Paint Pigments

Colour Symbolism in Manuscript Illumination

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Whether the early illuminators used pigments because they were bright or because that is all they could get or even because they were aware of a particular symbolic meaning is uncertain.

Of Gold, Hildegard of Bingen said: 
“...shining fire, unfathomable, inextinguishable, fully alive and existing full of life....”

Genesis 10: 12 -16:
And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth........and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature......

The Lost Sutras of Jesus:
“ Purity is like empty space, it produces the light of love whose brightness illuminates everything. Because it illuminates everything, it is called the Way of Peace and Joy”

Revelation 21; 19 - 20:
And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.

If we look at Genesis, the colours used in manuscript illumination - red, red/orange, yellow/ gold, green, blue/ indigo and violet – could have been seen as a representation of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant, between God and Earth. The stones referred to in Revelation 21, that make up the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem, are variations of red, red-orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.
It could be that the pigments chosen were seen as representational of the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem and a reminder of the ultimate goal to which the faithful aspired: to escape the torments of Hell and gain a place in that Heavenly city.

Toxicity of Pigments

ColourPigments – Non ToxicPigments- Toxic
RedEnglish Red, Mars Red, Indian Red, Red Ochre, Venetian Red, T. Red Oxide, Rose MadderMinium (Red Lead), Vermillion*/ Cinnabar*, Cadmium Red, Realgar*
YellowYellow Ochre, T. Yellow OxideCadmium Yellow, Lead Tin Yellow (aka Naples Yellow), Orpiment*
GreenTerra Verte, Green EarthsCadmium Green, Verdigris, Emerald Green*
BlueIndigo/ Woad, Lapis Lazuli, ultramarine blue,
VioletIndigo Violet, ultramarine violet, Mars violet (caput mortuum)

BlackLamp Black⟊, Ivory Black, Mars Black ⟊ some sources suggest can be carcinogenic (skin cancer)
GoldGold Ochre, Genuine gold leaf, Genuine shell gold.Orpiment*
* downright poisonous                                                                        table: Diane George

Of the above list of pigments, the British Library has identified Orpiment, Indigo, Verdigris and Red Lead as the main pigments in use in early manuscripts. Additionally, white lead, chalk, and some earth pigments were used. Vermillion and Lead Tin Yellow appeared around the 12th century or so. Lapis Lazuli is occasionally seen in early manuscripts, but in small doses. Even today, a ¼ pan of genuine Lapis Lazuli, extra dark, will set you back in excess of £245 and just 10 grammes of 'Fra Angelico Blue', genuine Lapis loose pigment, will cost you over £150.

When choosing pigments, you have to decide whether you will follow historic pigments, use only non-toxic ones, or affordable ones (!) or simply go for the brightest colours. A manuscript illumination must be bright. It must have impact. There are some exceptions to this. Some illuminations have quite a muted palette of earth pigments. If a manuscript was historically used in a dimly lit interior, then the pages must need be bright. The surface of vellum has a degree of luminosity and the available light is reflected back off the page, through the pigment. The toxic and poisonous pigments frequently contain metals and these tiny, metallic particles also reflect light.
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