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Durham University

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British Medieval Illuminators’ Pigments: A Scientific and Cultural Study

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Medieval research group.


The ravishing colours of illuminated manuscripts are one of the most vivid legacies of the Middle Ages. Yet discovering what was used to achieve these effects is a challenging task. Although medieval recipe collections provide useful guidance about materials and techniques in general, they do not reveal what was deployed in any particular instance. To understand this, scientific examination of the manuscripts themselves is crucial. Deploying a range of non-invasive technologies that are wholly appropriate from a conservation point of view, and using a unique, custom-built, fully mobile suite of equipment optimised for the study of manuscripts, the team is examining a representative sample of British books dating from the seventh to the fifteenth centuries and identifying the pigments used therein. These data, taken in tandem with codicological and art-historical study of the manuscripts in question, provide a genuinely new perspective on eight centuries of British book production, art, and culture, offering new insights into the cultural contexts and international connections of monastic illuminators and professional scriptoria. One path-breaking result will be the first ever account of British medieval illuminators’ pigments and their cultural significance.


The current phase of work is focusing on the analysis of Anglo-Saxon books, on the one hand, and of late medieval ones, on the other. Once the broad parameters of this near-virgin field have been mapped, manuscripts of outstanding interest - be it as early witnesses to the deployment of a particular material, or on account of their painting techniques, or because of what is known about the context in which they were produced - will be scrutinised in forensic detail. The coverage will thus have both breadth and depth - crucial for a pioneering project. 

Interim findings are being reported in talks, exhibitions (such as ‘Uncovered’ at Hereford Cathedral Library 2018) and publications (such as the pigment reports within R. Gameson, The Medieval Manuscripts of Trinity College, Oxford (Oxford, 2018)).


From the Department of History

From other departments