By Milda VIKTURINA, an art expert
Her name is Milda Vikturina, she is an art expert and roentgenographer and she has been working at the world-famous Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow for many years now. She conducted expert assessments of paintings by celebrated European and Russian artists, old Russian icons and pieces of vanguard art. Our permanent readers who have been with us in 1995, 1997, 1998 and also in the year 2000 must have read about some of her interesting experiences connected with paintings of such well-known artists as Malevich, Vrubel and Repin. This time around we asked the expert to tell us of some really unusual case she had to deal with in her expert carrier.
About 20 years ago I was approached by a colleague of mine, art expert Inna Mokretsova, who asked me to "take a look" at an old manuscript book. At that time we both worked at the Central Research Laboratory for restoration and conservation of museum pieces and works of art. The book in question happened to be a 13th-century French Bible-a splendid manuscript with color miniatures. It was kept at the Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts of the Moscow State University Library.
The book was clearly in need of restoration-its damaged leather binding was cracked and torn off from the book itself and the captal * trimming was missing. Some of the miniatures lost pieces of peeled off paint, although the parchment was in good condition. And in view of the great artistic value of the manuscript it was decided to submit it to a thorough examination. The job of its attribution on the basis of an analysis of the miniatures and decor was carried out by Inna Mokretsova, the paleographic analysis was entrusted to Vera Romanova, binding restoration was done by Yuri Serov, miniatures were patched up by Alia Gogoleva and the X-raying of the book fell to my share. We could later all get together when our work was done and discuss our opinions, doubts and suggestions.
Inna Mokretsova summed up her findings in the following way: the book arrived at Moscow University in 1803 from the personal collection of the famous Russian industrialist Pavel Demidov. Prior to that the manuscript must have been the property of a Jesuit Cloister in Lyons which is proved by a coat of arms impressed on the cover and bearing the date "1667". And nothing is known who had owned the book before. The Bible survived in the great Moscow fire during the French invasion of the Russian capital in 1812 when practically the whole of the University Library was consumed by flames.
What seems to be the one and only attempt to examine and assess the manuscript took place in the 40s or 50s of the 19th century. A hand-written 3-page review by some unknown French author was inserted into the manuscript. The reviewer had identified in the text some departures from the commonly accepted versions, described in considerable details certain events in church history, but made some serious mistakes in his interpretations of the miniatures.
The rarity contains 274 pages (the first two with a prologue are missing), 102 letters-initials or "capitals" with 31 of them being ornamental and 71 associated with the miniatures-what we call "capitals cum stories". Pages of the book have broad margins which were cut off in part during subsequent rebindings, and many of the capitals are adorned with paints and gilt. All the external signs are that the book was originally intended as a gift to some nobleman and not for regular church use, but who was that original owner of the Bible remains a mystery. No notes or other clues have been found suggesting the names of the scribes, illustrators or the person who ordered the book, which makes it different from most of its 13th-century "contemporaries". Only on the back of page 273 there are some hardly visible traces of an inscription, but it remains illegible even in the ultraviolet.
The color scheme of the book's miniatures matches that of French 13th-century manuscripts with a prevalence of dull scarlet and bright orange ocher which permeates certain details of the miniatures and the ornaments, and there are also dull blues and white mineral pigments. But the "chemistry" of the organic dyes cannot be traced by either physical or chemical methods in view of but tiny quantities of them available for analysis.
X-ray examinations, however, can help shed some light on this matter. In my personal experience I had to deal with manuscripts and miniatures the size of a page or half a page. In this Bible, however, the dimensions are 1.5x1.5; 2.5x2.5; 4.5x4.5 and 4.5x5 cm and those of what we call subject compositions or separate figures-2 cm. X-ray images of such a small size are very hard to read and a correct interpretation of the light-and-shade, or skiagraphic, picture is possible only with the help of magnification by several times. This being so, we had to rely on projectors, magnifying lenses and even a microscope.
What interested me most in my studies was the technique of the medieval artists and their ways and means of shaping artistic images. And in order to gain this understand-
* Captal-band with thick color edge glued to the top and bottom edges of the back of a book-binding.- Ed.
ing, so to say, I had to rely on large amounts of X-ray material to be able to compare and analyze. And that meant in practice having X-ray images or photos of a total of 100 miniatures.
Since parchment does not obstruct X-ray, the X-ray photos offered some very complicated light-and-shade patterns because all these images (figures, ornament and the text) have to be superimposed upon one another. For example, visible upon the robes of the saints are projections of the text on the opposite side of a page. On X-ray photos of miniatures "Christ Enthroned" (capital "D", Psalm CIX, page 133) and "David Enthroned" (capital "D", Psalm XXVI, page 125)-some white traces were visible from some scratches on the parchment.
X-ray photos of a paint layer represent a kind of a black- and-white "palette" whose density depends on the chemistry of the paints. Each of these has its own characteristics, or character, which depends on its rate of absorption of X-rays and is seen on a photo as light spots and shadows of different density. Say, the text of the Bible is written in black ink while on an X-ray photo one sees soft hues or shadows. This must be due to the fact that the ink contained some chemical element with a high atomic weight which absorbs X-rays. The pink paint is completely transparent for X-rays and due to that all details painted in this color look as dark patches on our photos. As for the blue paint used by the 13th-century artists, it must have been of different chemical composition in addition to the varying thickness of the paint layers. A paint similar to white lead obstructs X-rays and an assumption made by Inna Mokretsova about it being a vermilion pigment was born out by X- ray characteristics.
The background of miniatures on X-ray photos looks like areas of different dimness and density. This effect is produced by the gold foil which absorbs X-rays and which is so lavishly used in the decor of the Bible. Seen against a white background, such figures look like dark silhouettes; on all of the miniatures one can see fine white outlines in white lead which accentuate folds of the garments, feet and architectural details (X-ray photo of the miniature "Zacharias Before the Altar", Capital "F" in St. Luke's Gospel, p. 227).
The reason I am discussing in such (but not full) detail the paints chemistry is because it provided an introduction to the main problem which is the manner and technique of the painter. And one obvious reservation in this respect is that really "tangible clues" of this kind can only be provided by X-ray images of some really well-preserved originals. As has been said before, the paints layers were damaged on a number of miniatures. Shadows from white lead were of different density and some had a kind of mottled structure like on the X-ray image of the miniature "Daniel in Lion's Den" (Capital "A", Book of Daniel, p. 188), where one can clearly see "gaps" in the background and also "saggings" of the paint layer. In view of all this my selection of X-ray pictures for studies of the artists' manner was guided by the degree of the preservation of the original.
Having examined more that 100 images again and again (since some of the details measured not more than 0.4 cm) I arrived at the following conclusion: not only all of the characters share an external resemblance, which is only natural since the painter had to abide by the canon. But one could also trace some common techniques in all of them... These include fine white outlines of the garments, headgear, beards and hair (X-ray pictures of "Joshua Before the Lord", Capital "E", Book of Joshua, p. 46; "Zacharias Before the Altar"). The attitudes, size of heads and facial features matched almost completely when superimposed upon X-ray photos so that one got the impression that all of the miniatures were executed by one and the same brush. And this could very well be so since at that time it was the master painter in a studio who designed the concept of a picture and executed the most important of them. He started out with a light outline in one color and then added the details with patches of bright light and hues- did what we call the modelling. And one can get a fair idea of the personal technique of an artist by analyzing how he did this-by thick and non-transparent strokes of brush or with the help of fine and clearly structured touches. And an X-ray photo gives us many of these clues.
Having assessed all of this data at my disposal, I arrived at the conclusion that the Bible was illustrated or illuminated by three artists, or painters. Their "senior" produced first capital letter "I" in the Book of Genesis with scenes of "the Creation" and "Sins" (19 miniatures). By
means of an enlargement of X-ray photos of all the details and pieces (some 4 cm in size) I have been able to identify some of the painter's personal techniques in the drawing of faces, hands and arms, naked bodies and figures of elongated proportions and in complicated attitudes. It was this same artist who painted all of the "positive" characters in miniatures of a large format (4.5x4.5; 4.5x5 cm) where his personal touch is very apparent. One example is an X-ray photo of a miniature "St. Paul and Two Jews" (capital "M", Epistle to the Hebrews , p. 257).
Some interesting details revealed themselves on an X-ray photo of a miniature of "Moses Heeds the Word of the Lord". It seemed at first glance that all of the characters were painted by one and the same artist. But a closer look at the paint layer structure denied this conclusion. The face of the Lord was originally covered almost evenly with white lead upon which the artist applied thicker strokes of paint for the brow, nose and cheeks. He also painted with white lead the apples of the eyes, stressing the pupils, and outlined with fine strokes the fingers. And since the finishing strokes were applied upon a layer of white lead, one does not see on the X-ray photo any sharp transitions from darker to lighter hues.
A different manner can be traced in the presentation of the second person in this miniature: the face of Moses, his hands and feet are barely outlined with a thin layer of white lead and the most prominent parts of the face and the hands are "lifted up" with short and what we call "structural" strokes. Thus by his resort to "chiaroscuro" the artist tried to convey the impression of volume. Seen on the face is a sharper transition (than in the first person) from intense X-ray shadows (white lead "pasty", or flabby strokes of white lead) to patches less "loaded" with white lead. And that means that this part of the "work" was done by a different artist. The same general picture is discernible on the miniature "Beheading of Amalekite" (capital "F", Chapter II, Book of Kings, p. 68). The faces of the king and the executioner were painted by the master painter while the face of the Amalekite bears the imprint of the artistic manner of his helper, or assistant. And the same approach or "division of labour" can be traced all through the Bible.
Some of the X-ray photos, however, differ by their chiaroscuro patterns from the photos of the miniatures by the first two painters. One can site as an example the X-ray photos from the miniatures "Ana-ziah Falling from Tower" (capital "P", IV Kings, p. 81) and "David
Playing the Harp. David and Goliath" (capital "B", Psalm I, p. 123) where one can see very well that the faces and the hands are painted with a rather thick layer of white lead, without a clear differentiation of the strokes and what we call "detalization" of elements.
The involvement of 3 painters in the illumination of the Bible is also proved by the manner of depiction of the mythical beasts in the ornaments.
And it is interesting to note that when we finished our studies and compared our notes with my colleague Mokretsova the two of us turned out to share practically the same conclusions. Thus a combination of artistic and "technical" expert assessments makes it possible to formulate the fullest possible conclusion about this outstanding monument of West European art which was produced more than eight centuries ago.