Book of Hours: Annunciation folio B6

Although the medieval period is often referred to as the "Dark Ages", we know from what has survived over the centuries—such as painted ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate books of hours—that the application of vibrant colour in art was important to the people of this period. This was primarily the case because medieval Christians believed that colours radiated the divine spirit.
Books of hours were richly illuminated with pigments derived from plants, minerals, and metals available at the time. Teams of artists would often collaborate in the illumination of manuscripts; each artist would focus on a different element of the page, such as the initial, the decorations on the borders, and the miniature pictures. These artists would typically use the three most important colors of the medieval palette: vermillion, ultramarine, and gold.
Of all these colours, gold was the most precious. Medieval artists deemed it the only colour appropriate to glorify God, and thus they extensively incorporated it into various elements of churches in order to create an impression of bright radiance in places of worship. The devout also desired its inclusion in books of hours, as these texts were understood to facilitate a closer connection with God. Goldbeaters pounded gold coins into thin leaves and applied them to manuscript pages in the creation of resplendent images or decorations; this "gold leaf" would be applied before the ink in this process. It was used to illuminate initials, halos, and the trims of the clothing worn by significant figures in the miniatures.
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There were several different shades of red that medieval scribes could choose from; these were produced from different sources and recipes. Vermillion had a mystical aura as alchemists produced it by mixing sulfur and mercury, a process that supposedly culminated in the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone. "Carmine lake" was a red dye that was produced from either the Kermes or Cochineal insects. Another source of red pigment was produced by grinding the mineral cinnabar. 

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Lapis Lazuli

Blue was the most celebrated colour used in medieval illumination. The most expensive shade of this colour was ultramarine, which meant "beyond the seas". It came from the lapis lazuli rock, which was mined from the Afghanistan area and imported into Europe via ports in Italy. Ultramarine was reserved for the virtuous, and therefore illustrators typically only used it to paint the robe of the Virgin Mary. For other, more mundane usage, azurite from the Mediterranean area was ground, made into an ink, and applied. Dyes from the herbs woad and indigo were other sources of blue. For a luxurious blue, the cheaper azurite would sometimes be used as an under-paint with the more expensive ultramarine used as a glaze. 


Book of Hours: Nativity folio D3

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