Making Manuscripts: Making Miniatures

How did medieval artists make their manuscripts shine? Patricia Lovett explores the work behind painting and embellishing manuscripts and reproduces a lavishly illuminated page.

Creating a medieval miniature involves a number of processes. The design is transferred to the surface of the skin, and then often the outline is reinforced, gone over with minium. Because it’s gone over with minium, these were called miniatures. They weren’t called miniatures because they were small, but because they often are, this is the word we now use for 'miniature'. Then gesso – this pink compound, essentially plaster of Paris and various stickies – is layered usually with a quill wherever there is going to be gold in the finished design. This pink compound is then allowed to dry, is prepared, and then almost pure gold, beaten until it’s tissue-thin, is applied to the gesso which is breathed on and the moisture in breath reactivates the stickiness very slightly so that the gold adheres. A burnisher, which can be either a polished stone, as here, or in medieval times quite often a tooth, is used to ensure that the gold is sticking and also to shine it up so that it is a brilliant shine. Gesso raises the gold leaf from the surface of the skin and this reflects the light even better, so that when the book was used perhaps in a church service to be paraded around the church, it caught the candlelight, or it caught the glint of a sunbeam and it reflected from the book, looking as though the light was coming from the book itself. Lastly, the paints are applied, and this is done in a series of stages, with the base colours applied first, then the tints and the shades, the white highlights and finally the black outline which brings everything to life.

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