The Expensive Medieval Pigments: Purple, Gold, and Silver!

Snails and fernsThe most expensive colors you could use to illuminate a manuscript had to be Purple, Gold, and Silver. What where these colors made from and what caused them to be so costly?

Purple-The Royal Hue could be made in a variety of ways and the most plush of all was using a dye made from the murex shellfish, a mode of manufacture which dated back thousands of years and was very very labor intense. A second way to produce purple was to mix indigo and “minium” or red lead (an intense and pure red) OR ground lapis lazuli and Minium. Using indigo was much less dear but produced a less interesting and strong purple than just about any other way of making it. Woad and smalt could also be used but again with less pleasing results. Since blue was a much more popular color than purple in the first place, when the patron was going to spend money, they generally opted for the blue over any other color, so you don’t see near as much purple dotting the pages of old vellum.

Gold-Gold was usually applied as leaf, that is beaten until it formed tissue thin and flexible sheets. These would be affixed to the page with the use of glue and burnished until it lay flat. There was always the risk that burnishing would ruin the entire page if the flat burnishing tool ran into some of the painted picture which was supposed to be matte and now would bear a shiny trail where the tool strayed onto the image. The other pigments often did outdo gold for their cost, though, and depending on the worth of gold, this disparity could become pretty extreme.

Silver-Silver illumination was never as popular as gold but it was applied in the same manner basically. Thin sheets were adhered with a glue and burnished down into place. One reason that silver wasn’t used as much is the tarnishing factor, you could not polish the tarnishing of silver once it was laid down. The application of a clear sealant over the silver was often applied to help keep silver looking shiny and bright. However, over time just about any sealant they could use would turn yellow or flake off, leaving the silver to be exposed to the elements and slowly turn black.

If you ever get a chance to see the Book of Kells in Ireland or to see the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (in Chantilly France), please do. Just looking at the surface color on them speaks more eloquently than I can about the effect of color, its intensity, and the form it takes when put to the page.

This is the last of the color blogs about illuminated manuscripts from Possets. However, there will be more blogs about a variety of aspects of life in Medieval times so look for them. The one on the Black Death is particularly fascinating.

For more information about the Middle Ages and to see the perfume collection of Medieval Yule, visit Possets Perfume and take a look around. It’s a really lovely site and you are virtually insured to have a great time.

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