When you think of the colour green what springs to mind? Do you think of fields, nature, or environmental movements? Perhaps, you associate green with certain cultures, celebrations, even religions? Maybe you have an emotional association, and have been green with envy on a few occasions? Quite simply, whether symbolic or literal, green is everywhere and as such has been well documented throughout history within art and manuscript illumination.
Now, as part of a broader research project that aims to shed light on the historical, art-historical, social and political context in which manuscripts were commissioned, executed and used, researchers from the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University of Cambridge have began their exploration into the colour green.
Dr Paola Ricciardi and her team focused on 13th to 16th century French illuminated manuscripts – a time where Paris was becoming one of the most densely populated cities in Europe and the number of artisans was multiplying rapidly. On the lookout for green-coloured areas within these manuscripts, the team undertook analytical investigations using visible and near-infrared fibre optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS). With valuable and fragile manuscripts under investigation, a non-invasive approach is key. In this respect, FORS fit the bill: it applied no physical strain to the manuscript. What’s more, the equipment was portable and provided quick results, yielding information on the chemical structure and the presence of certain organic or inorganic materials within the pigments.
Interested in getting a sense of which green pigments were preferred by French illuminators during the medieval and Renaissance period, the team analysed treatises, which alongside containing in-depth written instructions on manuscript illumination, also contained the colour green. Their results revealed that throughout the Middle Ages and until the 18th century, Western European illuminators were limited to the range of green material they used. Essentially, verdigris – the green obtained from copper containing compounds – was clearly the pigment of choice in the 13th and 14th century treatises, albeit at times was mixed with plant extracts to modify its colour. The study also revealed that in the 14th and 15th century treatises, the green palatte expanded to include green earth, malachite, sap green and other plant juices to its list, which could be potentially ground together with azurite to obtain ‘a very lovely green.’
This contextualised study has laid the groundwork for future investigations of its kind. Much work still need to be done, including a complete characterization of mixtures (from yellows and blues) and organic glazes, as well as in-depth investigation of historic recipes and further comparisons with results published by other investigators. The end goal: to investigate trends that emerge in the use of different pigments by different artists or workshops, and in different periods of time and geographical areas.
Paola Ricciardi, Anuradha Pallipurath and Kristine Rose Anal. Methods, 2013,5, 3819-3824. doi: 10.1039/c3ay40530c. ‘It’s not easy being green’: a spectroscopic study of green pigments used in illuminated manuscripts.