Making the Manuscript
" It is the business of art to grasp the primordial truth, to make the inaudible audible, to enunciate the primordial Word,
to reproduce the primordial images - or it is not art." Walter Andrae
The contemporary illuminated manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas comprises five gatherings, each of 2 bifolia. There are 19 pages of calligraphy and six illuminated pages. It is bound in tooled, English Red goat leather, over oak boards. The manuscript was produced as part of my studies for an MA (Prince's Foundation - School of Traditional Arts). The department places strong emphasis upon traditional philosophies, materials and techniques. The use of the computer as a research and analytical tool is actively discouraged. Therefore, all of the research, analysis, planning and preparation for this manuscript was done by hand, with pencil, ruler, compasses and a lot of paper
Layout and Planning
The layout that I have used for the text is two columns, each of 32 lines. This number of lines is greater than that of many of the early illuminated
Gospels. The reason for this is partly the geometry that underlies every page and partly cost. One calfskin will set you back £130 or so. With each
bifolia (double page) measuring 360 mm x 540 mm, I could just about get two bifolia out of each skin. Ouch. There are actually five skins in this
manuscript (there are some blank folios), supplied by William Cowley of Newport Pagnall. The basic planning of this particular manuscript took about 7 months. With no exemplar to work from, the placement of every character, space, word and capital had to be worked out beforehand (hence the reams of paper). This period of preparation took place either on the train (on the rare occasions when I could get a seat) or in the glorious and salubrious East End of London, somewhere between Moorgate and Old Street (I know, I know - sarcasm is the lowest form of wit). The planning of the details of the illuminated pages was an ongoing task, only ending when I ran out of time for the final examinations. It is possible that work on the illuminated pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels only stopped when the artist died. Somewhat of an inconvenience.
Writing the Text
The calligraphy for the text is entirely hand written using iron gall ink (walkies in an oak wood is called for). It is much, much easier to use a quill than a metal nib on vellum (stalk a large bird at moulting time for it's large wing and tail feathers). The writing angle required (the board is on a slope and the pen is held at a right angle to the page), coupled with the intense concentration and control needed, make for a rather painful experience. I could only write for about an hour at a time, after which I was in physical pain and my concentration was slipping. Close inspection of the manuscript reveals the moments when my concentration was shattered (they were drilling very large holes in the ground at the building site outside my window), or I was jogged by a fellow student walking by my desk (sprung wooden floors - give me stone any day). They also didn't have to contend with photocopiers, mobile 'phones, etc. in Medieval times......(there's progress for you).
The calligraphy for the main body of the text was finished on the 16th March 2004. This left all of the decorative capital letters and all of the illuminated pages (and just over 3 months to the exams). All of the illuminations were worked on simultaneously, working on one while other pages dried (or were being flattened under a heavy weight). The paint used is egg tempera. I used organic, free range eggs. If you're thinking of taking up egg tempera yourself, either start keeping chickens or make friends with someone that does.
The main pigments are: orpiment, minium, verdigris, indigo and lamp black. Of these, one is downright poisonous, two are toxic, one stinks and one is OK. So that made me popular. There are safer pigments out there, but they have not been widely identified in early Medieval manuscripts* and the safe ones tend to be rather dull (I'm resisting the temptation to comment....). I found that adding a few drops of garlic juice to the paint mix helped with consistency, flow, staying power etc. Some say fig juice is the thing to add, but I'm not convinced of the ready availability of large quantities of figs in 8th century Britain.
The older the garlic, the better it gets - and the stinkier. How to win friends and influence people. For those that find this sort of thing interesting, the paint I used was very fluid and was 'puddled' on. When it dries, it shrinks down and ends up looking as though it is quite thick. Due to the fluidity of the paint, you end up working around the page in quite an odd order. This may shed some light on the strange, unfinished bits of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The manuscript was bound by Cowlishaw Bookbinders of Kent.
The manuscript has previously been displayed at Hereford Cathedral, opposite the Mappa Mundi and at St David's Cathedral Library.
It is now available for sale. Please contact me for further information if you are interested in purchasing the illuminated manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas. All of my research drawings, plans, drafts, trials etc are also available to accompany this manuscript.
* My thanks to the British Library Conservation Department for sharing their research