Medieval manuscripts blog

Bringing our medieval manuscripts to life

08 June 2018

A medieval rainbow

June is Pride Month, an annual celebration around the world of the LGBTQ+ community. An important symbol of Pride is the rainbow pride flag, with the colours of the rainbow commonly representing diversity in gay, lesbian and trans culture. To honour Pride celebrations, we take a look here at rainbows in medieval manuscripts and the colours used by scribes and artists to make them.

A detail from a medieval roll, showing an illustration of a rainbow.

A drawing depicting the rainbow of Noah’s Covenant, from a roll copy of Peter of Poitier’s Compendium historiae in genealogia Christi, 2nd half of the 13th-century: Royal MS 14 B IX, 2nd membrane

The conventional seven colours of the rainbow may be best remembered in Britain by the mnemonic ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’: R(ed), O(range), Y(ellow), G(reen), B(lue), I(ndigo), and V(iolet). Pigment colours used by scribes and illuminators were made from a variety of materials, including plants, minerals and animal sources. Ordinary dark writing ink was made from oak galls.

Many scribes prepared their own pigments, the colouring agent in paint. Pigments were made in a powder form, before being mixed with a binding medium such as glair (made with egg white), egg tempera (made with egg yolk), or gesso (a mixture containing gum).

A detail from a manuscript of James le Palmer's Omne Bonum, showing an illustration of an artist mixing colours.

An artist mixing colours in an inhabited initial opening the entry for ‘Color’, from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, c. 1360–c. 1375: Royal MS 6 E VI/2, f. 329r

Red and orange pigments were made with natural minerals, including a form of lead that when heated produces a vibrant orangey-red known as minium. Minium was commonly used to outline illuminations, giving the pictures in manuscripts the name ‘miniatures’ (not because they were small). Minium was a cheaper pigment in cost, and was also used in medicine and cosmetics.

The most common yellow pigment was made from a highly toxic substance containing arsenic, known as orpiment. Orpiment reflected light, similar to gold, but reacted easily to other pigments on the page. Yellow could be also produced organically from plant and mineral sources, including the luxury spice saffron that was imported from Persia and parts of Europe. Ochre was a cheaper alternative to saffron, and could be locally sourced in Bury St Edmunds, Oxford and the Forest of Dean.

A detail from a medieval manuscript, showing a colourful diagram relating to musical theory.

A colourful diagram relating to music, in De artibus ac disciplinis liberalium litterarum by Cassiodorus, 9th–10th century: Harley MS 2637, f. 41v. This manuscript has been recently digitised by The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project, and on the Project website you can also read an article on Writing Music by Nicholas Bell. 

Artists could find recipes for pigments in written works such as the De diversis artibus of Theophilus Presbyter (fl. c. 1070–1125). The British Library holds the most complete copy of this treatise, containing instructions for painting, glassmaking and metalworking. It includes recipes for ‘Salt green’ and ‘Spanish green’, types of verdigris, a green pigment produced through a chemical reaction with copper. Verdigris was very corrosive and was often mixed with saffron to last longer on the page.

A page from a manuscript of Theophilus' De diversis artibus, showing the text of a recipe for making green pigment.

The opening of the recipe for Spanish green pigment, in De diversis artibus by Theophilus, late 12th or early 13th century: Harley MS 3915, f. 18v

Ultramarine blue was the most valuable pigment that artists could obtain, derived naturally from the mineral lapis lazuli. It was imported to Europe from Afghanistan and could cost as much as gold. Later medieval artists often used ultramarine blue for the robes of the Virgin Mary, saints and wealthy patrons to reflect their high status. A more affordable form of blue pigment known as citrimarine was manufactured from a copper compound called azurite. 

Deep blue or indigo was a plant-based pigment, likely obtained in Europe from the leaves of the woad plant. Indigo was used to complement gold leaf and used in night scenes in manuscript illuminations.

Violet or purple colours could be made from mixing red and blue pigments, or made from plants and lichens. One rich purple dye known as Tyrian purple was extremely valuable in the eastern Mediterranean, as it was extracted in tiny quantities from live sea snails, the mollusc murex brandaris. A precious pigment, Tyrian purple was used as a dye for the imperial robes of certain Roman emperors. The dye was also used to colour whole pages in high-status manuscripts.

A detail from a manuscript of John Lydgate's Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, showing an illustration of a rainbow marking St Fremund's birth.

A rainbow appears at the birth of St Fremund, from John Lydgate’s Lives of Sts Edmund and Fremund, 1434-1439: Harley MS 2278, f. 72v

Together all of these fantastic colours make the colours of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky and in illuminated manuscripts alike!

Alison Ray

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Of course the copyists who made these manuscripts would most likely find the idea of a celebration of homosexual practices reprehensible and completely adversarial to Biblical teachings.
But let's not let reality get in the way of political agendas, eh.

June is the month of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What you call 'Pride' is the rebellion against Him who loves us and gave His life to save us from the death of sin - pride being the main sin of Satan from which all other sins derive.
The rainbow is a sign of love from God to mankind after He punished mankind for its evil sins. Satan is so proud to make you rebel and use that very same sign as emblem of depravity.
God is VERY patient, but He will have to punish again if you don't repent... (google: Fatima apparitions, 1917).
God bless you all.

Pride is for all LGBTIQA+ people, and it is a protest against wilfully ignorant hatred. Pride was given to us by Black trans women, particularly Marsha P Johnson, protesting rightfully against police brutality & hatred. If God created heterosexual people, cisgender people, dyadic people, allosexual people, then God also created lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, asexual, queer & all other people too. If God loves you, God loves me.

Thank you for a fascinating article. Ideas on sexuality and gender have changed dramatically over time both in the west and elsewhere, and the distinctions (and expressions of Horror!) some commentators are making would of course be alien to the scribes and illustrators of these manuscripts. We don't know exactly how people thought at the period these were created, but such evidence as there is suggests a much more fluid idea of both sexuality and love than our post-reformation, post-Victorian one today. Certainly the scribes would have recognised loving relationships and affective bonds between people of the same gender, as well as those of different genders and would not have been horrified or outraged -- some commentators might like to look at John Boswell's The Marriage of Likeness on this, which talks about formal bonds of affinity between people of the same sex in the 12th through 15th centuries.

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