Table of Contents
Main Sections
I. Function of Books
II. Book Production
      1. Parchment
      2. Papyrus 
      3. Paper 
      4. Ruling
      5. Pen 
      6. Ink 
      7. Gilding 
      8. Pigments 
      9. Bookbinding
III. Book Structure
IV. Typology of Books
V. Book Illumination
Back to the previous subchapter                II. Materials and Techniques of Manuscript    Production  Credits
7. Gilding

There are several methods of applying gold to manuscript pages and sometimes more than one technique was used in a single miniature in order to achieve different effects. There are three basic types of application appropriate for books. Two methods use gold leaf, and one uses powdered gold. In the first a design is brushed on in some kind of wet glue and the gold leaf is laid on top and is burnished when it is dry. This is used particularly in very early manuscripts and it can achieve wonderful areas of shimmering gold like the backgrounds of early panel paintings. In the second method a sticky gesso is prepared and built up so that the design is really three-dimensional. When the gold has been applied and polished with a burnishing tool  it looks extremely thick and the curving edges of the design catch the light from many angles at once. This is the most wonderful medieval gold in manuscripts and is discussed in more detail below. The third method is to apply what is called 'shell' gold, a powdered gold mixed with gum arabic into a kind of gold ink (and commonly dispensed from a sea shell like a mussel or oyster, hence the name) and applied with pen or brush. It can also be called matt or liquid gold. Unlike leaf gold, it was added after the colour. It was particularly used from the second half of the fifteenth century, and can resemble the frosted gold printed now on some Christmas cards. It is curious that it was so popular, because the effect can easily be sugary and overdone, it must have been more expensive to make since grinding up pieces of gold uses more of the material than laying leaf, and those who have tried highlighting in shell gold over pigment report that it is a slow process to apply scores of hatched lines with repeated precision.

Gold leaf is not especially easy to use either. It is a property of gold that, unlike many other metals, it can be hammered thinner and thinner without ever crumbling away. A piece of gold leaf is infinitely thinner than the thinnest paper. It is virtually without thickness and has almost no weight. If dropped it hardly seems to flutter downwards. If it settles on a hard surface ruffled or folded it can be straightened out with a puff of breath, unwrinkling itself instantly like a shimmering shaken blanket. It was comparatively rarely used in medieval manuscripts before about 1200, with certain fantastically lavish and princely exceptions. Gold leaf is comparatively cheap, even now. Cennino Cennini, the 14th century Italian jeweller and art-theoretitian, says that when buying gold leaf, 'get it from someone who is a good goldbeater; and examine the gold; and if you find it rippling and matt, like goat parchment, then consider it good'. Both Cennino and the Göttingen Model 5, Book describe at some length the mixing of gesso for raised illumination. Begin with slaked plaster of Paris, and grind in a little white lead (less than a third of the amount of the plaster, Cennino says). The mixture is very white and crumbly. The Göttingen manuscript takes up the recipe: 'then fetch bolum armenum at the apothecary's, and grind so much into it that the chalk will turn a red flesh colour therefrom'. Armenian bole, as it was called although it certainly came from many places closer than Armenia, is a kind of greasy red clay. It has no real function in gesso except to supply colour. When the gesso is eventually applied to the white page the inclusion of a colouring substance will make the mixture easier to see; and if the gold should ever wear off a bit, a pink-brown colour underneath gives a more pleasing and warmer glow than stark white. It is interesting to look out for traces of bole having been used in the illumination of manuscripts. Usually, especially in rather battered manuscripts, one can detect whether or not bole has been mixed with the gesso under the gold. In Italy it is pink. In Flanders and Germany it is brown. In Paris it is usually not used at all. This must be one of those curious differences which, if enough examples could be systematically collected up and documented, might one day help localise manuscripts or at least the place of the illuminator's training. However, to return to the recipe, we now have plaster and white lead, with or without colouring. Add a dash or two of sugar. Sugar, or honey for that matter, has the property of attracting moisture and it is important that the concoction should remain damp as long as possible. The substance can be dried into little pink pellets and stored like this. When it is needed mix it up with a little clear water and egg glair, presumably on a slab of stone, crunching the mixture over and over with a palette knife until it is really smooth and runny, without bubbles. The egg glair is made from the sticky liquid which forms at the bottom of a bowl of whipped egg whites, especially if a cup of cold water is tipped in too.

This is gesso, a mixture which needs to be stirred often, ready for use. It is applied with a quill pen, not a brush. Speed is important, as is a lightness of touch so as not to scratch the parchment with the nib. The liquid is puddled into the centre of the piece to be gilded and then quite quickly drawn out carefully into the corners and over the parts of the manuscript page marked out by the under drawing, round the shape of initials, into ivy leaves, haloes, dotted across tessellated chessboard backgrounds, and so on. Presumably the medieval illuminator, unlike the scribe, worked at a flat table rather than at a sloping desk as the gesso is piled up thickly and held by surface tension and it would run down a slope. Damp weather, or dank early mornings are said to be good for applying gold leaf. A fluttering piece of gold leaf is picked up on a thin flat brush called a gilder's tip and can be allowed to fall onto the soft gilder's cushion where it can be blown out flat and cut with a sharp knife into strips or other simple shapes before being picked up again on the brush. The illuminator breathes heavily onto the manuscript page and the dampness of his breath makes the gesso slightly tacky again, and the gold leaf can be lowered into place, overlapping the edges of the gesso pattern. As it nears the page the gold leaf seems to jump into place. It is covered quickly with a piece of silk and pushed quite firmly with the thumb. Patterns will be impressed from the weave of the silk but they are of no consequence as they will be smoothed away in a moment. The illuminator then takes up the burnishing tool; this was traditionally a dog's tooth mounted on a handle, but Cennino says that the tooth of a lion, wolf, cat, or any carnivore is as good, and he goes on to describe how to make a stone burnishing tool from a piece of hematite. The tool is rubbed up and down over and around the gold and into the crevices at its edge. As it rubs, the gold which generously overlapped the edges of the gesso design will fall away and these infinitely small crumbs of gold dust can be brushed off or swept up.

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Some modern scribes assert with the credibility of practical experience that a great deal of medieval manuscript decoration was executed with a pen rather than a brush. This may have been true, especially for flourished initials where the body of the infilling was in one colour without heightening. If the paint has rubbed thin, one can see pen strokes. The Göttingen instructions suggest both implements were used: 'you shall apply all colours, shade and heighten them, with a brush, except in the checkered backgrounds, which you shall apply with the pen and heighten with the brush; otherwise, all foliage and flower work with a brush, large or small'. There are sixteenth century instructions for making brushes for portrait miniatures. Use clippings from the tail hairs of the miniver or the calaber (species of ermine and squirrel respectively) rolled up in strips of paper  tied, and inserted into the end of a barrel of a feather. Thus it may be that pictures of illuminators apparently holding quills are in fact wielding brushes.

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