Category Archives: Sylvie Neven

The Colour ConText Database

By Sylvie Neven

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Fig. 1: screenshot of the starting page of Colour ConText database

Artisanal recipes are considered to be primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples of such documents include the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus and the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini. However, hundreds of other such examples exist and were still largely unknown. In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists’ recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, dozens of other surviving writings containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.

The initial goal of the Colour ConText database is to facilitate the consultation and exploitation of a large corpus of recipes. The core data consists of medieval and early modern manuscripts and printed books.

The ‘Sources’ page

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Fig. 2: screenshot of the ‘Sources’ page in the database

To date, more than 500 sources (including manuscripts and printed texts) have been entered into the database, specifically located on the ‘Sources‘ page (fig. 2). In the ‘List view’, the entries are tabulated optionally by place of conservation or edition, or by title, author or date. Detailed information such as the source’s title, language, location, provenance and circulation of these manuscripts and books (place and date of origin/publication), scribes or authors, previous owners, and a description of their technical and/or general content can all be viewed on this first interface, on the ‘detailed view’.

From now, these sources can be searched by title, or by place of conservation or edition.The database also allows access to digital images of these sources via European Cultural Heritage Online (ECHO), or via digital collections made available by external institutes.

The ‘Recipes’ page

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Fig. 3: screenshot of the ‘Recipes’ page in the database

The database also makes the content of the recipe collections accessible at the level of the individual recipes. To date, more than 6,500 recipes—some consisting of only a few lines, others covering several folios—have been transcribed and recorded on another specific page within the database. The ‘Recipes‘ page allows users to consult the transcription of a particular recipe, and sometimes also provides an English translation. This translation may either have been done in the framework of this project or be reproduced directly from existing edition. In such a case references to secondary sources, together with the related bibliographical data, are specified. Finally, this layout also gives access to the specific image of the original recipe text (fig. 3).

Users can search for a specific request by library, source, title or ID number—a consecutive and unique number assigned to each individual source. It is also possible to search for specific words that appear either in the transcription or the translation of the recipe.

Thanks to subject classification, keywords can be used when researching specific recipes, methods or materials. The general search button – situated on top of each page – allow users to combine an ingredient with a specific technique, mentioned in a limited geographical/chronological framework, when making their search.

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Fig. 4: screenshot of the results for combinated search

For example, the combined search for ‘alum’ (an potassium aluminium sulphate notably used in the art of dyeing and for the producing of lake pigment) and the colour ‘red’ shows a number of entries, which can be further filtered by glossary, artistic technique or content type. We can read that 305 recipes are concerned with the substance alum and with the production of the colour red. These recipes are more specifically related to painting, illuminating, writing, dyeing, gilding and metalwork (fig. 4).

The Colour Context database can also help to identify specific, datable practices and materials. For example, we have observed that a significant number of procedures involving anthocyanin colourants (obtained from the juice of flowers and berries, such as poppies, cornflowers or blueberries) are specifically described within a certain group of manuscripts. More precisely these texts were written in the south of Germany and the north of France between 1400 and 1560.

The ‘Glossary’ page

The database also includes a complete list of the ingredients and substances mentioned in the recipes, indexed both by their current scientific name (‘Current names’) and by the ‘historical’ terms precisely as they are written in the source texts (‘Historical names’). Objects and materials are linked by relational tables that allow the retrieval of all the different historical names used for one particular material—detailing the historical written context—as well as enabling the user to see the various materials that may be related to a specific name.

These lists notably shed light on the diversity of colour names and the complexity of the varied colour terminology used in artisanal recipes. For example, the puzzling denomination ‘red of Paris’ relates to several different substances. In the Illuminier Buch von Valentin Boltz von Ruffach (first edition dated of 1549), it is used to designate a red pigment obtained from brazil wood (Caesalpinia sappan Linn. or Caesalpinia echinata Lamarck). However, other sources make a distinction between Paris red and the red pigment obtained from brazil wood by recommending the use of either the former substance or the latter (‘Ein guot röselin oder pfirsÿg bluot Nu nim presilgen oder paris rot’, Colmarer Kunstbuch, pp. 124-125, recipe 35). In Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. Germ. 489 [252], ‘Paris rot’ is a colour made from brazil wood and an unspecified lake called ‘Lacta’. Within this same manuscript, recipe [391] describes the preparation of ‘Rotenn Paris’ from a lake. It has therefore been hypothesized that this appellation was used as a way to distinguish a specific hue.

For more information on the Colour ConText database, see my recent MPIWG feature story, Colours and Their Context.

Illuminating the ‘elusive’: reconstructing mediaeval recipes for anthocyanin pigments

By Sylvie Neven

Due to their trade value, a huge range of artistic materials is documented and recorded in historical written sources, such as guild regulations, contracts between artists and patrons or pharmacy price lists. However, certain substances are not recorded in these types of archives because they did not have market value. This is notably the case for plant-based materials that artists could easily find in nature and use for their colouring properties, such as the anthocyanin colourants. As these colourants are highly unstable in ordinary daylight, it was generally thought that they were not used in the dyeing of quality materials or to make paint but rather employed in a domestic context, as dyes for everyday clothes. To complicate the issue, anthocyanin colourants are difficult to identify through currently available analytical methods. For all these reasons, these substances have long remained ‘elusive’.

Nevertheless, research on mediaeval artists’ recipe collections has highlighted that a number of these books not only describe these organic colourants, but also indicate their use in illumination[2]. Based on a corpus of more than 400 mediaeval artists’ recipe books, this project intends to analyse the significance of these organic substances and to (re)define their use in an artistic context. In order to find citations of anthocyanin colourants throughout a vast amount of recipes, a specific database of artistic recipes was used (‘Colour ConText Database’). This database enables easy identification of recipes dedicated to anthocyanin colourants and allows researchers to deduce the availability of these colourants in a chronologically and geographically defined area. The database also makes it possible to establish and compare the different ways in which these colourants were prepared.

Thanks to this tool, I have found that the use of anthocyanin colourants is particularly frequent in the artists’ recipe books of the so-called ‘Strasbourg tradition’. Within this group, the recipes describe the use of corn poppies (Papaver rhoeas L.), blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus L.) bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), and elderberries (Sambucus sp.) for producing colours.

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Papaver Rhoeas L. & Centaurea Cyanus L.
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Vaccinium myrtillus L.
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Sambucus sp.

From these sources, it becomes clear that anthocyanin colourants were used for modelling and shading in the realization of flesh tints, draperies and landscapes. Furthermore, they also appear to have been applied as glazes on layers of gold or silver and served for making the inks that were used to underline rubrics or elements of decoration in illuminated manuscripts.

The basic operation is relatively simple and similar from one recipe to another. The petals or the berries are ground and crushed in a mortar in order to produce a foam. The juice is then extracted by filtering the foam through a clean (linen) cloth.sylvie pestle

sylvie foam

sylvie juice

The recipes mention several sorts of additional ingredients. For example, alum (potash alum or aluminium sulphate) is mentioned frequently and could have various functions. Its addition can modify the pH and provide aluminium cations that have an impact on the final hue and improve the stability of the colorant. 

In order to be used in painting and illuminating, anthocyanin colorants were preserved by setting them on a small piece of cloth, mentioned in the recipes as tüchlein or pezette, usually known in English as a ‘clothlet’. These pieces of cloth were first steeped in the prepared juice until they were saturated by the dye solution. After drying, the pieces of cloth were then wrapped in clean paper and kept between the pages of a book or in a wooden box, and stored in an area free of humidity. To use a stored colorant, the artist would cut off a small piece of the dyed cloth, place it in a shell or horn and pour some gum water or other sort of binding medium, such as egg white, onto it.

With the help of Dr Sanyova (KIK-IRPA), I have reconstructed a number of recipes of the so-called ‘Strasbourg tradition’ in the laboratory. Our purpose was to establish the different ways in which these colourants were prepared and explore how they were used in illumination techniques. We focused on comparing different procedures to make colourants from anthocyanins. The possibility of collating different manuscripts of the same textual tradition allowed us to study the evolution of recipes for the preparation of anthocyanin colourants both through time and through different copies. The numerous recipes recommended the use of different plant species and ingredients in varying quantities.

Dummy samples before and after artificial ageing process
Dummy samples before and after artificial ageing process

Over the period of several weeks, we prepared series of dummy samples of red and violet tüchlein from the juice of petals of Papaver rhoeas L. After that, the samples were evaluated by visible spectrophotometry and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), before and after the artificial ageing process. We found that the different recipes created a number of saturated hues providing artists with various colours.  However, interestingly, the products of the different recipes all responded similarly to the artificial ageing process.

[1] Anthocyanins are colourants that provide most of the blue, red and violet colours in numerous plants and fruits.

[2] Notably : Neven, S., ‘The Strasbourg Family Texts: Originality and Survival. A Survey of Illuminating techniques in Medieval South Germany’, in Revista de Historia da Arte, n° especial, 2011, pp. 65-77; Neven, S., ‘Describing the “elusive”: a new perception of the practices and the resources of illuminators in the North of Europe from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century, in Renaissance Workshop, London, pp. 188-190.

Prescribing and Describing Art Technology

By Marjolijn Bol

“To Produce a Gold Color by Cold Dyeing.

Take saflower blossom end oreye, crush them together and lay them in water. Put the wool in and sprinkle with water. Lift the wool out, expose it to the air, and use it.”

Stockholm Papyrus (Old-Greek, 4th Century AD)

This recipe describing how to dye wool a golden color is just one example of the many sources on art technology that have come down to us as from as early as 2000 BCE. The recipes range from the making and working of parchment, stone, glass, textiles, paper, pigments and colorants – to the production of embroidery, miniatures in books, metalwork, enamels, ceramics, woodworking, panel painting, glass painting and much more. Here on The Recipes Project, readers have already encountered several posts dealing with topics on art technological sources (see hereherehere and hereand more are planned for the future. For this reason the idea came about to develop a series of posts highlighting the current scholarly initiatives and interest into artists’ recipes.

An art technological source can be understood as any material surviving from the past that provides us with information about the history of the materials, tools and techniques used to make works of art – ranging from realia, to the work of art itself, images, texts and audio-visual sources. In the present series of posts, however, we will focus mainly on art technological sources in the form of recipes – or written records of artistic production. Interestingly, research into art technological sources has also triggered the field of historical reconstructions. On the basis of artists’ recipes, scholars attempt to reconstruct certain painting techniques, metalworking methods, lost objects from material culture such as parchment windows or factitious gemstones and much more. These historical reconstructions help scholars better understand the recipe, re-materialize long-lost objects that we now only know through textual sources and provide insight into the ‘original’ appearance of objects that survived in poor or changed condition. As a result, historical reconstructions can offer us a glimpse into the complex processes through which a certain artwork was made.

In recent years, the study of these so-called art technological sources has gained much momentum within the fields of Art History, Conservation & Restoration and the History of Science. In 2002, the Art Technological Source Research Group (ATSR) was established within the International Counsel of Museums (ICOM-CC) providing research into art technological sources with an international scholarly platform. Whereas many more recent initiatives could be sketched out here, I will only mention two more in the context of the present blog series. In attempt to organize and systematize the vast amount of historical artists’ recipes, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin is making a vast database on historical recipes on art technology (‘Colour ConText‘). Furthermore, the importance of research into art technological sources is attested by the fact that, since 2012, the University of Amsterdam has offered  a masters course on the topic. This course in Art Technological Source Research is not only unique because it brings together students from the Conservation & Restoration and Art History courses, but, additionally, the students have the opportunity to study original recipe books collected by and kept in the library of the Rijksmuseum. All students study a particular recipe from a treatise in the Rijksmuseum collection and make a historical reconstruction of the said recipe as part of their studies. We had groups of students attempting to grind and process petuntse stone according to an 18th century recipe for making Chinese Porcelain, while another group attempted to find out the role of spike oil in an 18th century varnish recipe. The students from textile conservation reconstructed the color “violet” from Runge’s Farbenchemie (1842) and, finally, the fourth group of students made a reconstruction of a painted silver vessel according to a recipe from Wilhelmus Beurs’s The Big World Painted Small (De groote waereld in t kleen geschildert, 1692).


The posts in this series titled Describing and Prescribing Art Technology intend to form a first glance into present-day research into art technological sources. It highlights the special collection of recipe books at the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam with an interview with the head librarian Geert-Jan Koot. Later in the month, Ad Stijnman, a key member of the Art Technological Source Research Group, will tell us a little about the history and research scope of this group, and, finally, Sylvie Neven will offer us a fascinating example of research into artist’s recipe books.

The Strasbourg Tradition of Artists’ Recipe Books (1400-1570) Part II: Between written and oral transmission

By Sylvie Neven

The literature of artistic and technological recipes frequently serves as a source for historical study in art technology. However, to date, the nature and the original function of artists’ recipe books have not been clearly determined. The relevance and the reliability of this form of writing continue to be issues debated by scholars, with no conclusions forthcoming. Two different hypotheses have been put forward regarding the aim of this type of literature. On the one hand, these texts have been seen as manuals that may have been used by artists. On the other hand, these recipes often seem to have been transmitted for the purposes of literary preservation, not directly connected with contemporary workshop practices.

During my PhD research, an attempt to answer these questions was made using a delimited corpus of such recipe books written during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries : the ‘Strasbourg tradition’. Focusing on the sources themselves, I have combined historical and codicological analysis on the one hand, and philological and critical textual study on the other. In so doing, I have considered the processes of making, compiling and disseminating of these written sources.

Actually, the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition were compiled from three kinds of sources. Firstly, the largest part of their content comes from the copying and the compilation from other written sources. In this case, it can be either older or quoted authorities or contemporary (and quite often anonymous) works. These processes are perceptible through the very important component of textual similarities found in the manuscripts of this tradition. Obviously, religious institutions – and their libraries – from which I have previously determined that most of the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition originate, appear to be a privileged place, offering scribes the opportunity of copying and compiling such collections. Moreover, several scribes have given information concerning the resources they used for compiling the manuscripts of the Strasbourg tradition. In fact, they collected data from the libraries of neighbouring cloisters. For example, during his stay at St. Ulrich’s and St. Afra’s Cloister (Augsburg), Wolfgang Seidel the author of two recipe books of this tradition[1] made use of the cloister’s vast collection of books, as attested in his commentaries:

So vill vom geschenckh hab ich auss der liberej des closters zw sant vlrich zw Augspurg lassen abschreiben durch ain knaben des namen ist Walthasar Gech von Fiessen im 1550 Jahr [2]

Secondly, the scribes also cite the authorities from which they have obtained practical information. These authorities may be either practitioners (artists) or contemporary scholars. The artists whose names are  mentioned in the texts were mostly working near the area in which the recipe books were produced. In the Strasbourg Manuscript, the anonymous scribe states that the data he has recorded came from the teaching of two persons, namely Heinrich von Lubegge and Andres von Colmar as suggested by the opening sentences: ‘Dis ist von varwen die mich lert meister heinrich von Lübegge’ (‘This is about colours as Heinrich von Lübegge taught me’) and ‘Dis lehrt mich meister Andres von Colmar’ (‘Andres von Colmar taught me this’). One person has been identified as Andreas Claman, who was painter and goldsmith, active in Strasbourg during the second half of the fourteenth century.

Exchanges are also known to have taken place between scribes and contemporary scholars. For example, Wolfgang Seidel specifies several times that he is indebted to the Bishop of Freising for some recipes that he subsequently includes in his recipe books. Seidel also cites Bartholomew Schobinger, a jurist from St. Gallen, who is famed for his deep interest in natural sciences and alchemy.

Finally, some recipes could correspond to a personal contribution of the scribe. It is interesting to note that the scribe of the Strasbourg Manuscript uses the first-person singular, which is relatively rare in artists’ recipe books. Moreover, he clearly explains that he is divulging his own training:

Now, I want to teach how one should temper all the colours with glue to apply them on wood, on wall or on textile.

In the first folio of the Cgm 4118, Wolfgang Seidel explains that for the writing of his recipe books he has used both written –and older- sources and information collected from his contemporaries, but he has also refered on his own practical experience:

De arte fusoria Rhapsodia partim ex uetusta quadam Biblioteca, partim uero bonorum amicorum colatione cum sumata, opera autem et labore fratris Wolffgangi Sedelij in vnum collecta in solacium et commodum fusorie artis studiosorum[3]

The diversity of sources and persons from which these collections of recipes derive can be seen in relation to their context of creation and their function. These manuscripts were mostly written in religious centres and circulated outside the artists’ workshop. One might suggest that they played a more important role in the conservation and transmission of artists’ knowledge than in the teaching of artistic practices, reflecting the workshops’ activity. In parallel, some of these recipe books may be used to identify specific, datable practices, especially when their compilers specify the name and/or place of origin of the artists (or the authority) from whom they obtained their information.

For the first post in this series on artists’ recipe books, please see my “Restoring a lost artists’ recipe book“.


[1] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4117 and Cgm 4118.

[2] ‘So many presents I have let copy from the library of the Cloister St Ulrich in Augsbourg, by a young boy who’s name is Walthasar Gech von Fiessen in the year 1550’, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, fol. 128v.

[3] Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 4118, f. 1r.