PURPLE SKINS

Precious manuscripts with purple-colored parchment skins and texts written in gold and silver are known to have been made since antiquity. Christian sacred scriptures thus embellished are first mentioned by Jerome, who harshly condemned the practice as unnecessary luxury. Regardless of this critique, purple manuscripts flourished. The embellishment of parchment with purple colorants is a defining trait of many manuscripts of the highest quality produced from the 8th to the 11th century. Recent advances in the technical analysis of the materials used to evoke purple have spurred new interest in the aesthetic of purple ornament and its development in Carolingian and Ottonian book production. Still, a comprehensive study of the multifaceted aspects of purple decoration in the manuscripts of this time period has yet to be carried out. This research project focuses on the stunning transformations purple ornament underwent from the 8th to the 11th century. It analyzes the various techniques and methods used to create the multi-sensory purple textures, and studies the contexts of this multi-layered ornamentation, taking a close look at the interactions between the text, the book objects, their liturgical setting, and their users.

In order to gain a nuanced view of the chronology and distribution of manuscripts with purple-colored surfaces and the contexts of their production, patronage, and usage, this project aims to establish a catalog of purple-decorated manuscripts from the 8th to the 11th century. Purple textures will be classified and put into context by studying their correspondence to content, structure, imagery, and script, considering the entire topology of ornamentation both within and on the outside of the individual books. Particular attention is given to hitherto insufficiently considered innovations, which use material correspondences to evoke purple surfaces, i.e. the evocation of textile and stone textures. The sensory effects achieved through such material textures will be examined in relation to contemporaneous ornament discourses and critiques, studying the interplay between decorative actions (such as dressing or polishing), text, and language in the liturgical performance of sacred scriptures. 

The image above shows a detail of the P-initial beginning the Gospel prologue “Plures fuisse” by Jerome on fol. 1r of the St. Riquier Gospels, now housed in the Bibliothèque municipale d’Abbeville (ms. 4). The manuscript comprises 189 purple-colored folios, all inscribed with golden ink. It was a gift from Charlemagne to his close advisor Angilbert, the abbot of St. Riquier, probably bestowed at Easter 800, when the emperor visited the newly rebuilt monastery. This makes it a precious document of the earliest phase of the adoption of purple-colored manuscripts at the Carolingian court, and exemplifies the stunning sensual quality of purple skins. As in nearly all purple manuscripts, the dye used to create the shimmering surface was not real Tyrian purple from the mucus of Murex snails, but orchil dye, a pigment produced from lichen, here applied by pressing the parchment sheets between textiles soaked in this colorant. Some traces of the texture of these coloring textiles are still visible on the parchment surface. 

Researcher: Thomas Rainer

Image Credit: BnF Gallica, Quattuor Evangelia, dits Evangiles de Saint Riquier ou de Centula, Bibliothèque municipale d’Abbeville, Ms. 4, fol. 1r