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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.