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Foiled manuscript with a camel, elephant and birds.

Color in Medieval Manuscripts Realized Through Alchemy


Alchemy didn’t only seek the philosopher’s stone or immortality; its practice resulted in knowledge of chemistry and some of the most vibrant pigments in the world...

Beyond its own metaphysical beauty, alchemy was the antecedent to modern chemistry. During the Middle Ages, its practice led to the discovery of many substances, and knowledge of their properties and qualities remains useful even to this day. Beyond alchemy’s intent to convert metals into gold, or to distill an elixir of eternal life, the discipline also achieved things that we might consider more modest which were nevertheless important. Some of these were the results of experiments and among these was the syntheses of the pigments used in illuminated manuscripts.

To produce the colors which would illuminate such books, pigments were often extracted from elements which had the desired tones (among them, minerals and salts). These were pulverized and mixed with a substance to work as a glue or binder. Many of the brightest pigments, though, didn’t come directly from nature, but resulted from mixtures and alchemical processes perfected only by trial and error.

Medieval alchemists – whose discipline encompassed philosophy, astrology, and medicine – explored the nature of substances, their mixtures, and the results of their combinations. The results were the pigments which still shine within many illuminated manuscripts. One of the tones most often used, gold, resulted from a combination of tin and sulfur. Verdigris came from exposing copper to the vapor of vinegar, wine, or even urine. And vermilion, an intense red, resulted from a mixture of sulfur and mercury.

illuminated manuscript with two children and an adult

Perhaps alchemy didn’t manage to turn lead into gold, and alchemists never found an elixir of immortality (so far as we know). Still, their practice helped to give us many of the most beautiful illustrations in the world, an aesthetic replete with magic and symbol, and knowledge surprisingly still illuminating some of the most valuable illustrated books in the world, a fact that might be recognized as a minor miracle.

In this video, from the Getty Museum and intended to accompany the exhibition “The Alchemy of Color in Medieval Manuscripts,” briefly explains how the alchemists managed to create their pigments, why they’ve survived time and how it has transformed them.

Images: 1) Public Domain 2) British Library, Public Domain

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