern
working conditions.

Recipe for PAINT

pure pigment
distilled water
liquid gum arabic or glair
honey/sugar/glycerin (optional-see * below)

Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  13
Combine pigment and water to make a paste the consistency of toothpaste, or oil paint
from a tube--not too watery. Add drops of gum arabic (or glair or yolk) equal to the
volume of paste, and you have basic watercolor paint. Once the paint is made up, it can
be left to dry out. To reconstitute, simply put in a few drops of distilled water, let it soak
in, then mix and go.

*If you are painting paper or parchment to be bound into a book, add a little sugar or
honey or glycerin to the mixture to keep it flexible. If painting for a framed piece, this
ingredient is not necessary.

Aim for a consistency somewhere between heavy cream and half-and-half--not too
watery, which will be weakly colored and buckle your parchment, but not too thick,
which will go on goopy or lumpy--most objectionable.

If you wish, the pigment/water paste can be made in advance and stored in an airtight
container. Float a little bit of distilled water over the top to keep it from drying out.


4 parts gesso sottile (slaked plaster)=mordant
1 part white pigment (like titanium or lead white)=strengthener
1 part bole=colorant
5-7 parts rabbit skin glue size, or 3-5 parts fish glue*=binder
a few drops honey=humectant
distilled water as needed for consistency

SAFETY NOTE: If using lead white, wear a dust mask and wear surgical gloves or a
finger cot. Never touch a lead or mercury based pigment with bare fingers!! ☠

Mix the gesso sottile and white pigment in a mortar/pestle. Add the bole and mix for
quite a while. It will be a crumbly, pasty mess, and then it will turn smooth and pinkish.
Add the honey and glue binder starting with 5 parts RSG/3 parts fish, and adding more if
needed and diluting with distilled water. The consistency should be like Elmer's white
glue, maybe a little thinner. The trick is to apply it in many thin layers rather than in a

*The glue added to the gesso mixture is tricky, and much depends on the relative
humidity of the day on which you are gilding. In a humid place RSG works fine. But in
dryer climates (like Kansas in Autumn, Winter or Spring) use hide or fish glue. Gesso
made with rabbit glue (or pure hide glue) will gel up after a time, so it must be kept
warm. There are several ways to do this, the safest and easiest of which is one of those
electric coffee cup warmers. The fish glue/liquid hide glue recipe does not need heating.

Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  14
A note on BUBBLES--avoid them at all costs! With respects to Don Ho, nothing ruins
hard gilding work like tiny bubbles. Stir the gesso very carefully to avoid whipping it up
and introducing bubbles. If they do appear (and they will) try to gently coax them to the
side of the vessel you are using and remove them. Prick them with a pin. Use an eyelash
(no makeup) that you have rubbed with a little oil from the side of your nose, or from
behind your ear. The oil will pop the bubble. Another method handed down to us from
the Middle Ages, and which really works is to stick the heel of your brush into your ear
and collect a tiny bit of earwax, and use this blob to break the bubbles. They burst
immediately! Something about surface tension--I don't understand why, but it works.

You can gild with this gesso immediately, but you certainly won't need all that you've
made, so you can store the excess for later. To store it tape some plastic wrap onto a rigid
card board. Carefully stir the gesso and pour it onto the plastic wrap in little buttons
about the size of a dime/nickel. Make sure to stir the gesso before pouring each button, to
ensure an even mixture in each button. When no more gesso will pour out, put a few
drops of distilled water in the mortar, stir gently, and make a few last buttons. Allow
these to dry fully (overnight). In the morning slit the plastic wrap, pop the buttons off
and store them in a film canister, plastic container, jar or anything dust and moisture free.
They will last indefinitely.

To reconstitute one of the dried buttons, crumble one up into a shot glass or palette cup
and add 1 or 2 drops distilled water and wait five minutes. Mix it gently with your finger
(protected if using lead white using a finger cot or surgical glove). Cover the mass with
1/8 inch of distilled water and wait 10 more minutes. Then very gently stir the gesso with
your finger, being careful not to introduce bubbles. You're now ready to gild. If it’s a
nice humid day...


1 part rabbit skin glue crystals
14 parts distilled water

Soak the RSG grains overnight in the water. In the morning you will find a gamey-
smelling gelatinous goo. Put this in a double boiler and heat gently (do NOT boil!) until
liquefied. After a little while it will have to be heated up again to re-liquefy. RSG should
keep about a week in the fridge in an airtight container.

Recipe to make GESSO SOTTILE (Slaked Plaster)

1-cup gesso grosso (plaster of Paris)
1 gallon distilled water
4-5 pieces litmus paper
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  15

Traditionally, GESSO GROSSO was stirred for 30 minutes straight, then soaked in a bucket
for a period of 1 month. During the tedious process, old water was drawn off daily, new
water added and the mixture was stirred well and often. The plaster was considered
slaked when the water remained clear, usually after about 30 days. This process not only
cleans impurities from the plaster, but also adds an extra water molecule, or slakes it, so
that it does not want to bind to itself. After reading and retranslating Cennini’s original
text Jerry Tresser has made this process a bit easier for modern scribes. He did many tests
and found that plaster can be slaked in 30 minutes rather than 30 days (Larger amounts of
plaster require more time, but 4-5 cups of plaster can be slaked in a couple of hours. That
amount of slaked plaster will last most scribes several years.). Part of the time saved by
using the modern process of slaking plaster has to do with starting out with a product that
is more pure than its period counterpart. The rest has to do with realizing that unslaked
plaster is acidic, slaked plaster is pH neutral.
To slake plaster in 30 minutes:
Test the distilled water with the litmus paper to make sure it is pH neutral. Place the
Plaster of Paris in the bowl and cover with 3-4 cups of water. Stir well for 5 minutes then
let the plaster settle to the bottom of the bowl. (Do not let the plaster sit in the bottom of
the bowl without stirring for long periods of time. If the plaster is not completely slaked it
will harden.) As soon as the plaster has settled, drain off the water, add fresh water, stir
well and let settle again. Repeat this 2-3 times then test the water. If the litmus paper
reads neutral, you are done. If not, repeat the process until the litmus paper gives the
expected response. Once the water/plaster becomes pH neutral it is slaked. No matter
how many times the mixture is stirred, the water is changed or how long the plaster
soaks, it never gets any more slaked. Drain off as much water as possible, let the plaster
dry in the bowl. You can store the dried plaster as a cake or grind it up and put it in a jar
or small plastic container to store.

This amount of GESSO SOTTILE should last you many years.


It’s great to gild on a muggy day. The humidity helps the gold to adhere. Some modern
illuminators put humidifiers in their scriptoria to increase the ambient humidity. This is
especially necessary if you are using rabbit skin glue. Fish glue is much stickier and does
not require the higher moisture.

Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  16
1. Outline the area to be gilded with waterproof ink, according to the design.
2. Paint on your size
- one layer if using garlic juice or gum ammoniac
- many thin layers if using gesso, depending on the height desired, stirring gently
all the time
- "spooning" method - for small areas like a leaf or other form - place a blob of
gesso in the center of the form and then push it, spooning it with the brush, into
the edges of the form, creating the illusion of embossing
- attend to bubbles immediately
3. Let the size dry completely (even between layers)
4. Cut a piece of gold larger than the size you need for an area-don't be stingy
5. Lean over the gesso (or use a paper tube) and breathe slowly on the size 2-3 times,
moistening it
6. Place the gold onto the moistened size immediately and press firmly through glassine,
or using a finger wrapped in a piece of silk, for about 10 seconds.
7. With the burnisher, run around the edges of the gold through the glassine, and then
across the top and sloped shoulders of the form.
8. Just leave it to dry thoroughly (overnight is best).
9. Lay one or two more layers onto the first, using the breathing method above if some of
the gesso base shows through.
10. Clean up with a soft brush and Xacto scalpel knife, saving gold flakes in a film
canister for making shell gold later.
11. Burnish directly onto the gold with agate or hematite burnisher.
12. If you need to restore the black outline by painting onto gold, you'll need to mix up
some egg yolk tempera for your black to cover the gold.
13. Finish ALL gilding BEFORE applying paint, as gold will stick to paint.

1. Outline your design with a pigment pen, or with waterproof ink, or leave it penciled
only, as you prefer. I find it easier to work within thin pen lines which can be touched up
later with black paint.
2. Paint in several thin layers rather than in goopy globs.
3. Mix up three values of each color: the basic pigment alone, the pigment with some
white added, and that second pigment with more white added.
4. Lay the middle value first, then shadow and highlight, then deepest shadow and
highest highlight.
5. Blue is highlighted in lighter blue, gold or white; green in gold or yellow; brown in
gold or yellow; red in pink or gold or white.
6. Using a pen or fine brush, make all the finish details, touch-up corrections and little
embellishments to richen up the piece.
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  17

Supplies and Resources


KREMER PIGMENTS 247 West 29th Street
New York, NY 10001
(212) 219-2394

Dr. Kremer has stores in New York City and in Germany. They produce a very
informative catalog and have a comprehensive website. Order by catalog or
online. They also have brushes, containers, books, inks and other supplies for
historical materials/techniques like oil, encaustic and fresco.

Willits, CA 95490
(888) 361-5900

Another comprehensive catalog offering many of the same items as Kremer,
with pigments sold under the name Rublev.

PAPER & INK ARTS 3 North Second Street
Woodsboro, MD 21798
(800) 736-7772

Parchment can be purchased in small sizes through this catalogue. They're very
nice and helpful folks. Their catalog also sells a HUGE array of calligraphy
supplies and books

PERGAMENA Handmade Parchment 11 Factory Street, Box 307
Montgomery, NY 12549
(845) 457-3834

Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  18
Full skins, more economical than the smaller pieces but requiring cutting, can
come directly from the last manufacturer in North America, Jesse Meyer, at
PERGAMENA in New York.


Here are some websites that might be useful to you as you explore the world of the
modern medieval scriptorium.

Jesse Meyer's website, with lots of useful information about the manufacture of
various kinds of parchment.
A wonderful resource for all things scriptorial, a scholarly website examining
many important historical manuscripts. A great resource for visual images of
medieval books.
Recipes for gilding, painting and inks from Julie Sparks, and a nice chronicle of
two projects she did, one Greek and one Latin.

Check out also the websites for the famous libraries and collections of original
manuscripts, like the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Getty, Pierpont Morgan Library,
the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, the Vatican Library, etc.

Canadian artist Kathryn Finter does beautiful illumination work, as well as
tempera on panel..
Look at Reggie's gallery for some ideas on more modern illumination.

There's so much out there to explore!
Faculty Colloquium: The BOOK (Fall 2010) Tony Silvestri  19

Alexander, Jonathan J.G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New
Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1992.

Cennini, Cennino d’Andrea. Il libro dell’arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook). Translated by
Daniel V. Thompson. New York: Dover Publications, 1960.

Clarke, Mark. “Anglo-Saxon Manuscript Pigments.” Studies in Conservation Vol. 49,
No. 4 (2004) 231-244, (accessed April 3,

deHamel, Christopher. Medieval Craftsmen: Scribes and Illuminators. Toronto: Univ. of
Toronto Press, 1994.

Drogin, Marc. Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. New York: Dover, 1980.

Elkins, James. What Painting Is. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Mayer, Ralph. The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques. New York: Viking,

Smith, Cyril Stanley and John G. Hawthorne. “Mappae Clavicula: A Little Key to the
World of Medieval Techniques.” Transactions of the American Philosophical
Society, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 4 (1974), 1-128, (accessed April 2, 2010).

Theophilus Rugerus, De diversis artibus. (c. 1100) Translated by Robert Hendrie.
London: John Murray, 1847.
id=wo4EAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed
October 11, 2010).

Thompson, Daniel V. The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting. New York:
Dover, 1956.

“Vellum Maker”. By Mike Rowe. Dirty Jobs. Discovery Channel. November 25, 2008.

Vinas, Salvador Munoz. “Original Written Sources for the HIstory of Medieval Painting
Techniques and Materials: A List of Published Texts.” Studies in Conservation
Vol. 43, No. 2 (1998) 114-124, (accessed
April 4, 2010).