The process of illumination is a difficult and precarious task, one that depends on the
utmost skill and delicacy of the illuminator. It may take years to illuminate an entire manuscript, weeks to finish a single illumination if the initial is extravagant enough, or the miniature intricate enough. In The Winchester Bible, the largest known bible of its time, is also famous not only as a text, but as a piece of art.
Recently showcased in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the manuscript displayed the
height of monastic scribal and illuminative skill. The immense codex is filled with bright colors, including lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone that can only be found in the Middle East. In the time of this manuscript, the name of this pigment would have been Ultramarinum or “beyond the sea”. It would have only ever been able to be used with the most ornate of manuscripts or paintings due to its pure, strong, and loud blue marine color. Its hue is so specific and profound, that the synthetic coloring for it today cannot match its effect when used in pieces of art. Even with the synthetic on the market, it is one of the most expensive materials that can be purchased to illuminate a manuscript, and usually, even in the modern day, more expensive than gold used for gold leaf or even other parts of art.
The Winchester Bible has extensive use of this pigment, in most of its initials and full
The process of turning the stone into ink is strenuous, and unless done properly, will only
end in a pale grayish blue. First, the stone must be of a high level with very little impurities so as to get enough of a rich blue. Next, the stone must be ground by hand and mixed with melted wax, resins, and oils, until all the impurities are absorbed by those materials, leaving a fine powder of pure lapis lazuli. Finally, the scribe can mix it with a base and use the ink to write or decorate the manuscript. Because of this process and cost of importation, this pigment is seen as the most luxurious item that can be used. For the Winchester Bible to use this pigment as background and text demonstrates the absolute wealth of its patron, Henry de Blois, a bishop and abbot of where this manuscript was made, at the Winchester Monastery in England.
Just imagine how much money and effort went into this still unfinished Bible. It is a true
depiction of why monastic England was so influential and grandiose at this time.