Green-Most manuscript green was made from copper based pigments. As you may have observed from oxidizing copper, it turns a beautiful verdigris green (a sort of bluish green). Verdigris is cheap, plentiful and was quite popular for that reason. However, if you wanted a truer and less blue green you had to go in for the more expensive malachite. Malachite is a semi precious stone (like lapis lazuli) which is a marvelous shade of emerald green (in it’s pure state) and so when crushed and mixed with the egg tempura base, the result was stunning. This malachite green was used for the important figures’ clothes in better manuscripts but you will almost never see it in the background images of trees or landscapes.
Red-Red was often formed from crushed cinnabar, a mercury based crystal which is toxic but yields wonderful red color in paint. Cinnabar can be just about any shade of red you can imagine but the most highly prized for manuscripts was a bright and intense shade. You could also use iron oxide, rust, which was abundant and very amenable to being incorporated into tempura. However, it was very highly staining and so had to be used with a light hand. In addition it produced a less intense and more brown red than cinnabar and so was often used as a color for the less important parts of paintings. The brightest and best of the Medieval reds had to be Red Lead, or “Minium” as it was known. This was an opaque orangy-red which would correspond to our cadmium red in modern paint. Minium had body, mixed with other painting materials and was brush-friendly. It is toxic because of the lead component but it retains its glorious color as clearly as the day it was ground. Red Lead as Minium gave its name to “miniatures” because the beautiful strong red was a popular feature in the painting of small exquisite scenes and portraits.
Next blog: Medieval Perfumes! Look for it coming soon. There is one more in the Medieval Colors series, too-The Expensive Colors: Purple, Silver, and Gold!