Neven (2013 Congress)

Sylvie Neven (FRS-FNRS, Université de Liège, and Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin), “Through Artists’ Recipe Books:  Knowledge in and Transmission of Late Medieval Illuminators’ Recipe Books”

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”
Organized by Sarah J. Biggs (The British Library / The Courtauld Institute of Art)
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
2013 Congress

[First published on our first website on 15 May 2013 and updated on 8 December 2014]

This paper considers the interest in and the written transmission of medieval illuminators’ craft knowledge, through close examination of an original and primordial historical source:  artists’ recipe books.  The study is based on systematic research of the corpus of more than 400 recipe manuscripts, dating from about 1300 to 1500, produced mostly in Northern Europe.

To date, most of these written sources have been largely unknown and unpublished.  In order to facilitate their consultation and exploitation, a detailed database containing records of and information for every recipe in these books has been established.  So far, more than 300 manuscripts have been examined and 5000 recipes have been transcribed and systematically recorded in the database.  The majority of these texts consists mainly of prescriptions for the manufacture of pigments and colorants, as well as of glues, mediums, inks, etc.  Some also describe the preparation of supports, the applications of pigments, including tempering, modelling, suitable mixtures, the use of gold and silver in gilding, and their imitations.

In this talk, I demonstrate that these recipe books increase knowledge of the materials and techniques used both by illuminators and scribes in the making of manuscripts and the embellishment of printed books.  I also argue that some recipe books can be used to identify and delimit specific, datable practices and productions, especially when their compilers specify the name and/or place of origin of the artists from whom they obtained their information.  In addition, it is possible to observe the development of specific artistic procedures and technical traditions, and to perceive in which ways they have been modified over time or by other external phenomena.  Thus recipe books allow us to study the geography, chronology, circulation, and transmission of the ‘practical knowledge’ of artists.

A finely-tuned interconnection between artists’ recipe books and historical practices is revealed through specific cases in a delimited corpus of texts, grouped under the name of the ‘Strasbourg Tradition’.  The oldest witnesses of this textual and technical tradition were written in Southern Germany and Northern France between 1400 and 1500, composed partly from an older Alsatian treatise on illumination.  The chronological and geographical framework in which these books circulated, as well as the techniques and the characteristics of the materials that they describe, reveal specific and localized illuminators’ practices.  Experimental reconstructions of recipes and comparison with historical witnesses in works of art created in the same area highlight correspondences between the recipes of the Strasbourg Tradition and medieval Alsatian illuminators’ workshops.  An opportunity to carry out technical and analytical studies on several manuscripts produced in Northern Europe, including a relevant example attributed to an Alsatian illuminator’s workshop — the Ms. Wittert 3 preserved at the University of Liège — allow a more accurate estimation of the close connection between this written tradition and contemporary practices.

Finally, a consideration of the cultural context in which these recipe books were produced — through external information related not only to the authorship but also to the composition and the reception of these books — makes it possible better to estimate the significance of the attention and interest which both artists and contemporary scholars accorded to specific aspects of artistic knowledge, especially those related to the making of manuscripts.


Update: We report the launch of Dr. Neven’s Colour ConText database dedicated to artistic and colour recipes in late-medieval and early-modern Europe.  The current version is accessible here.

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  1. […] Sylvie Neven (FRS-FNRS, Université de Liège, and Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin), “Through Artists’ Recipe Books:  Knowledge in and Transmission of Late Medieval Illuminators’ Recipe Books” Neven (2013 Congress) […]