Back in the winter of 2013-2014, I had the wonderful opportunity to see a show at the Getty Center in Los Angeles called “Canterbury and St. Albans.” The show featured stained glass windows from Canterbury Cathedral and pages from the St. Albans Psalter, an illuminated book of Psalms from the early 12th century. Usually when one sees a manuscript on display in a museum, it’s a book opened to show one spread of two pages. But in this case, the Psalter had been taken apart for restoration and rebinding. So instead of just two pages, many pages were displayed. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity for the public to see so much of a medieval book all at once.
Alongside this exhibit, the Getty offered a one-day class in Manuscript Illumination techniques taught by artist Sylvana Barrett. In the class we each took a detail from one of the Psalter pages to paint on parchment. Here’s mine, one of the Magi pointing at the Star. It measures 5” x 7”.
I really enjoyed illumination. It had many features in common with iconography, but there were some important differences. Most notably, since with illumination the goal is to produce an entire book, the process is more streamlined than that of painting a panel icon. Instead of starting with base coats in the darkest colors and layering several different highlights on top, we started with the middle tone as our base coat. Then we added shadows and highlights. The highlights themselves were simpler and more abstracted, mostly just white lines.
This past fall I had an opportunity to try my hand at illumination in my home studio. Of all subjects to portray as a manuscript illumination, the four Evangelists felt the most fitting to me. I consulted a book of Russian illuminations for inspiration on three of the four evangelists. For the fourth, I looked at prototypes of panel icons.
The one area where I veered from tradition was in gilding on paper. I didn’t have a month to make the historical fish glue size. (Fish glue is much more flexible than rabbit glue; it was used so the gilding would withstand the turning of pages.) Instead I went with a modern product that is popular with calligraphers, but I had to thin it down significantly to keep the paper from buckling too much. For this experiment I used paper parchment instead of skins, but painting on real animal skin parchment was so much nicer that I think I will use it in the future.
Planning a grouping instead of a single icon meant deciding on an overall color scheme. I sketched out in color pencil ahead of time on photocopies of my drawings, to determine how I wanted the colors to work in the composition. I also stuck with brighter and clearer colors as they did in medieval illuminations, instead of the earthier tones I usually paint with on panel icons.
In addition to using brighter colors, I also highlighted and shaded the faces and garments the “Romanesque” way that I learned from the class at the Getty. I started with base coats in the middle value, then layered shadows and highlights over it. Instead of just one highlight of white lines, I stayed with the Byzantine method of adding first a highlight in a lighter value than the base coat. Then I added the white lines to correspond to “third light” in Byzantine icons.
Each illumination measures 5”x7”, so each of the faces is about the size of a dime. They are matted with white museum matt and framed in a simple black frame. The overall size is 11”x14”. The work was a bit finicky because of the small size but fun nonetheless. I had a great time working on these illuminations and hope to do more someday.