The Alchemy of Paint looks at medieval artists' materials and methods in a manner as close as possible to the way painters themselves saw them in the middle ages. To do that, it had to adopt the worldview of 13th or 14th century European artisans. It assumes that they were reasonably well-informed about science, philosophy and religion, but were not too worried about the finer details. As such, the book is a primer, introducing general principles that pervade the traditional worldview. I therefore hope it will prove useful to readers whose interests may be wider than just alchemy or paint. The book follows in the footsteps of C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image.
The book draws upon my experience as a scientist studying the material nature of works of art. My starting point was that great paintings are physical testament to medieval skills in chemistry, optics and perception, just as the great Gothic cathedrals are physical testament to medieval engineering skills. Approaching artworks as the tangible traces of embodied skills, artists' processes and their products can help throw light on the material culture of a place and a time.
The more I looked into the material nature of European works of art from the middle ages, the more I realised the truly international character of the period. Traditional European works of art can only be understood if their connections with non-European cultures are acknowledged. Some European 'art-forms' may be specific to Europe, but what 'in-formed' them recognises no spatial boundaries. The word 'traditional' (as opposed to 'medieval') further implies that their worldview was not time-limited - it may have faded in Europe over the last 500 years, but pockets of it live on, as superstitions in the modern world and as coherent beliefs elsewhere.
The book starts from the recognition that our current attitudes towards colour seriously devalue the sensation. It looks towards the middle ages as the nearest culture to our own that acknowledged the importance of colour. By examining the materials of colour (pigments, dyes and metals) the book explores a world in which colour is meaningful. The book starts with a survey of the international trade in colours and the way colours touched members of society - as things that paid taxes and provoked wars, to things that were taken as drugs and were the focus of meditation. It then investigates recipes that artists wrote describing how to purify natural colours like lapis lazuli, and synthesise artificial colours like vermilion. Those recipes conjure-up a world of three continents, made of four elements and enveloped by seven planets, in which mankind occupied the very centre of the universe. They also show how colours were central to understanding how all aspects of one's life (physiological, psychological and spiritual) were related to the outside world. The book ends by exploring myths associated with the gold, which explain why, even today, we place such a high value on the metal.
336 pages & 50 drawings
Notes, bibliography & index (MORE DETAILS)
Published by Marion Boyars, London & NY.
reprinted 2010 and 2012
and at good local bookshops
Cover illustration from The Dover Bible (c.1160)
Parker Library, MS 4, fol. 242 v.
Reproduced with the permission of The Master and Fellows,
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.