The Creation of Celtic Illuminated Gospels
A brief look at the techniques and tools
“An enemy ended my life, deprived me of my physical strength: then he dipped me in water and drew me out again, and put me in the sun, where I soon shed all my hair. After that, the knife’s sharp edge bit into me and all my blemishes were scraped away; fingers folded me and the bird’s feather often moved over my brown surface, sprinkling meaningful marks; it swallowed more wood-dye and again traveled over me leaving black tracks. Then a man bound me, he stretched skin over me and adorned me with gold; thus I am enriched by the wondrous work of smiths,
-A riddle from the tenth century “Exeter Book” describes the creation of an illuminated gospel from the preparation of vellum to the addition of gold ornamentation to the binding. Vellum for the pages of books was produced from the skins of sheep or calves. In the case of the Lindisfarne Gospel, the vellum pages were made of 129 folded leaves measuring over 24” x 15” with the spine of the animal running horizontally across the book, possibly using one animal for each sheet of vellum.
Once the sheets of vellum were ready, they were gathered together in a groups of four and folded to make eight leaves which would be bound together. The top page was then measured to lay out the writing text area of the pages. In order to lay out the text in a consistent manner, they were bundled together as they would be bound and prick marks were made through the entire bundle of leaves using a sharp stylus, or the point of a small knife. Each leaf would then be ruled in minimally obtrusive manner using a hard, dry stylus using the pricked holes as guides for the lines. In some manuscripts a very diluted ink was used to make the layout markings.
In areas of Europe bone or wood tablets have been found which have hollows in one, or both sides for holding a thin layer of wax. These were used as “erasable” sketch pads in which preliminary designs could be drawn before starting to mark the pages themselves. They could be used with a stylus that had a point on one end for writing, or drawing in the wax, and a flat end used for smoothing the wax to erase the work. These wax tablets were one of the essential every-day tools listed in the 5th -century Rule of Saint Benedict. They seem to have been so common that another surviving riddle describes one:
“Of honey-laden bees I first was born, but in the forest grew my outer coat; my tough backs came from shoes (leather thongs). An iron point in artful windings cuts a fair design, and leaves long twisted furrows, like e a plow.” For reenactors: How to make a wax tablet.
Styluses have been found in archeological digs that were made of bronze or bone that had been carved, or even turned on a simple lathe.
In the Lindisfarne Gospels, on pages that were intended for full-page illuminations such as the “cross-carpet” pages (So called because they sometimes resemble a stylized Oriental rug) the artist(s) avoided marring the pages with the rulings for the text. Three of the cross-carpet pages seem to have been created, and inserted separately rather than as part of the gatherings of pages described above. The layout and construction of the complex designs can be seen on the blank reverse sides of these pages. Prick marks, holes from the use of a compass, rulings and grid lines can be seen which were used to mark the page. Of course some of the complex curves had to be draw simply by eye, and although examples do not seem to have survived, they may also have used tools similar to a draftsman’s “French curve” to help lay out irregular curves. Occasionally corrections can be found. These corrections appear in the form of lines which would be inked or painted in that were lightly marked in the vellum with a dry stylus. With side-lighting, the modern observer can make out places where the artist changed his mind, or adjusted the lines as he inked them in. In the Book of Kells occasional spelling errors in the text were made by placing a dot in the center of the wrong letter and superscribing the correct letter above the word.
Not as intricate as the Book of Kells or Lindisfarne Gospels but to show off a little here are a couple slide show diaries looking at the process for my own larger Celtic art projects.