The Curious Case of the Pigmented Parchment: The Mystery and Challenges of the “Morgan Leaf”
Color has always been a property of nature that inspired wonder and sparked creativity. In today’s world of instant capture and synthesis of just about everything, it’s easy to forget that artists of the past had to invent their own ways to bring the rainbow to the ground (so to speak) and incorporate the evocative properties of color into their work; easy, that is, until the time comes to take stock of its condition.
To start at the beginning, we must revisit 12th Century England, where the Winchester Bible — a monumental work of art in large-scale book form — was first commissioned around 1160. The long and labor-intensive project was ambitious from the outset, requiring the difficult procurement of over 250 hides that were then processed into high-quality parchment.
“The text in the Latin of St Jerome, was handwritten on 468 sheets (folios) of calf-skin parchment, each measuring 23 by 15.75 inches (583 x 396 mm).” Folded down the center, the sheets made up a total of 936 pages. Likely using a goose feather quill, the single scribe tasked with completing the work could have spent up to an entire day working on text for a single page.
But our part of the story really begins at the next step, with the addition of illustrative and decorative painted miniatures commonly called illuminations. Over the course of 25 years, six or more artists worked to create the visual enhancements to the Westminster texts. Their names are not known, but in the 1940s, art historian Walter Oakeshott assigned them honorary titles based on their contributions.
Although the artists mostly “employed basic pigments of the period taken from mineral, animal, and plant sources,” some were rather expensive — such as gold leaf and the blue lapis lazuli, which was only sourced in Afghanistan. Portions of the book were never finished, but a series of snapshots of where the work stopped make it possible to discern the stages of the process, which consisted of several steps.
First, “the intention was to prefix each book of the Bible with an historiated initial (one with a figurative illustration in it), usually related to the text.” A total of 48 were completed in red, green, and blue ink. Illustrations followed, with full-page frontispieces being added to three books of the Bible as an afterthought; the Morgan Leaf is one of them.
The front of the leaf depicts the beginning of The Book of Samuel and concludes with Samuel’s anointing of Saul as Israel’s first king. The back illustrates the life of David, Saul’s son and successor, starting with his slaying of Goliath to his mourning of his son Absalom.
“The underdrawings on the leaf are by the Master of the Apocrypha Drawings, who also did the other two full-page drawings still preserved in the manuscript (but not colored). The presumably younger collaborator, nicknamed... the Master of the Morgan Leaf, was responsible for the illumination of the David scenes, clearly his masterpiece.”
The leaf gets its name from financier John Pierpont Morgan (1837 — 1913), who purchased the artifact in 1912 for 30,000 francs at a Sotheby's auction in New York City. Morgan was a lover of art, science, and history, and the Morgan Leaf — which is the only completed full page leaf in the entirety of the Winchester Bible — was the perfect final addition of its kind to his extensive collection of rare and significant objects.
Today, the collection is housed at The Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan, which was his family’s primary residence. But how did the leaf get from London to New York?
Experts are fairly confident that the leaf was removed from the Bible when the manuscript was rebound sometime around 1820, though some have suggested it was never inserted in the manuscript to begin with.
But, in The Winchester Bible (1993), Claire Donovan makes the argument that the strong discoloration on the back of the leaf as well as on the front of folio 88 of the Bible proves the artifact was, indeed, inserted into the book; and that the book, opened on this particular page, was on display and accumulating dust and other pollutants for what is likely centuries.
Be that as it may, the leaf appears to have ended up in the possession of a Florentine dealer by the end of the Century, until it was finally purchased and added to Morgan’s impressive collection. A little over 100 years later, the Morgan Leaf was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its Winchester Bible exhibition from late 2014 to early 2015, but not before a problem was identified and corrected.
At the Morgan, any medieval manuscript slated for a loan has to go through a full pigment stability check. During the standard procedure, conservation scientist Lindsey Tyne, discovered that the pigments on both the front and the back of the artifact were not flaking, but were actually “unstable from their binder base through the pigment,” which made the binder act “as if it was a pile of sand that began to crumble when tested for stability with a thin brush.” At the time, because of the organic nature of the pigments, a medium would be required to bind them to the parchment.
“The binders used for vellum (which would have been thoroughly scraped down to open the surface to receive the binders) were egg white (glair), egg yolk, rabbit skin glue and gum arabic, as they could be used for small surfaces and imagery and, the gum arabic especially, enhancement and glazing,” explains certified appraiser and medievalist Lisa Ramaci. “For plaster-coated walls it was solely egg tempera, as that could be used over much larger areas, given the relative ease of making it in quantity.”
The wall paintings at Winchester Cathedral, the ancestral home of the Winchester Bible, are made up of the same pigments as the Morgan Leaf, including blue (ultramarine), red (vermilion), orange (red lead), green (copper-based verdigris or malachite), yellow (iron oxides), black (carbon), and white (lead white). One major difference is the presence of vivianite in the cathedral’s wall paintings; a substantial amount of calcium carbonate was used as a base for the pigments.
Ramaci believes that because illumination painting technique had achieved high levels of sophistication since, at least, the creation of The Book of Kells in the 9th Century, the unusual situation with the Morgan Leaf is similar to Leonardo’s paint formulation for the Last Supper (created between 1495 and 1498) — “an experiment gone awry.” But, luckily, thanks to the Morgan staff’s expertise and strict loan procedures, the pigments and the artifact itself were successfully stabilized.
Today, the pigments and binders that were in use during the Middle Ages are still available, though not widely employed. As evidenced by a visit to the pigment and paint shop of Art Guerra, many artists still enjoy playing with the dynamic between dry pigment, filler, and binder, which they combine according to their own recipes and inspiration. A few old school pigments are still go-to’s today, such as the yellow ochre that is similar or identical to the iron oxide used by the Master of the Morgan Leaf centuries ago.
Thanks to the care and study it has been given, the Morgan Leaf’s removal from the Winchester Bible will help future conservators preserve more of the beauty and grace which blossomed at the hands of artists across bygone ages and cultures. In the end, we count on the dedication of institutions like The Morgan Library & Museum and their conservators to keep fresh inspiration that dates back across centuries and even millennia, in full color.
Note* 1,2,3 Images of the Winchester Bible and Winchester Cathedral were sourced from the public domain via Wiki; Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837—1913) in 1912, Morgan Leaf Images sourced from The Morgan Library & Museum; Photo of yellow pigment by Linda DiGusta.