Quick brief note on pigments in the Vms

d’Imperio reports an account given by Dr. Carter of the manuscript’s inks and pigments

Re-arranged into colour-groups, Carter’s account of them as follows:


Some of the colors appear to be colored ink or water-color, some a kind of crayon, and some an opaque kind of paint like poster paint.


A good, strong brown
… an amber-like ink, like British tan leather goods;
A red ink just like ordinary red ink today,

a bright, not quite brilliant blue ink or water-color,

[pigments.. my numbering]

  1. an opaque aquamarine,

2. a good strong red, carmine rather than scarlet or vermillion;
3. a red that looks like face rouge in color and texture[!];
4. a thick red that makes dots of color that you could scrape with your finger nail.
5. a red that looks like a bloodstain about a week old.

6. a blue that sparkles with tiny fragments (not apparently by design)

7. a dirty yellow (the yellow and browns of the sunflower illustration are like those, only a little faded, of the Van Gogh sunflower picture; the greens are less brilliant):

8. an opaque green;
9. a dirty green,
10. a kind of green crayon[!],

11. and several [!] other greens of various hues, intensity, value. and texture.

(More information on the ‘crayon-like’ pigments would be interesting)

McCrone analysed the inks and just four of the twelve-and-more pigments/shades described by Dr. Carter. McCrone’s results for those four pigments were:

  • a blue – ground azurite with minor amounts of cuprite, a copper oxide.
  • a[the?] clear/White – protenaceous, eggwhite and calcium carbonate is likely.
  • a green – copper and copper chloride, most likely produced as a salted copper corrosion product.
  • a red-brown – red ochre, consisting of hematite, possibly minor amounts of lead sulfide and palmierite.

see   (McCrone letter – pdf).

[link updated 14th Dec. Note that the Beinecke describes this letter as a “detailed chemical analysis of the Voynich manuscript” – which rather overstates things. It is in fact a letter reporting results from chemical analysis of four pigment samples, with a detailed study of the manuscript’s inks. Most unfortunately McCrone’s brief did not allow the specialists to select their samples, and did not include identifying the binding agent – a most important indicator of cultural and temporal context. The samples were not even taken using randomisation to determine which folios would be sampled – a basic requirement in scientific methodology, but again not left to the specialists who were tasked with performing the analyses.]

McCrone refers to just one of the reds, the red-brown that may be Carter’s “red that looks like a bloodstain about a week old.”

In the Yale facsimile edition, the essay by Zyats et.al. entitled ‘Physical Findings’ refers to those same few, but adds mention of a yellow.

Apart from noting it is probably an organic yellow, the essay says nothing much about it, but could be interpreted as saying that the manuscript nowhere uses orphiment or yellow ochre. Zyats names a few European plants which yield a yellow. A recipe for saffron yellow, recorded in a Montpellier manuscript, is referenced by the following scientific report on some Portuguese mss.

  • Maria João Melo, Paula Nabais, Maria Guimarães, Rita Araújo, Rita Castro,
    Maria Conceição Oliveira and Isabella Whitworth, ‘Organic dyes in illuminated manuscripts: a unique cultural and historic record’, Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Vol. 374, No. 2082, (13th December 2016). Theme issue: Raman spectroscopy in art and archaeology. pp. 1-20. [JSTOR]

Zyats et. al. expand McCrone’s reference to haematite to include both the ‘red and red-brownish passages’ but are unclear about whether this explains all Carter’s reds, or whether their sample shown as representative (from f.67r-2) is the only sample being referenced, and/or the only sample analysed. Uncertainty is expressed in the essay about the presence of mercuric sufide; the authors speculating that it might be synthetic vermillion.

A similar absence of certainty is expressed about the greens.

No attempt is made, in that essay, to place the range of analysed pigments within any broader or comparative context.

I think it a pity that the authors did not keep to reporting their technical analyses and conclusions without wandering into that realm of semi-historical and pseudo-historical narratives. Non-scientific information in that essay appears to be chiefly aimed at defending a traditional theory of fifteenth-century European authorship/creation for the whole of the manuscript and opposing one particular minority theory that the Voynich theory is a late forgery.

As I’ve said before, though, this means the scientific reporting is adulterated with such dubious statements as that the manuscript is “known” to have been in Rudolf’s library (something still no more than an often-repeated rumour and which was not even supported by the person who is believed to have first mentioned that alleged rumour in a letter addressed to Kircher).*

*comments made at the end of the Malta conference (2022) suggested that a paper delivered there has ended in the affirmative this question of Rudolfine ownership, but until the paper is available to be read, doubts remain, especially since it is unclear whether the records distinguish between printed books and manuscripts, and the assertion would appear to be based on mention of ‘a few alchemical books’ – while specialists in the history of European alchemical images have judged those in the Voynich manuscript to have no connection to that particular vocabulary. But one must wait and be fair to the author of that paper.

Otherwise, I found ‘Physical Findings’ the most useful essay in that edition: in fact the only useful essay since all the rest repeat the usual and well-known ideas and attempts at comparison between images in the Vms and some few in some few Latin manuscripts chosen by criteria which are plainly theoretical. (Why consider only herbals? Why only Latin herbals? etc.)

‘Physical Findings’ includes a good overview of analytical techniques for novices – with a caveat in 2022 that it reports those techniques at the time the essay was written.

With regard to pigments, analytical methods have advanced and improved constantly since 2016, to reflect increasing concern to use non-destructive tests and take ever-smaller samples.

Micro-XRF is proving especially valuable within its natural limits.

I think we may fairly agree that our present artefact was produced in the early decades of the fifteenth century and was very possibly – if not certainly – manufactured under Latin auspices in southern Europe. What researchers need to know, however, is not that the Beinecke will defend a theoretical narrative but some clue as to where in the world we should be looking for a key to the manuscript’s content. It is not the points of similarity only, but those points of difference between ‘normal’ medieval Latin manuscripts and the Voynich manuscript – its codicology, palaeography, images and pigments – which will assist in seeing that research-parameters are appropriate as we try to elucidate the written and pictorial texts

For more on organic yellows, see comment below this post.

Postscript: In this case as so often, if I remember to search Nick Pelling’s blog,  something helpful for readers turns up. In this case, his post “Parchminers, scriveners, lymners, bookbinders, stationers…” ciphermysteries, (Jan.21st., 2010)

and finally, Nick’s recent posts (Dec.2022) about pigments and recipe-texts reminds me that there is a similar Islamic treatise mentioned in

David J. Roxburgh, ‘The Study of Painting and the Arts of the Book’, Muqarnas, Vol. 17 (2000), pp. 1-16. [JSTOR]

“Tricks of the trade … were learned and transmitted from teacher to pupil. The success of this transmission was arguably better accomplished by direct access to the teacher and his methods than by the highly mediated use of a text through recipe books or treatises, many of which have come down to us. One treatise, Simi Nishapuri’s Jawhar-i Simi (composed in 1433-34), imparts .. fairly detailed instructions for the production of pigments.” (p.5)

Readers interested to know more about RAMAN micro spectroscopy and how it helps identify pigments, the following table and one paragraph are added below from a scientific paper published, admittedly, in 2018 but still worth including in a bibliography.

* from: G. Marucci, A. Beeby, A. W. Parker and C. E. Nicholson, ‘Raman spectroscopic library of medieval pigments collected with five different wavelengths for investigation of illuminated manuscripts’, Analytical Methods, 2018, 10, 1219. (Published on 20 February 2018). Free access.
*DOI: 10.1039/c8ay00016f

Pigments and inks investigated were both pigments and dyes, chosen in accordance with the literature, most commonly used in manuscripts between Vth–XVIth centuries, supplied by L. Cornelissen & Son (London) and Kremer Pigmente GmbH & Co. KG (Aichstetten, Germany). Iron gall ink, Brazil wood and kermes were made following ancient recipes. Analysis of pure pigments using the 532 nm and 632.8 nm lasers was made by sampling through the wall of a glass vial containing the pigments. Indeed, the use of a confocal microscope allows collecting radiation coming only from the focal plane, so that there is no signal related to the glass. However, using the 785 nm excitation source the spectra presented a large background at around 1400 cm-1 (ref. 75) so pellets of pigments were prepared to obtain Raman spectra without glass contribution.
The measurements performed with 488 nm and 830 nm excitation were also run on pellets. They were prepared by pressing a mixture of the pigment and a 10% w/w of a wax binder, (BM-0002-1CEREOX® Licowax C Micropowder). To ensure the homogeneity of the samples the mixture of wax and pigment was shaken for 3 minutes with a frequency of 25 s-1, and pellets were then formed using a hydraulic press, with 9 tonnes per surface pressure. The spectra collected do not show any signals attributable to the wax.

NOTE – this ‘Brazil wood’ did not come from Brazil. It came into the Mediterranean world from the east, being gained chiefly if not only from Caesalpina sappan.

3 thoughts on “Quick brief note on pigments in the Vms

  1. with regard to organic yellow, the use of rhubarb offers an interesting example of ‘transmission loss’ when information from regions east of Europe entered Latin horizons.

    Without discussing Armenian, Russian or other non-Latin and non-Islamic book traditions, we find use of rhubarb yellow attested in Islamic manuscripts long before it is mentioned (so far as I’m aware) in the west. On this see references in the sources listed in the post (above) and also e.g.

    *Penley Knipe, Katherine Eremin, Marc Walton, Agnese Babini & Georgina Rayner, ‘Materials and techniques of Islamic manuscripts‘, Heritage Science Vol. 6, Article number: 55 (2018). Easily accessed through Springer. (Open access paper).
    To give you an idea of how meaty that article is, here are two paragraphs from it, though cited sources are omitted here.

    Recipes for the manufacture and use of artists’ materials in Islamic treatises have been extensively studied [nine sources referenced]. The Persian palette was divided into six primary colors, white, yellow, red, green, blue, black, and six metal-based pigments, gold, silver, brass, copper, tin, mica [three sources]. Of these, the inorganic materials can be separated into naturally occurring minerals—orpiment (arsenic sulfide) for yellow, cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), realgar (arsenic sulfide), and various ochres (iron oxides) for red, and lapis lazuli (ultramarine) for blue—and synthetic compounds—lead white (basic lead carbonate) for white, red lead (lead tetroxide) and vermilion/cinnabar (mercuric sulfide) for red, and verdigris (copper acetate) for green.

    Several organic materials were also used as pigments and include those derived from plants such as rhubarb and saffron for yellow, safflower and brazil wood for red, and indigo for blue, and those produced from insects such as kermes, cochineal and lac for red. Many of the recipes mentioned mixing the pigments with gums for preparation or use. One 16th century Iranian paint box contained lead white, red lead, an organic red, yellow orpiment, organic yellow pigments derived from rhubarb and saffron, copper-based green, ultramarine, indigo and red and brown earth pigments

    Rhubarb as a source for yellow appears quite late in European manuscripts, but one case study will no doubt excite a few theorists, because it is considers a hausbook from the atelier of Diebolt Lauber.

    *David Scott, Narayan Khandekar, Michael R. Schilling, Herant Khanjian,
    Technical Examination of a Fifteenth-Century German Illuminated Manuscript on Paper: A Case Study in the Identification of Materials’, Studies in Conservation, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2001), pp. 93-108. Also open access, I think.

    There are a great many studies of this sort and if you can’t get access to those two, I’m sure you’ll be able to find others.


  2. Looking through my unpublished ‘drafts’ I see I have one entitled ‘the Voynich palette’. It includes a good number of references, including (as it happens) one recently mentioned by Pelling and a couple referred to in the main post here. I didn’t post that article because it was focused on questions about crayons and encaustic, and I felt few readers would care for such specialised stuff.


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