Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Ultramarine

This is the first of a number of posts which will explore the palette of the Ruzbihan Qur’an, the spectacular 16th century Persian manuscript currently at the centre of our exhibition Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

In late 2013 and early 2014, two rounds of non-invasive scientific analysis helped to identify the pigments used by calligrapher Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi and his team of artists. The pigment analysis was part of a larger research project to increase our knowledge of mid-16th century Shirazi artists’ materials and techniques, contributing to a fuller understanding of the working methodologies of Islamic book artists at this time.

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Examining folios from the Ruzbihan Qur’an (CBL Is 1558) with scientists from MOLAB® (left) and curator Dr Elaine Wright (right) in the conservation lab.

The European Commission funded MOLAB® Transnational Access Service, sponsored two teams of dedicated scientists, who travelled to Dublin from Italy and France. Working with our curator and conservators, using analytical techniques such as X-ray fluorescence, FT-IR reflectance and Raman spectroscopy, the expert teams were able to scientifically identify the pigments used on this manuscript.

As expected, this confirmed that the colours used in the Ruzbihan Qur’an are made from both organic and inorganic materials. Gold is used liberally throughout the manuscript, but in spite of its lavish use the predominant colour of the Ruzbihan Qur’an’s palette is Ultramarine, the precious blue pigment derived from the naturally occurring mineral Lapis lazuli.

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Lapis lazuli and the pigment Ultramarine (left); the location of the Lapis lazuli mines (right).

The semi-precious stone, Lapis lazuli, has been mined at Sar-e-sang in northern Afghanistan since antiquity. Its rarity and lustrous colour meant it was particularly valued for jewellery and sculpture, but the deep blue pigment yielded by the stone was also a highly sought-after product. Ultramarine, the blue pigment obtained from Lapis lazuli, was difficult both to extract from the stone, and to paint with. It was an extremely expensive product, frequently costing the medieval artist considerably more than its weight in gold.

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A wealth of blues, all painted with Ultramarine, are used throughout the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

Part of this high cost was due to the fact that when Lapis lazuli is crushed and ground down, it can yield an uninspiring grey-blue powder due to the presence of numerous impurities such as calcite and iron pyrites. The ground stone must be carefully processed in order to extract the precious colouring material, lazurite (a sulphur containing aluminosilicate mineral). The precise method of production remains shrouded in mystery, and added to the desirability of this pigment known in Europe only as ‘from across the sea.’

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An amazing array of tones used by the artists of the Ruzbihan Qur’an.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the high cost of natural Ultramarine, it has not been saved and used sparingly across the pages of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Instead, it can be seen on every page, in every tone, and in every possible combination. This is in keeping with other spectroscopic studies, which clearly demonstrate that Ultramarine was the most commonly used blue pigment in Islamic illuminations, but its abundance and beauty in the Ruzbihan Qur’an is truly unique.

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an is on display until the 28th August at the Chester Beatty Library. We do hope you can come and explore Ruzbihan’s palette for yourself.

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Shared experiences in Copenhagen

In April, I had the chance to fly to Denmark to be part of the 16th International Seminar on the Care and conservation of manuscripts, which was held in Copenhagen from the 13th to the 15th of April, 2016. It took place in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen. During the three days of the conference various topics were debated, from preservation and conservation case studies, to digital imaging and bookbinding history.

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The Faculty of Humanities, Copenhagen University.

The quality of presentations was very high, and it was difficult to choose a favourite. Going through my notes, I selected the ones that particularly raised my interest; Michaelle Biddle’s talk about her work in Nigeria, and Marco di Bella and Nikolas Sarris’ presentation about the conservation challenges they faced in Ethiopia were both fascinating. Their creativity carrying out conservation treatments in a less than ideal environment was admirable.

Bookbinding history was well illustrated by Frederick Bearman’s talk on laced overband bindings, and Abigail Quandt’s research on purple-dyed parchment manuscripts. I also learned a lot about digitisation and its possibilities for conservation purposes through, Alberto Campagnolo’s presentation. He demonstrated his PhD research in creating a digital model of the collation of bookbindings. Multi-spectral imaging was also discussed in Michael Toth’s presentation and demonstration.

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Marco di Bella and Nikolas Sarris’ presentation,“The conservation of a 15th-century large parchment ms of Gädlä säma ‘tat from the monastery of Ura Mäsqäl: Further conservation experiences from Easty Tigray, Ethiopia.”

Finally, I greatly enjoyed Matthew Collins talk about the York biomolecular study of parchment. Using a non-invasive rubbing technique, the York laboratories have managed to extract DNA from old parchment, therefore enabling the study of the animals (such as their species, age, size, etc.) used to create writing supports.

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Presenting my paper with prof. Lieve Watteeuw, “Sewing threads in hand-made West European bookbinding: Historical sources, imaging and analytical assessment (12th– 19th century).”

On the final day of the conference, I also had the privilege to present my MA research project in collaboration with Professor Lieve Watteeuw (KU Leuven, Faculty of Arts, Illuminare – Centre for the Study of Medieval Art). Our presentation, “Sewing threads in hand-made Western European bookbinding: Historical sources, imaging and analytical assessment (12th -19th century)”. It was a wonderful experience and I was delighted to be able to share the results of my MA research with the audience, a subject you can read more about in my previous blog post here).

Attending the conference was also an amazing opportunity to meet other professionals in the field and to discuss conservation! Finally, on the last day of my trip, I even had a few hours to discover how beautiful Copenhagen is.copenhagenThe conference was a huge success, with approximately 220 participants from all around the world. I hope I will have the chance to go back to Copenhagen soon, and attend the next “Care and conservation of manuscripts” conference in April 2018.

Cécilia Duminuco, Heritage Council Intern.