Illuminating imagery

2nd June 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

State-of-the-art hyperspectral imaging carried out on Wadham’s 11th century manuscript Gospel book has revealed a picture of St Matthew not visible to the naked eye.

  • Wadham Image - imaginggospels3jpg_0

    The  gospel pages pre-imaging showing the blank space on the right hand page.

  • Two images of the same page, pre and post imaging

    Two images of the same page, pre and post imaging

  • Wadham Image - wadhamgospelsbodleianscandavidhowell2_0

    David Howell views an initial scan of the St Matthew sketch page - the text on the other side of the page can be seen coming through. This image is roughly equivalent to what the naked eye can see.

The sketch of the evangelist Matthew that is revealed occupies an apparently blank space immediately above the start of the text of his Gospel and is believed to be an initial design sketch that was never inked in by the artist so has faded over time.

The imaging, carried out by David Howell, Head of Conservation Research at the Bodleian, renders such sketches and underdrawings visible, promising exciting new insights into medieval illumination and its techniques.

Back in the 1970s, ultra violet imaging techniques had shown the existence of the image of St Matthew in the Wadham Gospels and the findings were published in the Bodleian booklet Anglo-Saxon illumination in Oxford libraries.

Although investigations using the latest technology are at an early stage, this methodology offers the prospect of revealing more evidence of the picture's original form and a comparison of the performance of old and new technologies.

Richard Gameson, Professor of the History of the Book at the University of Durham comments on the finding: “This late eleventh-century gospel-book, written by a Norman scribe but with artwork that is indebted to Anglo-Saxon as well as Norman traditions, illustrates the interaction of the two cultures in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest.  The volume also sheds invaluable light on illuminators’ working procedures, for its decoration was never finished and different parts remain in different states of completion.  The designs were first sketched in hard point (i.e. with a fine but blunt stylus); they were then drawn over with red ink; finally (in a few cases) other colours and gold were applied.  The newly ‘captured’ sketch for the evangelist Matthew occupies the space immediately above the start of the text of his Gospel.  It was never firmed up and remained as a hard point drawing – probably because of a change in plan, for a similar figure of St Matthew was supplied in red ink on the preceding page.”  
“Seeing the hard point sketch with new clarity reveals that it differs from the red ink version in several ways; it is smaller, the evangelist’s legs are not crossed, and he has no ink-pot.  Nevertheless, both the hard point sketch and the red ink version reproduce a basic figure-type that is found in four late Anglo-Saxon gospel-books, the so-called Arenberg, Eadwig, Grimbald and York Gospels, the sketch being closest to the depiction of St John in the Grimbald Gospels of c. 1020.  The circumstance that all four of these earlier manuscripts come from Christ Church, Canterbury suggests a connection, direct or indirect, between the Wadham Gospels and that centre.  It is also evident that the hand responsible for the hard-point drawing was not only different from, but also more talented than, that which added the red version to the previous page, enlarging our understanding of the scriptorium responsible. By rendering such sketches and underdrawings visible, modern technology promises exciting new insights into medieval illumination and its techniques,” he adds.
The Bodleian’s David Howell explains the scanning process: “The University has state-of-the-art hyperspectral imaging (HsI) within a bespoke laboratory in the new Weston Library. The equipment, essentially an advanced type of ‘camera’ capable of analytical imaging through extremely accurate and high resolution colour measurement, is the most advanced equipment of its type available in the UK for heritage and conservation. It enables researchers to analyse the University’s unique research collections, to acquire data from diverse artefacts ranging from built heritage to historical manuscripts, to develop a robust approach to analysing results, and to collaborate with heritage organisations across the UK. Current projects include extensive research into the early mediaeval Gough map of Great Britain and the Selden map of China, and trying to reveal the palimpsest within the iconic Codex Selden.

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