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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
8. Pigments

The range of colours available to the medieval manuscript painter was surprisingly large. Red, for example, could be natural cinnabar, mercuric sulphide, found since classical times in Spain and at Monte Amiata, near Siena, and elsewhere. Vermilion is similar in chemical composition, and was made from heating mercury with sulphur and then by collecting and grinding the deposits of vapour formed during the heating process. It is very poisonous, and so the old artist's trick of bringing a brush to a fine point by licking it was a calculated risk. Alternatively, red pigment can be made from plant extracts. Brazilwood has already been mentioned in connection with red ink. Madder, a rather pure red, is made from the root of the madder plant, which grows wild in Italy. A romantically named red, widely used in book-decoration, was dragon's blood, described in medieval encyclopaedias as a pigment formed not merely from dragons but from the mingling of the blood of elephants and dragons which have killed each other in battle. Botanists assert that it comes from the sap of the shrub Pterocarpus draco.

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Blue is the second most common colour in medieval manuscripts, after red. Probably its most common colour source was azurite, a blue stone rich in copper, found in many countries of Europe. It is very hard, and has to be smashed and then ground patiently with mortar and pestle until it slowly and dustily turns to powder. Another blue, much more of a violet blue, was made from the seeds of the plant tumsole, now called Crozophora. But the blue prized above all others was ultramarine, blue from far beyond the sea, made from lapis lazuli, found naturally only in the region of Afghanistan. The journey that this stone must have taken to reach Europe is almost unimaginable, for it was available long before the time of Marco Polo, and it must have passed in bags from one camel train to another, to carts, and ships, a medium of commerce over and over again, before finally being purchased at enormous expense from the apothecaries of northern Europe. Good blue paint was valuable. In the twelfth-century Winchester Psalter it was scraped off for re-use. The inventory of the Duke de Berry, drawn up in I40I-3, includes among his treasures of unbelievable wealth two precious pots containing ultramarine. Other pigments included green from malachite or from verdigris, yellow from volcanic earth or from saffron, white from white lead, and so on. There were several techniques of mixing pigments into paints. Both white of egg (egg glair) and yellow of egg (egg tempera) were common, egg being a very effective glue. Gums too were made from air bladder of the sturgeon or from animal size made usually by boiling up pieces of skin. The grinding and the mixing and the tempering of paints were essential prerequisites to the decorating of illuminated manuscripts.

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