Biggs (2012 Congress)

Sarah J. Biggs
(The British Library and The Courtauld Institute of Art)
“Pigments, Painters, and the Parc Abbey Bible:  A Case Study in Romanesque Illumination”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2012)

Session on “Material and Craft Aspects of Manuscript Production”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Sean M. Winslow
2013 Congress

[Published on our first website on 21 May 2012]

The three-volume Parc Abbey Bible (London, British Library, Additional MSS 14788–14790) was produced for the Premonstratensian Abbey of St. Marie at Parc, near Louvain in present-day Belgium.  The first two volumes contain a pair of matching colophons attesting to their production in 1148.  The third volume has no colophon.  While it is probably roughly contemporaneous with the other two, scrutiny of its codicology and layout indicate that it may have been completed separately.  The Bible contains most of the expected texts for a Bible of its time, albeit without the Psalms and Gospels, but it also includes two additional texts, added after the main body of work, perhaps up to fifty years later.  The end of the first volume has a genealogy of Christ resembling those in the Floreffe and Foigny Bibles (British Library, Additional MSS 17738–39 and Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MSS latin 15177–80).  The second volume has a series of Pascal tables and annals, also similar to other examples from the period.

So far, scholars considering this Bible agree that a single master artist was responsible for the illuminations of the first two volumes of the manuscript, whilst two additional and different artists, working in tandem, carried out the work of the third.  But a close analysis of the illuminations reveals that the project of illumination is much more diverse and complex.  Style, painting techniques, and pigment choices demonstrate that apparently two or more artists laboured over the first two volumes of the manuscript, a group of additional artists of varying degrees of skill completed the last volume, and a later miniaturist added images to the genealogy section.

This complexity offers potential for advancing knowledge both in particular and general cases, for studies of the Romanesque (and other) periods.  Scholarship on Romanesque illuminations has centred on subjective issues of attribution and style, without substantive evidence to support its conclusions.  Consequently, I have examined the Parc Abbey Bible in the Conservation Studio of the British Library, by studying each of the 100–plus miniatures and historiated initials under infrared spectroscopy. The Library’s MuSIS (Multi-Spectral Imaging) System examines whichever specimen with 22 different wavelengths of light.  The resulting reflectance spectra can help to identify many pigments precisely.

My initial results yield useful data.  Previously the blue pigment found extensively in miniatures throughout the three volumes was described as azurite (because of its ‘watery’ appearance).  My analysis reveals that it is instead the much more expensive lapis lazuli.  Examination of under-drawings with infrared reveals that the artists varied widely in their fidelity to the initial sketches of illuminations, with significant implications for workshop practice.  Especially gratifying is the discovery that the illuminations appearing to be different stylistically actually are different under the microscope.  It appears that different artists indeed worked on the Bible, and they made use of their own blends of materials and pigments whilst painting.


Sarah’s post (07 May 2012) to the British Library blog on Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts gives an illustrated glimpse of her talk and this session.  Please have a look:  Beneath the Surface