Biggs (2013 Congress)

Sarah J. Biggs
The British Library / The Courtauld Institute of Art)
“Poisonous Gold:  Medieval Orpiment and the Search for a Divine Yellow”

Abstract of Paper at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2013)

Session on “The Making of Medieval Manuscripts:  Analyzing the Materials and Methods of Scribes, Compilers, and Artists”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Sarah J. Biggs (The British Library / The Courtauld Institute of Art)
2013 Congress

[First published on our first website on 17 May 2013]

The colour yellow presented unique challenges for medieval artists, particularly those who worked on manuscript illumination.  Much was demanded of yellow pigments, although, according to Thompson, ‘of all their uses, perhaps the least important was to represent yellow things.’(1)  Yellow pigments were necessary for admixtures with other colours, but one of the vital applications was to simulate the beauty of gold, when the precious metal itself was either unavailable or too expensive.  The glint of gold was closely associated in the medieval mind with the perfection of God, and gold was believed to be near-divine, eternal and indestructible.

The majority of the pigments that could represent this holy colour were not, however, so durable.  Organic pigments were derived by colour-makers from sources as diverse as fish bile, saffron, cow urine, and herbs, and constant refinements were attempted.  However, most of the resulting organic yellow pigments were subject to fading, and were therefore rejected by medieval illuminators aware of their ‘fugitive character’.  The only source of truly authentic yellow, it seemed, was orpiment.

Orpiment’s colour superiority is reflected in its very name, which derives from the Latin auripigmentum, or ‘gold pigment.’ In his Libro dell’ Arte, the 15th-century artist and author Cennino Cennini described orpiment as ‘a handsome yellow more closely resembling gold than any other colour,’ although he warned his reader to ‘beware of soiling your mouth with it, lest you suffer personal injury.’(2)  The injury could well be fatal; the term for orpiment in Greek – ἀρσενικόν (arsenikon) – eventually developed into our current term for orpiment’s main constituent, arsenic.

Medieval warnings about orpiment abound; every known recipe book in which orpiment is mentioned also features a note of caution.  We are told that careless use of orpiment can result in the death of an unwary artist, but also that that orpiment reacts badly with many other pigments, and even that ‘it is not good to use orpiment on parchment.’  For decades art historians have believed that these blunt warnings were evidence of orpiment’s unpopularity; it has even suggested that the pigment went out of fashion in the 9th century once its true danger had been recognized.

But recent scientific testing has shown that the repeated medieval warnings about orpiment were a sign not so much of its decline as of its continued and consistent use.  Raman spectroscopy has identified orpiment in manuscripts ranging from the 9th to the 16th centuries from across all of Europe and the Middle East.  This paper considers the history of orpiment’s medieval use through both the books that describe it and those that include it, highlighting manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, Paris Bibles, and Persian codices, and the Icelandic Skardsbok, and advocates a new appreciation of the pigment’s crucial importance for medieval art.


(1) Daniel V. Thompson, The Materials of Medieval Painting (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1932), p. 174.

(2) Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook:  The Italian ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’, translated by Daniel V. Thompson (Mineola:  Dover Publications, 1933), pp. 28-29.


Note:  The post by Sarah J. Biggs (30 July 2012) to the British Library blog on Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts provides an illustrated announcement for both her session and all our sessions for the 2013 Congress, with pertinent illustrations:  Once More Beneath the Surface.  Call for Papers for Kalamazoo 2013.  Pretty!



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