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Colour in medieval illuminated manuscripts: between beauty and meaning

Medieval illuminated manuscripts range among the most valuable artistic objects of our European cultural heritage. Portuguese codices date from the formation of Portugal as a kingdom and are testimonies of medieval ideas, religion and policy. St. Cruz, St. Mamede of Lorvão and St. Maria of Alcobaça are important in the context of the political strategy of the Reconquest, which experienced the creation of monasteries for the maintenance, under the Christian domination, of recently conquered territories to Muslims, assuming the function of maintaining the peace and the articulation of the social order. In this project we propose to explore the issues related with the symbolic and social meaning of colour in medieval Portuguese illuminations, produced during the twelfth and first quarter of the thirteenth century in the Alcobaça, Lorvão and St Cruz monasteries. Colour use and production in Portuguese medieval illuminations was a consequence of the technology available as well as of cultural and artistic options; by defining the specificities of its use and production we will contribute to fingerprint the influences of the three different cultures that coexisted in Portugal at that time, Arab, Jewish and Christian. We will approach this subject from an art history and molecular sciences point of view, aiming to characterize the monastery scriptoria and their evolution during the twelfth and first quarter of the thirteen centuries. We will start by quantifying the dominant colours and its combinations, in national manuscript collections; namely, in the manuscript collections of Alcobaça, Arouca, Lorvão and St. Cruz. We will afterwards proceed to the comparison with other international collections. Quantification will be performed by computer image analysis of colour areas. As degradation processes affect our perception of colour, examination at the molecular level will be essential in order to avoid misinterpretations of the colour meaning and distribution. The binding media, the invisible component of a paint colour, may also have a fundamental influence on colour perception; they may play a key role in the colour changes over time. Particular attention will be devoted to their complete characterization by using nonconventional techniques recently applied in the field of cultural heritage, such as ELISA- antigen-antibody assay. We will also explore new ways of sharing our results with the general public, with the main focus on children and young publics, contributing to divulge the ancient art of illuminations through the exploration of modern computer interaction technologies. We intend to achieve an engaging, intuitive and easy to use interactive system, where physical objects similar to the ones used in real life, when making the illuminations, will be used. This installation will simulate the illuminations’ creation process in the medieval period, addressing several aspects from the materials’ origin and production methods to the painting process. It will also show users the historical and social context of that epoch and reveal the meanings of the used colours and images depicted. This interactive installation can be easily deployed at cultural sites, enriching an exhibition, or at institutions where the books are preserved. Finally, a book, describing the main findings and breakthroughs of our research will be prepared. In addition, the possibility of creating a website with our results will be considered. The tasks and objectives proposed within this project are new and will bring innovation, and this progress beyond the state of the art will contribute to a better access and conservation of medieval illuminations. The team is constituted by 19 members, including five PhD students and four research fellows, for which grants will be asked within the project. The BIs will be crucial for an efficient outcome of the project. The art history research will be coordinated by Adelaide Miranda, the molecular characterization by Maria João Melo, the image analysis by João Lopes, and the multimedia interfaces by Nuno Correia. Consultant Mark Clarke will contribute with his expertise to the overall project as well as Augusto Aires do Nascimento. Partnerships will be continued with the BNP (Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal, for the Alcobaça nucleus), BPMP (Biblioteca Pública Municipal do Porto, for the Santa Cruz collection) and DGARQ-ANTT (Direcção Geral dos Arquivos- Arquivo Nacional Torre do Tombo, for the Lorvão manuscripts) and Museu de Arte Sacra de Arouca.


Technical Note:

We started an interdisciplinary study on the colour of Portuguese medieval illumination on 2005, with the project "An interdisciplinary approach to the study of color in Portuguese manuscript illuminations", which was followed by "The identity of Portuguese medieval manuscript illumination in the European context". The output of this research has been very rewarding, an interdisciplinary team is fully operational and progress has effectively been made in the understanding of the history, artistic and cultural values as well as on the materials and techniques used to produce Portuguese medieval illuminations. The collaboration between art historians, librarians, chemists, conservators and curators has been a fruitful one and has brought new insights on the study of medieval illuminations. The results have been spread among scholars and the general public, namely through the the study of medieval illuminations. The results have been spread among scholars and the general public, namely through the organization of hands-on workshops on the practice of miniature painting based on the book "À descoberta da Iluminura Medieval, com o Livro das Aves e o Apocalipse do Lorvão", produced within the first project. In this project we propose to explore the issues related with the symbolic and social meaning of colour in medieval Portuguese illuminations, produced during the twelfth and first quarter of the thirteen centuries in monasteries that played an important role in the birth of Portugal, namely Alcobaça, Lorvão and Santa Cruz. Colour use and production in Portuguese medieval ages was a consequence of the technology available as well as of cultural and artistic options; by defining the specificities of colour use and production we will contribute to fingerprint the influences of these three different cultures. We will focus on the collections above described and we will use both the art historical data as well as the information on the materials and techniques. We will also make use of the knowledge acquired in our previous research and of the methodological and philosophical frameworks developed by Michel Pastoureau, John Gage and Manlio Brusatin. We propose to approach this subject from an art history and molecular sciences point of view and to correlate both, aiming to characterize the monastery scriptoria and their evolution over time, during the12th-13th centuries. We will start our study on colour by quantifying colour and colour combinations, in national manuscript collections (Task 1). The selection of dominant colours and colour combinations will be made in the Manuscript collections of Alcobaça (circa 170 Mss), Arouca (6 Mss), Lorvão (9 Mss) and Santa Cruz (42 Mss), for Portugal. We will afterwards proceed to the comparison with other international Romanesque collections, namely with Norman Manuscripts, Manuscripts of Southern France, Hispanic and French Cistercians Collections (Task 2). Colour quantification will be performed by acquiring, for each codex, the colour areas, and these, in turn, will be processed by computer image analysis. Data will be acquired from calibrated photos specially taken within this project. Firstly, only the principal medieval hues will be considered: red, blue, orange, yellow, green, white and black. If useful, an higher colour discrimination will be performed, such as the distinction between dark blue and blue as well as between red and dark red; mixtures and pure pigments, or other characteristics based on the molecular evidence. It will be discussed the relevance of using: i) colour calibrated digital images; ii) colorimetric data (such as Lab* coordinates). As degradation processes affect our perception of colour, analysis at the molecular level will be essential in order to avoid misinterpretations of the colour meaning and distribution. For the Portuguese collections, we have a full characterization of the main colorants and binders, at the molecular level [1, 2], which will enable us to overcome the obstacle produced by a possible colour alteration over time; knowing the materials of colour that were used we will be able to accurately predict what would be the final colour. By this analysis we will be able to test the strength and limitations of the approach based uniquely on a visual colour perception. To achieve all these goals two BI researchers will be necessary, one from the art history field (BI1) and another with a scientific background in conservation (BI2). Binders, the invisible component of a paint colour, may have a fundamental influence on colour perception; they also play a key role in the colour changes over time. In task 3, particular attention will be devoted to their complete characterization, by using non-conventional techniques recently applied in the field of cultural heritage, such as ELISA- antigen-antibody assay and fluorescence imaging. Also, with ELISA we would like to assess the possibility to discriminate the protein animal source in medieval illuminations paints (e.g., was the collagen binder extracted from goat, sheep, etc. skins). These results in turn will be compared with our findings in a previous project, further validating, or not, what we considered as one of its most promising issues: discrimination between proteinaceous binders, such as parchment glue, egg white and casein, based on infrared spectra and chemometric analysis. The immunologic assays will be tested with the collaboration and expertise of the IBET team members, Ana Matias and Teresa Serra. Another important aim of this project is to contribute to a better conservation of these valuable objects, and for that we also propose to assess the state of preservation of the collections of historical parchments, namely from the Santa Cruz and Alcobaça scriptoria, as well to develop a prototype for the binding of the Santa Cruz collection, and eventually to completely restore the cover of one of the original manuscripts (Task 5). As a result of our previous research in these codices we are able to say that this is a priority task, and that the team, together with Conceição Casanova, has the necessary know-how to deliver a positive result. In the framework of her PhD project (SFRH/BD/44192/2008), Inês Correia will also participate in the parchment assessment and characterization. Finally, within this project, we would like to explore new ways of spreading our results both among scholars as well as the general public, using conventional methods as well as innovative multimedia and pervasive computing technologies, Task 6. A book, describing the main findings and breakthroughs of our research concerning the use of colours in Portuguese medieval illuminations in a national and international context, will be prepared. In addition, the possibility of creating a web site where our results could be made available and consulted will be explored. Moreover, we aim at sharing our findings with the general public, from 4 to 99 years, but with the main focus on children, contributing to divulge the ancient art of illuminations through the exploration of modern computer interaction technologies. This will include the design and development of an interactive application that explores the integration of real and virtual objects to demonstrate the illumination’s creation process and to reveal its historical and social context, as well as the meaning of colours and representations used at the time. All team members will contribute to the multimedia content selection and acquisition. This task will be coordinated by the experts Nuno Correia and Teresa Romão, and will need the contribution of BI (BI3, 18 months, and BI4, 6 months) through a BI grant. These multimedia installations could be easily deployed and used in cultural sites, enriching an exhibition or in institutions where the books are preserved.


{ Project Info }

Coordinated by: Fundação da Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia (FFCT/FCT/UNL)

Project Type: PI ( International basic research or R&D projects )

Funding Entity: FCT / MCTES


Start Date: 2009-10-01 / Efective Start Date: 0000-00-00

End Date: 2011-09-30 / Efective End Date: 0000-00-00




{ CITI Participations }
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