Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Gold

It’s hard to believe that our current exhibition Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an will close on Sunday 28th August, however we are delighted that over 103,000 visitors have had a chance to see it so far.

We hope to encourage you to come and visit the exhibition before it closes with this post on gold – the second most abundant colour on the pages of this spectacular 16th century Persian manuscript.

Precious metals such as gold and silver are used frequently in manuscript illumination. They are applied as thinly beaten metallic leaf or finely ground to form powdered shell colours that can be used as paint. Shell gold is named after the mollusc shells that this precious paint was frequently stored in during the medieval period.

As we discovered with ultramarine (see our previous post here), gold has been used on every page of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. It has been applied exclusively as a powdered gold paint. The gold has been applied directly to the paper with no evidence of a preparatory ground layer as is often the case in the European manuscript tradition. It has been burnished selectively to highlight scrolling motifs, and pricked with a sharp point to create further visual interest.

Gold is almost always the first colour to be applied to each page of the manuscript, but it is also applied over other colours, including ultramarine.

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f.185a, a wealth of gold techniques.

Gold is routinely painted over in the Ruzbihan Qur’an. These painted details have not always adhered to the surface of the unburnished gold paint successfully, and the illumination has sometimes fractured and flaked away from the surface of the gold, particularly where the details are painted using red and white lead containing mixtures.

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Flaking lead white on gold f.3a and f.443a.

The gold sprinkled grounds seen behind the panels of large-scale script throughout the textblock are also applied as powdered gold paint, and the characteristic round droplet shape is clear under magnification. These sprinkles have been used alone, over lines of small-scale black naskh script, or layered with a translucent pink—most probably safflower.

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Gold and pink sprinkled grounds on folios f.79a and f.20b.

Towards the end of the manuscript, the use of two shades of gold further enhances the lustre of the folios. Although only pure gold was identified in the Ruzbihan Qur’an, the use of gold alloys and different carats of gold for visual affect has been identified in studies of 16th century Islamic miniature painting.

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

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

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