Scribe at workThe Making of a MasterpieceScribe at work

Master Giles de Laval

In July 2003 Baroness Cathryn of Chester (former Lochac Chirurgeon) was raised to the Order of the Pelican, in recognition of her efforts in founding the Shire of Pont Alarch in the Kingdom of Drachenwald. Although unable to witness the ceremony at Scotland's Edzell Castle, I gladly accepted her commission to create a manuscript to commemorate her elevation.

In this project, my aim was to emulate as closely as possible to the working process of the medieval illuminator. I especially wanted to include the fashionable "intertextual" relationships between the layers of the image, and the optical tricks which were part of the illuminator's trade. An enormous challenge lay before me, but one after which (if successfully completed), I could honestly feel myself a competent master of my craft.

The project's inspiration was the Prayerbook of Charles the Bold, folio 22 Christ Appearing to St James the Greater. Commissioned by the Duke of Burgundy, the book was scribed by Nicolas Spierinc (1455-1499) of Ghent and illuminated by Lieven van Lathem (c1430- 1493) of Antwerp. I was captured by the page, its richness saved from being overwhelming by the subtlety of the monochrome border. To adapt such a work to an SCA context presented an intriguing challenge.

The patron supplied for this project a sheet of vellum measuring 203mm x 152mm (8" x 6"). The vellum was of very fine quality, an unblemished creamy-white which provided a superb working surface. Never having worked on vellum before, the piece also provided valuable technical lessons, much to my chagrin.

Although period dry pigments would have been more authentic, I had only worked with them on wood rather than paper or vellum, and was unsure if my inexperience would lead to later degradation of the work. I therefore chose Winsor & Newton gouaches, based on their availability and archival qualities, and my experience with the medium. I used top quality 000 sable brushes throughout, completely wearing out three during the project.

The heavily illuminated incipit pages beginning an Office or prayer generally used few lines of text. To retain the visual impact of the page, the lengthy traditional peerage text needed to be adapted to this small available space. In consultation with the Drachenwald Signet, the most important elements were prioritised to develop a minimalist wording in mediaeval Latin: "Iussu Rex Silvaedraco(ni)s Catherina Cestrensis Comitem Pelicani fit" ("By order of the King of Drachenwald, Cathryn of Chester is made a Companion of the Pelican"). I am indebted to Mistress Eleanor Lyttelhales for her advice on the translation; any errors remain my own. Details such as the date and royal signatures would be added on the reverse, and the Great Seal attached as a pendant. The script was modelled closely on Spierinc's elegant batarde hand, written with a goose quill in lampblack ink, with the first line rubricated in vermilion.

The border proved to be the most daunting and time-consuming aspect of the entire project, and revealed all too quickly my inexperience working on vellum. Attempting to achieve even paint coverage, I had laid the blue ground slightly too wet, causing minor cockling on the upper right; proper framing fortunately rectified this problem. The design elements such as the patron's Arms, the badge of the Pelican, and various animals and foliage needed to fit into a border measuring only 157 mm x 108mm (6" x 4"), and 39mm (1.5") at the widest.

Rather than designing the vignette (as borders were called during the 15th century) as a whole, each element was completed separately. Incomplete manuscripts indicate that this was a period practice, allowing the arrangement sufficient flexibility to adapt to the available space. Detailed drawings were made only of certain areas, to ensure that the elements would work together within the overall design.

Border elements in period were often traced or copied from a model book, so I reasoned that tracing individual designs once the slate-blue ground was laid would be simple enough. I quickly realised, however, that tracing would not be possible through the opaque ground. Nor was transfer or pouncing effective; all the figures would have to be painted freehand. This was presumably the case with dark borders in contemporary manuscripts, and freehand painting would have been unlikely to faze artists of van Lathem's or the Master of Mary of Burgundy's calibre.

The figures were drawn with a brush, in barely visible strokes of the watered shadow tone. Care had to be taken to place the drawing strokes exactly, as there was little margin for error. Once the form was established, highlights were placed in white, thinly mixed and applied with very fine, almost invisible strokes with an almost-dry brush. This method of shading, called limning, was the mainstay of illumination technique in fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and achieving remarkable technical sophistication in later Flemish and German work. A second, more viscous layer of white provided two light tones for each figure; the shadows were limned the same way, with the ground colour forming the middle tone. Rather than a simple dark blue, the shadow tone was based on alizarin crimson. Alizarin crimson laid over ultramarine is a painter's trick from the Gottingen Model Book later adopted by artists such as Titian, as it provides a richer and more visually recessive tone than dark blue, making it ideal for trompe-l'oeil modelling. This grisaille was more demanding than I suspected, with dark and light tones needing to be carefully balanced not only within each design, but with surrounding elements.

Amid the swirling acanthus foliage a bird, a lion, a wyvern and two butterflies are all detailed in shell gold. Behind the main design, shell gold stars peep through a tangle of briar rose, in arcs and sprays which echo and complement the larger elements. The patron's Arms in argent, azure and sable could fortunately be rendered well in the blue tones of the border. The Peer's cap of maintenance is delicately coloured the traditional crimson, surmounted by a coronet denoting her court Baronial rank. The achievement rests on a skull, a common medieval memento mori and a reminder that all honours are fleeting. Chosen for their late medieval symbolism, the "blue" flowers (from left iris, borage and heartsease) fit well into the colour scheme of the border.

My initial plan was to include an appropriately styled pelican in its piety in the border, however I realised this would have repeated the swan figure in the capital as well as interrupting the rhythm of white and gold elements that had developed. The border also needed a strong focal point; logically, that needed to be the pelican, but I was unsure how. The Nassau Hours yielded inspiration, folios 19v and 40 containing borders painted with jewels and pilgrim tokens, illusionistically "pinned" to the pages; a Pelican badge in this manner would be just the thing. I followed period practice in laying a ground of ochre, but rather than limn the design in shell gold, three layers of shell gold were built up over this, burnishing each layer once it was completely dry. The pelican was modelled after a contemporary silver-gilt cup in the form of a pelican in its piety (one drinks from the bird's bottom!), painted with a very dry brush. Direct observation of a gilded Papal medallion served as a guide to the highlights and shadows a relief design would cast. Finally the pin through the page- to my equal parts satisfaction and enormous, dizzy relief, the illusion worked.

Measuring just 72mm x 52 mm (3" x 2"), the miniature depicts St Catherine seated before a panoramic Flemish landscape. One of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages, St Catherine of Alexandria was chosen as the namesake of both the patron and her infant daughter, although the depiction of the figure closely resembles portraits of such worldly patrons as Mary of Burgundy, allowing for a double reading. The saint is identified by her attributes of the infamous wheel, lying broken on the ground before her and the book, recalling the saint's piety and the patron's love of the scribal arts. Identical stock images of St Catherine among others appear in numerous manuscripts, revealing period illuminators' reliance on model books. With only minor alterations, the same image is used interchangeably for virgin martyrs Saints Catherine and Barbara, although more often clad in more iconic "antique" clothing of the previous century rather than the fashionable Burgundian dress shown here. The vase of pinks beside her completes the floral parergon, revealing the qualities of devotion, courage, felicity and sacrifice needed to found an SCA chapter.

Modelled after the ethereal Chateau de Mehun-sur-Yevre, the fairy-tale like architecture of the castle seemed an appropriate symbol for the Society's dream of chivalry and courtoisie given form in the newly established Shire of Pont Alarch (whose swan badge adorns the capital and the castle gate). The distorted perspective combined with delicately observed tracery of the tower lanterns and chapel steeple deftly combines the stylistic transitions in late medieval art. I laboured not to overwhelm these delicate areas, examining architectural treatments in a number of manuscripts such as the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, Fouquet's Grandes Chroniques de France and Barthelemy de Eyck's Le Theseide. The effective period method was to render these highlights in opaque white, balancing the limned detail and shadowing on other portions of the structures.

Behind, the landscape recedes seemingly for miles, with views of a port city and distant forested crags as a metaphorical view of Drachenwald. Difficult to see here, the moat and river is actually laid silver washed with translucent green to give the effect of shimmering water; a technique used to great effect by the Limbourg brothers. This type of distinctive, atmospheric landscape was characteristic of Ghent-Bruges miniatures, pioneered by illuminators such as Lieven van Lathem, Simon Bening and the Master of Mary of Burgundy. The suggestion of space is created by a slightly "impressionistic" handling so that distant objects appear indistinct, and by carefully observed merging of tones in the rich but restrained colour palette. This illusion of immense depth was enhanced by the wide, meticulously detailed trompe-l'oeil borders characteristic of the period which advance visually from the plane of the page, and the metapictorial "window aspect" of the miniature, which recedes. This effect is most effective in brightly-coloured border treatments such as strewn flowers and insects on a golden ground; here the grisaille border forms a "shadow box", a shallowly recessed space with only the badge sitting deceptively above.

Although working the miniature from foreground to background, I was aware that medieval practice seemed to have been the reverse. Unfinished miniatures and analysis of working methods showed that illuminators commonly began with the sky and architectural backgrounds, moving to the foreground and figures. Details such as faces were finished last. (A similar method is advocated by Cennini for fresco and panel painting.) I was uncertain how this method could retain the characteristic luminosity of illuminated faces over layers of paint, so looked to contemporary sources to provide clues.

Lucas Hornebolte's miniature portraits evidence his training as a illuminator, feature a smooth layer of pale flesh tone known as carnation as the base for faces, with other colours blocked around these areas. Also borne out by Bening's work, this method is reiterated in Nicholas Hilliard's treatise on limning a century later (himself taught by Bening's daughter Levina Teerlinc). This lineage's close links with the Ghent-Bruges school suggest this approach is equally appropriate to the technical requirements of book illumination. The modified order of painting in this style would then be figures/facial details "reserved" in carnation first, before the background is completed, working towards the foreground and figure details.

The work was completed and delivered in January 2005; with a total 725 hours spent in research and execution, this manuscript represents my most heavily invested scribal project for the SCA. Fortunately, the patron was pleased.


Intertextual- the arranged relationships between elements appearing in different, and supposedly disconnected, visual layers of a painting, fashionable in fifteenth-century Flemish art.

Trompe l'oeil- an illusion which tricks the eye into perceiving a painted detail as a three-dimensional object.

- a separate symbolic narrative contained within a larger work, which may complement or differ from the main narrative.

Metapictorial- a development of Flemish art where an image self-consciously references its own artificiality, by departing from the conventions of visual narrative (ie framed "windows", pinned parchments or jewels, a painted fly "landing" on an illusionistic border).

Selected References and Further Reading

Alexander, J J G. The Master of Mary of Burgundy: A Book of Hours for Engelbert of Nassau, New York: George Braziller, 1970.

Alexander, J J G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Borchert, Till-Holger, ed. The Age of Van Eyck: the Mediterranean world and early Netherlandish painting 1430-1530, London: Thames & Hudson, 2002.

Cennini, Cennino, trans. D. V. Thompson Jr. The Craftsman's Handbook: Il Libro dell'arte, New York: Dover, 1933 reprinted 1980

Coombs, Katherine. The Portrait Miniature in England, London: V&A Publications, 1998.

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

Hitchens, Megan. The Gottingen Model Book (unpublished reconstruction), 1990.

Kren, et al. Masterpieces of the J. Paul Getty Museum: illuminated manuscripts, London, Thames and Hudson,1997.

Nash, Susie. "Imitation, invention or good business Sense? The use of drawings in fifteenth-century French Books of Hours", in Stuart Currie, ed. Drawing 1400-1600: Invention and Innovation, Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998.

Stoichita, Victor. The Self-Aware Image: an insight into early modern meta-painting, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)