Tuesday, 31 March 2009

How on earth did they do it?

I've mentioned in my previous post that I've been to see the book of Kells. There was, however, another book in the museum building, a travel book from the 13th or 14th century that I found as impressive as the great Kells manuscript.

Imagine a book, a manuscript, with nice miniatures on the chapter headings. Now shrink it until it has pocket size. You can still buy bibles printed on extra-thin paper, with extra-tiny print that is extra hard to read because the print from overleaf, and the print of the leaf after that all shines through. In the museum, they had the medieval equivalent to this: Tiny, incredibly clean and regular letterings and then that miniature. I'm short-sighted, so I can squint at close-up at smallish things and still see them properly, but to make out all the details on that incredible drawing (which was by far not as faded as the Book of Kells illuminations, and sparkling with a blindingly gleaming gold background), I'd have needed to remove the glass case and move so close to the book that my nose would almost touch it. It really looked like a very detailed normal-size miniature shrunk. It was a moment of awe for me, and I'd have so loved to take a photo of this... but sadly, photograpy was forbidden as usual.

But the smallness of this miniature, in connection with the small detailed knotwork depictions in the B.o.K., make me want to hypothesise a bit. Or, rather, plunge a dear old hypothesis of mine into the cold waters of the blogosphere.

Have you ever wondered how those miniaturists did it? I mean it's not like today, where you just run into the opticians' and buy yourself a pretty little magnifying glass, with a table mount and extra light (battery powered) so you can see things at 15 times their size. Theoretically, magnifying crystals might have been used - but they would almost certainly lead to some distortion.

No, my pet hypothesis is that all those crazy miniature-miniaturists were more or less short-sighted - and maybe extremely so. An optician once explained to me that he wouldn't correct my shortsightedness with my glasses to the full extent theoretically possible, but only slightly below that, because, as he said, "we don't want you to lose that natural magnifying properties your eyes have". In addition to a magnifying effect that shortsightedness seems to have, people like me can also creep up creepingly close to the things we want to look at and still focus properly.* So maybe those illuminators of tiny things made use of their disability, exploiting it as a special talent in the scriptorium? I can imagine a short-sighted monk, hunched over his bit of parchment, nose almost touching the page, using the thinnest brush available to colour in the lines he drew the day before. Smelling the wet scent of the colours, adding a touch of the brush here, another one there.

Of course, once the farsightedness of age came in addition to the nearsightedness, his miniaturist career might have been over. One of these days, before it's too late for me because the far-seeing-of-age sets in, I'll grab some extremely thin brushes and inks and sit down to make a truly miniature miniature. Just to see if I can. Not wearing any lenses or glasses, of course.

* The downside to this, naturally, is shortsightedness. Which means that when reading without contacts or glasses, my nose hovers less than 10 cm above the book page. I have to move the book (or my nose) to the right-hand side of the book once I'm finished with the left-hand page. And I only see blobs and swirls of colours past the half-metre mark. And I regularly thank the powers that be for the invention of contact lenses.


A Life Long Scholar said...

That sounds very plausible to me. I grew up near-sighted, and normally took my glasses off to read or do embroidery, and just held the book or stitching very close to my eyes until I started wearing contacts regularly. However, about a decade ago I gave up my contacts (-7.5) forever and had LASIK surgery. I still do embroidery, but it is harder to focus properly on the stitching with my 20/20 eyes than it was when I was near-sighted. It was so worth it to be able to see when I wake up in the mornings though...

Teffania said...

I remember my first year archeology lecturer using a similar theory to explain the incredibly fine etruscan jewelry. However he attributed it to a special kind of shortsightedness that wore off by about 20.

I'm considered optically normall, and sat in the lecture thinking, "but i'm sure I could see that". I seldom use magifying glasses less powerful than a microscope because they just don't show any more detail than I can already see, they just show it larger and slightly fuzzier.

a stitch in time said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not alone on that track of thought. Teffania, perhaps you have a magnifying eye as well but not enough short-sightedness to be considered abnormal?
I remember getting reprimanded once because my description texts on a piece of documentation were written too small (and got told that I had to write three times as big). I could read the small version with no problem, though. Now, where do I get that incredibly fine silk thread and real-gold thread for some mind-boggling, eye-screwing tablet weave?