Starting from Scratch #6 – Palette


There are several hundred thousand medieval documents in European libraries. Most were appropriately described and assigned their date and place without the help of chemical analyses. Expert opinion is wrongly described as “subjective” or as “a guess” but is more like a legal expert’s opinion: based on the evidence and by reference to a large body of research, scientific studies, earlier judgements and comparative examples with which the expert is quite familiar.  Any expert may err, but the more experienced and learned, the less likely they will.

Items can be provenanced  quite narrowly in this way, from less evidence than we have in MS Beinecke 408. Take as example B.L. MS Additional 29902 , which consists of nothing more than a set of illuminated initials that had been cut from their manuscript before acquisition.

There was no written text to aid the expert’s judgement, nor even the folio dimensions or quire profiles, yet these images were rightly assigned to Northern Italy, the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and with a fair probability that they came more exactly from the town of Rimini.

Here’s one of the initials. Not only its style of drawing, but its  palette informed the expert’s judgement.

Non-specialists often make the novice’s mistake of supposing  a specialist’s judgement is a personal response to the imagery: no more than a “guess” or a “gut-feeling” but as anyone better acquainted with the field will know, the expert is so termed because they come to an object from a wide knowledge base.

excised initial Question: 5 – How does the range of pigments in MS Beinecke 408 compare with those in this late fourteenth century initial?

Q.6: Is one of the greens in MS Beinecke 408 a malachite green, a pigment whose use in the west slowly ceased in the sixteenth century?

Q.7: Is Carter’s “wax crayon” actually a wax-based pigment?

For an historical time of pigments, with their technical details, a good online source is ‘Pigments Through the Ages‘.

To have an expert’s technical description of the manuscripts’ full palette, with notes of variations between one section and another would be of enormous help here, even allowing that pigments may have been added rather later than the quires were inscribed.

During an interview, in 2011, Greg Hodgins mentioned in passing that he had heard (either directly from a member of McCrone or less directly through members of the television company, perhaps) that:

“It was found [by McCrone] that the colors are consistent with the Renaissance (sic) palette – the colors that were available at the time. But it doesn’t really tell us one way or the other, there is nothing suspicious there.”

McCrone’s report and covering letter to the Beinecke library say nothing of that sort: neither the word ‘palette’ nor ‘renaissance’ occurs anywhere in the document. One could only wish that Hodgin’s had mentioned his source.

In their report, McCrone analysed the inks, and just four of the twelve-and-more pigments which Dr. Carter had described. If the manuscript contains a green gained from copper resinate, this may indicate – in Europe – a period from the early fifteenth century onwards. It would have been helpful to know if the palette included Indian yellow! McCrone’s results for the four pigments tested were:

  • a blue – ground azurite with minor amounts of cuprite, a copper oxide.
  • a[the?] clear/White – protenaceous, eggwhite and calcium carbonate is likely.
  • a green – copper and copper chloride, most likely produced as a salted copper corrosion product.
  • a red-brown – red ochre, consisting of hematite, possibly minor amounts of lead sulfide and palmierite.

see   (McCrone letter – pdf).

Without any complete, formal, description of the palette – whose date is not necessarily contemporary with the quires’ inscription and/or the manuscript’s manufacture – we must continue to rely on Dr. Carter’s descriptions written in the 1950s, as recorded by Mary d’Imperio in  An Elegant Enigma, first published in 1981 (p.12)

Slightly-rearranged, Carter’s list is as folllows:

Some of the colors appear to be colored ink or water-color, some a kind of crayon, and some an opaque kind of paint like poster paint.


  • A good, strong brown
  • … an amber-like ink, like British tan leather goods;
  • A red ink just like ordinary red ink today,

[ink/watercolour ‘wash’]

  • a bright, not quite brilliant blue ink or water-color,


  • an opaque aquamarine,
  • a good strong red, carmine rather than scarlet or vermillion;
  • a red that looks like face rouge in color and texture (sic!);
  • a thick red that makes dots of color that you could scrape with your finger nail.
  • a red that looks like a bloodstain about a week old.
  • a blue that sparkles with tiny fragments (not apparently by design)
  • a dirty yellow (the yellow and browns of the sunflower illustration are like those, only a little faded, of the Van Gogh sunflower picture; the greens are less brilliant):
  • an opaque green;
  • a dirty green,
  • a kind of green crayon,

and several [!] other greens of various hues, intensity, value. and texture.

Note that his list of inks and pigments includes no black, and nothing in the plain pink-to- purple  range, but in McCrone’s covering letter to the Beinecke Library a black ink is mentioned.

Panofsky, who had seen the manuscript, identified its palette’s range as proper to the fifteenth century – which suits our tentative end-date  –  and while Panofsky might have been mistaken, as any expert may, his is the best judgement we have – so we may suppose that the full palette includes pigments which he knew were used in the fifteenth century, but includes some that were not used much later than that time  – such as malachite, and that it will lack others which were only used from centuries following, such as van Dyke brown.

To ignore the judgement of experience and expertise so that one could maintain a pet ‘theory’ would be an amateurish thing to do, even allowing for that bewilderment which MS Beinecke 408 seems to inspire – even in experts.

At the same time, Wilfrid Voynich is reasonably described as an expert provenancer, better than any who followed him save Panofsky, and so while accepting a final date in the fifteenth century, the manuscript still presents overall like one produced in England or in “the south” some centuries earlier: the twelfth to fourteenth.

Given formal evaluation of the palette, our terminal date might alter, but at present this absence of information means, again, that the 1430s remains our current estimate, not least because I have not so far encountered any manuscript of the same dimensions from a later date.  That, too, of course, may alter. 🙂

Now, as a contrast to MS Beinecke 408, here is one made within the Latin mainstream, in the Anglo-French region, in the mid-fourteenth century, and with a very limited palette. From Mont Saint-Michel.


letter m

one form of the letter “m” in this fourteenth century Norman French manuscript.

Norman French Mont St Michel

detail: folio 14r B.L. Additional MS 26876. Northern France, possibly Normandy. dated 1340 AD


Postscript: as so often, if I remember to do a search on Nick Pelling’s blog,  something helpful comes up.  His post “Parchminers, scriveners, lymners, bookbinders, stationers…” in this case.   ciphermysteries, (wordpress blog) Jan.21st,2010.







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