How the Brilliant Colors of Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Were Made with Alchemy

Today the word “alche­my” seems used pri­mar­i­ly to label a vari­ety of crack­pot pur­suits, with their bogus premis­es and impos­si­ble promis­es. To the extent that alchemists long strove to turn lead mirac­u­lous­ly into gold, that sounds like a fair enough charge, but the field of alche­my as a whole, whose his­to­ry runs from Hel­lenis­tic Egypt to the 18th cen­tu­ry (with a revival in the 19th), chalked up a few last­ing, real­i­ty-based accom­plish­ments as well. Take, for instance, medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts: with­out alche­my, they would­n’t have the vivid and var­ied col­or palettes that con­tin­ue to enrich our own vision of that era.

Many of the illu­mi­na­tors’ most bril­liant pig­ments “did­n’t come straight from nature but were made through alche­my,” says the video from the Get­ty above, pro­duced to accom­pa­ny the muse­um’s exhi­bi­tion “The Alche­my of Col­or in Medieval Man­u­scripts.”

Alchemists “explored how mate­ri­als inter­act­ed and trans­formed,” and “dis­cov­er­ing paint col­ors was a prac­ti­cal out­come.” The col­ors they devel­oped includ­ed “mosa­ic gold,” a fusion of tin and sul­fur; verdi­gris, “made by expos­ing cop­per to fumes of vine­gar, wine, or even urine”; and ver­mil­lion, a mix­ture of sul­fur and mer­cury that made a bril­liant red “asso­ci­at­ed with chem­i­cal change and with alche­my itself.”

The very nature of books, specif­i­cal­ly the fact that they spend most of the time closed, has per­formed a degree of inad­ver­tent preser­va­tion of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, keep­ing their alchem­i­cal col­ors rel­a­tive­ly bold and deep. (Although, as the Get­ty video notes, some pig­ments such as verdi­gris have a ten­den­cy to eat through the paper — one some­how wants to blame the urine.) Still, that hard­ly means that preser­va­tion­ists have noth­ing to do where illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts are con­cerned: keep­ing the win­dows they pro­vide onto the his­to­ries of art, the book, and human­i­ty clear takes work, some of it based on an ever-improv­ing under­stand­ing of alche­my. Lead may nev­er turn into gold, but these cen­turies-old illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts may sur­vive cen­turies into the future, a fact that seems not entire­ly un-mirac­u­lous itself.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Behold the Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

1,600-Year-Old Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­script of the Aeneid Dig­i­tized & Put Online by The Vat­i­can

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

Won­der­ful­ly Weird & Inge­nious Medieval Books

1,000-Year-Old Illus­trat­ed Guide to the Med­i­c­i­nal Use of Plants Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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