Illuminated manuscripts are revealing their secret histories thanks to the application of techniques more commonly found in scientific laboratories.

Art historical and linguistic research can take you a long way towards answering questions but scientific analysis can clinch arguments and dispel myths.

Dr Stella Panayotova

Fairy-tale pinnacles stretch to the horizon in an azure sky, scarlet flags flutter, an angel plays a golden horn, and the Madonna, shrouded in folds of tumbling ivory, serenely cradles her newborn baby. This painting (pictured) is one of the many that illuminate The Hours of Isabella Stuart, a sumptuous prayer book illustrated by a group of French painters in the 15th century.

All that is known and speculated about the manuscript, which is part of the rich collection of illustrated manuscripts in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, has been pieced together from painstaking art historical analysis and circumstantial evidence. But much remains shrouded in mystery. Who designed the exceptionally rich and complex images? How were they to be used? Were they the creation of a workshop, with the Madonna painted by the workshop master? Or did several masters make guest appearances? Did the artists share materials and techniques? Where did the pigments come from?

Now, thanks to an innovative project at the University of Cambridge, some of the hidden histories of the Book of Hours, and many other illuminated manuscripts, will be uncovered. Led by Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Professor Stephen Elliott, from the Department of Chemistry, the MINIARE project is using scientific techniques to identify the composition of illuminations. The research will help conservators repair priceless works of art and provide new insights into the cultural, social and economic circumstances of their production. And, crucially for objects of such rarity and fragility, none of the techniques involves touching the manuscripts or removing samples.

Illuminated manuscripts often have long and complex construction histories: a manuscript copied in Italy in the 1300s, for instance, might receive its illumination in France decades later and be bound in Germany. “This is a reflection of the trade routes operating at the time and the international mobility of artists, scholars, patrons, manuscripts and ideas,” said Panayotova, “but it’s also a consequence of war and of political and religious upheaval.”

Scientific analysis of the pigments can provide valuable contextual information, as research scientist Dr Paola Ricciardi is discovering. Using analytical techniques such as fibre optic reflectance spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence, as well as visual imaging techniques such as microscopic observation and infrared reflectography, she is identifying the composition of pigments as well as revealing underdrawings and preparatory sketches.

“The challenge for the chemists and the physicists in the team is to use well-known scientific techniques in a new situation, where very low concentrations of complex mixtures need to be identified as a function of depth,” explained Elliott. “One of our interests is to push the technology to its limit by building new hardware that can analyse the fingerprint of paint at the sub-micron scale.”

Member of the project team, Dr Spike Bucklow from the Hamilton Kerr Institute – a department of the Fitzwilliam Museum that specialises in the conservation and restoration of paintings – explained why the project will bridge the gap between science and art: “Artists had a fantastic knowledge of how to get the effect they wanted from the pigments they used. How much they knew about why the materials worked is of great interest. This research will help to unpick the art of manuscript illumination.”

The goal is to expand the current project, which has been funded by the Isaac Newton Trust and a private sponsor, to encompass not only the 2,000 manuscripts held by the Fitzwilliam Museum, but also those held by the University Library and Cambridge Colleges, and the team is actively seeking new funding to do this.

“Art historical and linguistic research can take you a long way towards answering questions but scientific analysis can clinch arguments and dispel myths,” said Panayotova. “There are very few institutions in the world that combine such rich collections with multidisciplinary expertise. This unique synergy will have a very significant impact, informing a larger study of the changing artistic, cultural, ideological, social, political and economic environments in which the manuscripts were created.”

MINIARE (Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise) is a collaboration between the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Hamilton Kerr Institute, the Departments of Chemistry, Physics, History of Art, History and Philosophy of Science, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.

For more information, please contact Louise Walsh ( at the University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications.

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