Pigment and parchment

Penn students pair with visiting scholars to paint illustrations like those in centuries-old illuminated manuscripts.

two women at a table working with art tools in the foreground with tables behind them and other students working on paper
Penn students were paired with visiting scholars in the illuminated manuscript workshop, including Juliette Bellacosa (right), a doctoral candidate in Italian studies, working with Paola Ricciardi, a research scientist from the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. 

Crushing lapis lazuli to create a celestial blue pigment, 20 pairs of students and scholars began to work together to paint an intricate letter “H” on parchment during a workshop at the Penn Libraries, tracing the steps that would have been used centuries ago in the creation of illuminated manuscripts. 

The workshop was designed to give undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Arts and Sciences a chance to collaborate with visiting specialists for the 11th annual Lawrence J. Schoenberg Symposium on Manuscript Studies in the Digital Age, held at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts

closeup of student with paint brush painting red paint on small image on paper at a table
Alison Yarto, an undergraduate student pursing majors in art history and political science, concentrates on painting her letter.

At a table at the front of the room in the center of the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center were Juliette Bellacosa, a first year doctoral candidate in Italian studies at Penn, paired with Paola Ricciardi, a research scientist from the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Taking turns, they meticulously filled in the pattern traced on the parchment, with the lapis blue and a cochineal red that is made from crushed red bugs. A second project was painting an angel on a wooden board to illustrate the differences in techniques.

“I have a whole new appreciation for the time that goes into them now that I have actually experienced a little snippet of it myself,” says Bellacosa, who specializes in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. “This sheds a new light on the various hands that were involved in creating something as complex as an illuminated manuscript.” 

many people sitting at tables looking up a screen to see demonstration of working with materials to make illuminated letters
Rosemary Buczek, an artist from The Gilded Quill Studio in Doylestown, Pa., led the workshop, conducting a live demonstration projected on a large screen. 

Leading them through the three-hour workshop in November was Rosemary Buczek, an artist from The Gilded Quill Studio in Doylestown, Pa., and an expert in calligraphy. The room was filled with more than a dozen tables, set up with the colorful materials. “Painting with your pigment is very different than painting with paint from a tube,” Buczek told the group. “Do not get discouraged.” 

Ricciardi and Bellacosa agreed their favorite part of the afternoon was working with gold leaf, pressing the thin shiny layer on the parchment, rubbing it, and then pulling off the backing paper. “With one brush it all came together afterward,” Bellacosa says. “It was really beautiful to see. It had a very magnificent quality to it.” 

man leaning over table where two seated women are working with art tools on paper
Nicholas Herman, curator of manuscripts at the Schoenberg Institute, checks in on the gold gilding by Sonja Drimmer (seated, left), medieval art history faculty at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Judith Weston (right), a Penn graduate student in comparative literature and theory. 

Nicholas Herman, the curator of manuscripts at the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies, organized the workshop to give Penn students, staff, and faculty a chance to work directly with the scholars who came to present their research at the conference. The visitors came from near and far, including from the University of Geneva, the University of Massachusetts, The British Museum in London, and The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, as well as The Morgan Library & Museum in New York, The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, and, closer to home, Rutgers University and Bryn Mawr College. 

“The goal wasn’t the finished product; it was the experience,” says Herman. “It brought people together.”

onlookers watch student working with blue ink and tools on a table
The illuminated manuscript workshop started with students making their own pigments from lapis lazuli. 

The graduate students invited to the workshop were from a seminar Herman taught this semester on manuscript illumination in the Renaissance with David Young Kim, an assistant professor of art history. Also invited were undergraduate students from a class on medieval manuscripts in the 21st century, taught by Will Noel, the director of the Kislak Center and the Schoenberg Institute, and Dot Porter, the Institute’s curator of digital research services. 

two women sitting at a table working with materials to make illuminated manuscript letters
Mary Tasillo (left), Common Press Studio Manager, works with and Allison Coppola, a Penn graduate student pursuing her master's in liberal arts. 

“We’ve been talking about how digitization works, so we thought it was important for the students to understand how the books themselves were made,” Porter says. 

Senior Adelaide Gorelick, from Charlotte, N.C., is an English major with a concentration in literature of the medieval and Renaissance periods. “It gives me an appreciation for what they do,” she says. “It’s really special we get to participate in this.” 

overhead of table with paper and a hand holding a paint brush painting delicate blue paint on an image