[Northkeep] Pigments in the Book of Kells

Jennifer Carlson talana1 at hotmail.com
Tue Sep 22 18:53:11 PDT 2009

I'm not a period pigment expert, but mucking about on the internet revealed that a lot of research has gone on in trying to figure out how the Book of Kells was produced.  Below is a list of colors and their known and presumed sources.  Those substances in brackets have been determined definitely by Raman-spectroscopic analysis of the book itself.  Those in parentheses are traditional color sources that textual scholars identified or presumed to be the pigment source before the scientific analysis was done.
Blue – from [indigo], (woad), (ultramarine/lapis lazuli)
Red-orange – from [red lead]
Red – from (vermilion*), (red ochre), (kermes/cochineal/carmine/crimson lake)
Yellow – from [orpiment], (yellow ochre) (weld)
Green – from [vergaut: a combination of indigo & orpiment], (verdigris), (malachite)
Black – from [carbon/lampblack], [iron gall ink]
White – [gypsum], (lead white)
Purple – orcein, (murex), (purple lake)
Lilac is also mentioned as a color, which can be obtained from a combination of the above.
Many of the pigments were laid down in layers and burnished, resulting in the “enamel-like” color effect the book is famous for.
Insular books of the time period (Kells, Lindisfarne, etc.) were notable for not using gold and silver.
* Vermilion can refer either to mercuric sulfide, also called cinnabar, or to cochineal/kermes, a dye obtained from a particular kind of insect and used today in some red food dyes - yummy!
And there you have probably more than you ever wanted to know about the pigments of the Book of Kells.
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