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Calligraphy & Illumination

Lady Caoilfhionn inghean ui Magil Ruanaidh

Anne of Brittany or Anne, Duchess of Brittany (25 January 1477 – 9 January 1514), was considered the last of the independent rulers of Brittany and ruled for a little over 25 years. Anne was heir apparent under Celtic law that gave her rights of succession in Brittany. Her education was similar to that received by princes of the age: she studied French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, natural science and mathematics, in addition to the ‘womanly’ arts of music, dancing, poetry, and embroidery. She was known to have much affection for the ordinary people of her realm perhaps influenced by her wet nurse who was from the west of Brittany and taught Anne the Breton language. She was also the Queen of two successive French kings, Charles VIII of France at the age of 14 and then seven years later to Louis VII of France (CBJ).

The Grande Heures was painted for Anne by Jean Bourdichon who was the court painter for Louis IX, Charles VIII, Louis VII and Francis I, taking 8 years to complete (1500-08). The M. Moliero website gives details of the book: Size: 305 x 200 mm (approx.11 3/4 x 7 5/8 in.), 476 pages with 49 full-page miniatures, 337 marginal illumi nations with plants, insects and small mammals.

The part on the “illumination with plants, insects and small mammals” was what I was interested in. I had originally found a copy of one of the folios (fol. 69v) in John Harthan’s Book of Hours that had bright purple/blue flowers, red berries and insects found in the garden. It is a depiction of bittersweet or woody nightshade. Also from the Moliero website come this description of the numerous botanicals,
The margins of this codex constitute a comprehensive, botanical treatise of more than 330 plants, with their scientific names in Latin at the top of the image and their common names in French at the bottom. Furthermore, this veritable herbal is dotted with brightly-colored insects and small animals that enhance the beauty and originality of each miniature. This is, in short, two codices in one: a spiritual book for meditation and prayer, and a natural encyclopaedia; a book of hours and a botanical treatise.
This amazing work is now housed in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

I used dry pigments that are supplied by Griffin Dyeworks & Fiber Arts, located in California. I found using them to be very different from the modern watercolors and gouaches I use. The time it takes to add pigment, water, and egg yolk as a binder while using a dressing plate and muller makes me appreciate the modern paints even more. Also the fact that I cannot reuse or rewet the pigment once it dries on a palette is a bit frustrating, I am accustomed to having the ability to rewet a mixed/custom color in order to keep working, but because of the use of egg yolk as a binder this was not possible. After the illumination was complete I learned that I could have used Gum Arabic as the binder and could have been able to save and reuse the mixed pigments (sometimes it is better to read ahead!!). Another thing that I noticed is that the pigment had to be stirred often or the colorant would settle to the bottom of the cupped palette that was used and would lose the concentration of color I was working with. There was a learning curve while working with pigments, each color seemed to work just a little different from each other, some were grittier (malachite) and others dried faster (india yellow) than the one before or took longer to mix because the pigment wanted to float on top of the water (vine black)!

The pigments that were used for this illumination were: Malachite, vine black, titanium white, india yellow, cote d’azur violet, cerulean blue, canary yellow, vermilion red, ultra-marine, pewter gray, carnelian orange, and viridian green. The background color of india yellow was applied with a small bit of natural sea sponge, the rest was painted using fine to medium brushes. I did mix the color for the flowers starting with the cote d’azur violet added ultra-marine and a touch of vermilion red. I was expecting it to give me a mud color and was nicely surprise when it worked out to a color somewhat close to what was shown in the Book of Hours. The rest of the pigments were used as is, with the only change being how much water and egg was added to each to change the concentration.

I did not want to copy the original exactly and so I drew out what I thought would be a rather close to the original in a 12 x 8 inch area leaving room for the calligraphy, the dimensions of the Grande Heures is 11 3/4 x 7 5/8 inches but I do not know if that is the page size or if it is the illumination size.

Once the drawing was complete, I transferred the design onto Arches Watercolor paper using graphite transfer paper. Yes, I would have loved to use parchment or vellum for this project but I needed to stay with what I had on hand to complete this project. After the design was transferred I used masking fluid to ‘mask’ off the areas that I didn’t want the background color to cover, then used painters tape to cover the border and the calligraphy area. This is very much a time saver because you are not painting around lines and trying to keep lines straight or worrying that the paint/pigment is even.

I tried to stay with one color at a time while working on the illumination, but found that I needed to layer the colors in order to get the effect I was wanting and found myself with 4 or 5 colors in the palette at one time.

Basically the paint progression was: Background, leaves and stems, flowers and berries; butterfly, caterpillar, beetle; than the shading.

Calligraphy Ink

Do you know that there are several recipes for ink? All of them different, all pretty much saying that they are medieval in origin. I could go with oak galls, or a mixture of galls and iron, another used walnut shells, and yet another added myrrh, and sulfate of iron. I was able to find a rather simple recipe using lampblack, a binder (Gum Arabic) and water. Surprisingly, this is what Indian or Chinese ink is made of when you buy it in sticks or cakes today!

I liked the idea of making this ink because I could use materials I had on hand. This ink also had many different ways to make it; one even added both Gum Arabic and egg yolk along with honey. There is also a recipe that used hide glue as the binder that I found useful. I stayed with just the Gum Arabic as the binder, and distilled water to thin it down. Using 2 parts lampblack and 1 part Gum Arabic, I stirred this in a small jar until I had a tar like consistency, then added distilled water until it was thin enough to write with. As a side note, lampblack is messy, it is very light and fine with a slight oiliness, wiping only smears it and has to be cleaned with soap and water and check your hands before picking up paper, especially the illumination you have been working on!

It was interesting to find out that it is thought that carbon inks were replaced by the various oak gall inks early in period and so the ink has a different time period than the illumination.

Quill Pen

Various sources agree that the use of the quill pen started in the 6th century and continued into the 1800’s when metal nibs came into being. The quill pen for this project was made from a right wing turkey feather, the shaft was stripped of about 3 inches of the feathers, the very tip of the quill was then hardened using hot sand. I have an old food warmer that heats up between

1500 to 1800 . I put the sand in an aluminum pan and warmed up the sand to about 1400 then put the quill in the sand for about 5 minutes. It took a little time to find information on cutting a quill and the fact that the tip needed to be hardened by heat. When I was ready to work on the calligraphy I shaped the pen by cutting the tip of the quill off, cleaned out the hollow of the shaft, cut a scoop shape from the back of the quill, put a split in the middle of the remaining shaft, then shaped a flat tip/nib point. At this time I was ready to do the calligraphy on my project.


With the ink and quill pen ready, I practiced writing with the quill in an Italic style or hand. According to The Calligraphers Bible, it originated in the Humanist minuscule, but it was more compressed and with a slight forward slope and dates to the middle of the 1400’s.

Because of the botanical illumination that was done, I choose scriptures that dealt with the flowering of the earth from the Bible, the Book of Genesis, to complete the look of a page out of a book of hours. In my opinion the finished calligraphy looks more like a combination of Italic and the uncial hand I practice from time to time. I feel that there is a combination of factors; the tip was still a little large for working with this hand and the ink could have been too thick, but it seemed very fluid while working with it, and a lot more practice. I also could see why there is a need to have more than one quill pen ready to be used. The tip didn’t really soften by the time I was done but there was a different feel to the writing and it doesn’t seem as ‘crisp’ as the first part.

The individual elements of this projects came from different time periods, the illumination style comes from the 1500’s, the ink from the early medieval period, the quill pen with the use spanning the whole medieval period and the style or hand of calligraphy that was popular in the mid-15th century. The mixture of these styles helped to make a unique piece, very different construction wise because of using as close to period methods as possible to complete it. I think the next illumination I try should have some gold leafing in part of it.

Bibliography and Sources:

Drogin, Mark. Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. Dover Publications Inc. New York 1980

Harris, David. The Calligrapher’s Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them. Quarto Publishing, London. 2003. Distributed by Barron’s Educational Series, New York

Harthan, John. Books of Hours. Thames and Hudson London 1977

Trimble, Bjo. Exploring Period Pigments 2nd ed. Griffin Dyeworks and Fiber Arts, California 2007

New Hampshire Historical Society. The Quill Pen.

The Central Brittany Journal (CBJ). July 2005.

M. Moliero - El Arte de la Perfeccion. The most prestigious company specialized in the identical reproduction of illuminated manuscripts and atlases

The Scriptorium - A collection of things medieval