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Illumination
  • A Brief History of the Wax Tablet

    The wax tablet has been around for a long time.  It pre-dates the Romans, who made good use of it, and when Rome fell the wax tablet stayed around, like the useful and flexible tool it was, and made itself useful through the medieval and renaissance eras, even being used into the 20th century.

    In our everyday life here in the modern world, the wax tablet is no longer a necessity, having been superseded by cheap paper and smartphones for the temporary notes and lists we all jot down throughout our days.  It can still be useful though, and not solely to educators or re-enactors.  There remains space in our fast paced world for the humble wax tablet, far removed as we may be from the environment and circumstances in which it was invented.

    Thus, in the spirit of both educating people about and furthering the use of the wax tablet today, here is a short look at what a tax tablet is, and a very brief overview of what it was used for in medieval and renaissance era Europe.

    A Greek man using a wax tablet (note that this one has three panes rather than only two)

    In its simplest form, a wax tablet is basically a panel of wood that has had most of the wood removed from the center (usually leaving an edge of undisturbed wood about ¼ inch around the perimeter of the tablet).  That carved out center is then filled with pigmented beeswax (i.e. beeswax that has had pigment (read as “fancy dirt”) added to it).  The pigment does two things – it creates a better texture for the writing surface, making the wax just pliable enough to write in, but not so flexible that it won’t hold designs or writing, and makes the writing more visible.  A stylus, historically made of iron, was then used to write on the wax surface, and to erase the writings once they were no longer needed.  In a world where affordable and easily made paper did not exist, such a writing surface, one that was infinitely re-usable, was incredibly valuable, to say the least.  And that is probably one of the reasons why the Romans, those clever people, made such wide use of the wax tablet.

    A Roman painting of a girl holding a wax tablet and stylus (note that this tax tablet has three panes)

    Many people associate wax tablets with the Romans, who did in fact make extensive use of it, but this particular writing implement actually predates the Romans.  It was in use before the Roman Empire began its inexorable march across the western world, and the Romans, who knew a good thing when they saw it, adopted it with enthusiasm.  Clever though they were, the Romans nevertheless saw their empire come to an eventual end.  The wax tablet, however, did not end with the Roman Empire, and continued to be widely used by many people for many things for centuries. 

    In the medieval and renaissance eras the wax tablet was widely used in Europe.  It was certainly used by scribes and illuminators for both drawing and writing.  Illuminators at least used it for simple drawing in the medieval ages, as there are accounts of drawings of the Holy Sepulchre and other churches being brought back to Europe on wax tablets (Medieval, Andrews).  We know that scribes made more extensive use of their tablets from the illuminated manuscripts left to us.  Take a look at this example, which is a detail of a manuscript from the British library’s digitized collection of illuminated manuscripts.  

    Royal 3 A V f.2 , author Gregory the Great, Commentary on Ezekiel, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 12th century

    This is a 12 century depiction of Gregory the Great about to begin work on his commentary of Ezekiel.  The illumination appears at the beginning of a page in the manuscript, in an uppercase letter and shows Gregory the Great with a wax tablet and stylus in the process of beginning work on his commentary.  Why use expensive parchment to sketch out your ideas or outline a first draft when you have a wax tablet?

    Wax tablets also formed a part of how medieval scribes pictured long past writers.  Here is a detail of an illuminated manuscript from the end of the 12th or beginning of the 13th century (around the same time period as the Gregory the Great manuscript above) depicting the apostle John beginning the gospel of John on a wax tablet.    

    Royal 4 D III, Last quarter of the 12th century or 1st quarter of the 13th century. 

    Wax tablets were also used for managing accounts. A wax tablet from Cîteaux Abbey in France, dating from around 1300 is an “accompts” for the abbey. The items on the tablet have been crossed out, most likely as each item was copied onto parchment for permanent storage (2). I don’t have a picture available, but if you’re in ever in the vicinity of the British Library, you could always pop in and ask (ever so sweetly) if they will let you take a look at Add MS 33215 in their archives (yes, they actually have this wax tablet).

    So, wax tablets have certainly made themselves useful for a long time, and for many people. These are only a few examples of how they were used in medieval and renaissance era Europe, and there are many more to be found. In our modern world, they can be still be useful in many different ways. Tune in next week for a look at how to use wax tablets, and some ways that you can use them today (in garb and out of garb).

    Bethany Tucker

    Chief Cook and Bottle Washer

    Feb 03, 2018

    Additional Cited Works

    Medieval Illuminators and their Methods of Work by Jonathan J. G. Alexander, 1992, Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

    Add MS 33215

  • The Making of an Illuminated Manuscript

    The Making of an Illuminated Manuscript:

    Psalm 121

    First the the parchment is cut, guidelines and margins are marked (drawn with a lead stylus or pressed in with a bronzed stylus or penned with brazilwood ink) Once this is done, the writing is completed with a goose quill and iron gall ink. leaving space for the illumination and capital letters.

    Once the calligraphy is complete, the capital letters are drawn with a lead stylus (or pencil)

    Once the capitals are drawn, the remainder of the illumination is drawn, attaching it to the capitals.

    After the lead point or pencil drawing is finished, all of the underdrawing is inked with iron gall ink and a goose quill.

    Once it is thoroughly dry (about a day) the lead point is erased with stale bread (or th pencil is erased with a rubber eraser)

    The size (or glue) for the gilding is laid down, this is typcally gesso, gum ammoniac, or garlic juice and glair.

    It takes 3-5 layers of gum ammoniac to give a lightly raised surface texture to the page, and about 1 day of drying.

    All of the details that need to be gold must be layered with size.

    Once the underlayment is dry, the size is lightly breathed on to make it sticky again, and the loose leaves of gold are layed and pressed onto the artwork.

    It takes many sheets of gold to complete a piece this size, each square inch to be guilded taking special attention.

    Once the gold has been left to dry for a day, it is lightly burnished and then a brush is used to remove the loose gold

    Each outline is then cleaned up with a scribe's knife to remove any gold that is sitll hanging on in the details and crevices

    Once the gold is cleaned up, each base color is mixed by adding the pigments to egg yolk or glair, and then painted on.

    One color at a time

    Once all of the base colors are finished, detail work can begin

    The details involve highlight colos of each base color mixed with white, as well as just white. and some darkening with black and darker corresponding colors.

    The final step is to outline everything with black

    It is now a completed page, here is an image showing the detail of the historiated initial.  The entire page is 9x11 inches, which is quite large for a historic manuscript.

    Jan 04, 2018

  • Mulling Paint: A beginner-ish guide


    Mulling paint is a time honored tradition that all artists and scribes alike must undergo.  It is the process of suspending pigments in your chosen medium.

    Wait... what do you mean you buy yours as a paste? From where? Wal-store or Hobby Entryway or Mike's?

    Kids these days, not willing to put in the effort to make their own paint.  Anyway, apparently people don't know how to mull paint, so I'll teach you.  First you'll need a spatula/spoon/pallet knife, a plate, a muller, powdered pigment, something to put the paint in, and your medium of choice. I guess I should explain to the uninitiated what each of these is, but first a picture.

    Pigment in jar, palette knife, shell, muller, and plate

    The pigment is just that, powdered pigment.  They can be everything from a reddish dirt, to synthetic organic particles.  I either buy pre-ground historic pigments or make my own. Here we are using real vermillion.

    The plate is just that, a plate of glass or marble or granite or ceramic etc. The plate roughed up a bit with a grit of some kind.  Silicon carbide, sand, diamonds, or whatever else you have lying around. (if you have diamonds just lying around please see our custom work page and we can work out a trade)

    The muller is in the upper right of the picture and is kind of like a pestle with a large flat surface, which makes it better for dispersing and worse for grinding.

    The palette knife is for moving the pigment paste around and scraping everything into the shell.

    The shell is... well... it's a shell to be honest, not sure how else to put that.  Sea shells are the traditional paint pots of the medieval world.  If you notice a paint pot likes a bit like a better balanced shell.

    Your medium is where you can add variety. If you are into oil painting, use linseed oil/walnut oil/poppy oil/not-corn-oil-because-it-won't-dry-ever, if you are into water color, you can buy water color medium, the same goes for latex, etc. I use a weak water color medium made from gum Arabic, honey, and water. It makes for a fine water color, but has the ability to be usable in egg tempera as well (my preferred medium).

    Ok, enough about tools and supplies.  Here is how it works.  First you make a pile of pigment in the center of your plate. I know this is completely unexpected, but just hold onto your seats because it gets crazy from here. Next you put a little hole in the center of the pile like it's a tiny pile of toxic, powdered mashed potatoes.

    A pile of pigment perforated perfectly per precise prescriptions

    The next step is to pour your chosen medium into the well you dug so daintily down...ok, enough alliteration. Pour the medium like the gravy into your tiny toxic pile. How much you use depends on the pigment, how fine it is ground, and how much you put on the plate.  It's easy to add medium, it is hard to remove it.

    Tiny toxic pile with water color medium in it

    Using your palette knife, mix the pigment into a paste, the idea here is to dampen all of the pigment so that it doesn't cause you to stir up dust with your muller.  And because, well it's easier to mix with a pallet knife than a muller and if you do the easy bits easily the hard bits don't take as long.

    Close up palette knife action in splendid 2D

    Your next step, if you haven't given up already due to you preferring to buy your historic pigments from these people, is to begin mulling your pigment into the medium, by sweeping your muller on the pile of pigment paste in a figure eight and/or swirling motion.  You have to use your pallet knife to scrape the muller periodically and to move all of the pigment back into the center of the plate.  Depending upon the pigment and medium this takes between 5 minutes and 5 hours. (remember the people who do it all for you?)

    Mulling the pigment, in figure eight motions

    You mull the pigment until it is a smooth paste, a little thinner than toothpaste, and ideally less gritty.  This can take a while.  As I mentioned before, you can add more medium to get the right consistency.

    Mulled to a smooth paste, adding more medium to get the right consistency

    Once everything is smooth, consistently and flows the way you want, use the palette knife to scrape the plate and muller and transfer it to a shell or paint pot or tube or whatever you want to use to store it.  I prefer a shell as I let it dry out and have a watercolor/half-tempera cake ready for me to use for illumination. Just add water and egg yolk/glair and I'm ready to paint. 

    Transferring the paint to a shell for later use

    Why would you want to do this you might ask?  Well, it is hard to get historic pigments already made up into the medium you want, and it is hard to guarantee it was done right unless you a.) do it yourself or b.) know a guy.  The other reasons are because you WANT the experience of making your own paints from start to finish, or making your own pigments, which sure you COULD send them to some friend of yours who writes blogs about this sort of thing to make paint for you, but wouldn't you rather experience it from start to finish?  

    Oh, wait, you don't make your own pigments? We'll have to work on that later.

    Scribe and Chemist,

    Lucas Tucker

    Aug 15, 2012