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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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.

Lapis and Gold: Mounting folios of the Ruzbihan Qur’an

The Chester Beatty’s magnificent 890-page Qur’an by Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘I al-Shirazi (CBL Is 1558), forms the centrepiece for the Library’s next temporary exhibition, Lapis and Gold: the story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Over the past few years this incredible sixteenth century Persian manuscript has been subject to an extensive program of conservation and study, which has yielded a wealth of information about how it was produced. The exhibition presents many of these intriguing findings through the display of more than fifty of the currently disbound manuscript folios.

The manuscript was disbound in 2012 by book conservator Rachel Sawicki, to allow for its full conservation. She then carried out extensive paper repair, and former conservation intern Fiona McLees worked on the delicate task of pigment consolidation. The manuscript is now in good condition, and curator of the Islamic collections Dr Elaine Wright has taken the opportunity to have a number of the disbound folios mounted and framed for this beautiful exhibition.

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Positioning a folio in its bespoke window mount.

This presented an interesting challenge for the conservation team. As the folios will only be mounted temporarily for this exhibition, and won’t remain in their frames long-term, we needed to design an adaptable mounting system that would allow them to be easily removed when the exhibition is over. To minimise the introduction of moisture on the highly burnished and water sensitive Persian paper, we decided to mount the objects using Melinex V hinges from Secol. These were added on all edges of each opening, and offer a more temporary mounting system than our usual technique of Japanese paper hinges and wheat starch paste.

However, as these objects are folios from a book, our mounting system also needed to support up to three thicknesses of paper (one fully open bifolio and one closed bifolio on top of it, forming a full opening). How to secure the closed bifolio on three sides, whilst eliminating the risk of movement and bulk along the gutter (spine) edge of the folded bifolio was quite a challenge.

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Cross section of a typical opening formed of two bifolios.

In order to do so we created a mount prototype which introduced a 25 mm wide strip of polyethylene strap from Benchmark . By positioning the strap inside the folded bifolio and gently pulling it through slots in the mount board at the top and bottom of the folio, we could secure the bifolio with just a little gentle pressure.

To mark the position of the slots for the strapping we made small pencil marks about 1mm away from the edge of each bifolio at top and bottom. We then removed the object from the mount, and cut a slot between the pencil marks at a slight angle. When the object was returned to the mount, the strapping secured the folded bifolio in place on the mount board, and reduced any unwanted movement of the object. The angled slot provided sufficient friction to secure the strapping without the need for adhesive.

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Left: Positioning a bifolio using polyester strapping; centre: the closed and secured bifolio; right: the polyester strapping pulled through the angled slot to the back of the mount board.

This method was used to mount all of the manuscript openings which included folded bifolios as well. Once the strapping and folios were in place, Melinex V hinges were added around each opening to hold then in place. By staggering the position of the v hinges, we hope to have reduced the chances of the delicate paper cockling.

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Placing the temporary Melinex V hinges

This simple and yet unusual method of mounting the folios of the Ruzbihan Qur’an has proved very effective. It successfully provides the folded and otherwise precariously supported bifolios with an extra level of support which will keep them safe for the duration of the exhibition.

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Julia putting the finishing touches to a mounted and framed bifolio in the temporary gallery.

Mounting and framing these incredibly beautiful objects has been a real pleasure and we hope you will have a chance to see the exhibition when it opens.

Lapis and Gold: The Story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an, runs in the Chester Beatty Library temporary gallery from 15th of April to the 28th of August, 2016.

Lapis and Gold in the Irish Times, 14th April 2016.

Kristine will give a lunchtime lecture titled ‘Lapis and Gold: exploring Ruzbihan’s palette,’ on Thursday 28th April at 1.10pm in the Chester Beatty Lecture Theatre.