Tag Archives: varnish

Medieval Makeup ‘Artists’. Painting Wood and Skin

by Marjolijn Bol

What there is stays the same. That she can never change.                                                                        Jan van Boendale (ca. 1280 – ca. 1351)

For art historians, one of the most important and best-known ‘recipe books’ is  Cennino Cennini’s (c. 1370 – c. 1440) Il Libro dell’arte (The Craftman’s Handbook). The Italian treatise is famous because it offers the reader many detailed recipes that explain how to make a panel painting. These include the preparation of wood so that one can paint on it, how to make paint from egg and pigments, how to make brushes, how to paint draperies, faces and beards, and, finally, how to varnish the finished work with a mixture of oil and resin (the ‘tears’ from trees such as amber) so that it becomes it shiny and is protected from dust and dirt (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Giovanni Boccaccio, Marcia painting her self-portrait from De Claris Mulieribus (Of famous women, written 1361), early fifteenth century illumination, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, ms. 13420, f.101v
Fig. 1. Giovanni Boccaccio, Marcia painting her self-portrait from De Claris Mulieribus (Of famous women, written 1361), early fifteenth century illumination, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, ms. 13420, f.101v

Little known, however, is the fact that Cennini also writes that painters were sometimes asked to be ‘makeup artists’:

In excercise of your profession, you will sometimes have to stain or paint on flesh, chiefly to paint the face of a man or woman.1

Cennini explains that there are three methods for painting faces. You can have the colors or pigments tempered with egg, or, when you want to make the face more brilliant, with linseed oil or varnish (the oil-resin mixture). Cennini writes furthermore that in order to clean the face, one takes egg yolks and, gradually rubbing them on the face with the hands, this removes the face paint. The fact that panel painters were asked to be make-up artists, begins to make more sense when we consider the fact that for painting on wood and the face many similar materials were used (figs. 2 and 3).

Fig. 2. Shared materials panel painter and face painter, left to right: Egg, linseed oil, resin tears, dried resin (mastic) and below: two pigments: white lead and vermillion.
Fig. 2. Shared materials panel painter and face painter, left to right: Egg, linseed oil, resin tears, dried resin (mastic) and below, two pigments: white lead and vermillion.
Fig. 3. Bernardo Daddi, detail Virgin Mary's face, 14th century. Egg-based paint on panel Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (inv. nr. 1064)
Fig. 3. Bernardo Daddi, detail Virgin Mary’s face, 14th century, egg-based paint on panel, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, inv. nr. 1064.

There are in fact many more painter’s recipe books that include instructions for making face paint. The fifteenth century German Strasburg manuscript for instance, a collection of recipes for painting in books and on panel, also provides us with an instruction for making a face paint from the resin mastic.2

Another interesting  source that reflects the similarities between panel painting practice and face painting practice is the fourteenth century poem Jan Teesteye (ca. 1330-1334) written in Middle Dutch by Jan van Boendale (ca. 1280 – ca. 1351). In the section of his verse that deals with ‘women and their bad habits’ Van Boendale compares the crèmes and ointments used by women to cover up facial irregularities to the painter’s varnish:

They (the women) grease and anoint their faces, to appear beautiful, and admired by many;but as a painter varnishes an image with all its deceiving decoration, shining beautifully as if though it were solid gold, it is, on the inside, still wood; So a woman, has varnished her skin to make it look beautiful and shining, it is, however, still a futile thing; What there is stays the same. That she can never change.3

Thus, for Van Boendale, women who varnish their faces are like the painter who has varnished his work, embellished with fake jewels, glistening beautifully like gold but, ultimately, on the inside still made from wood (fig. 4). This way, Van Boendale uses the practice of make-believe in painting to compare it to another aspect of fourteenth century material culture; how women sometimes fool us with their counterfeit beauty created with face paint. What makes van Boendale’s comparison even more interesting is that he synonymously uses the Middle Dutch word ‘vernis’ for both the cosmetics used by ladies to smooth their faces and the final varnish layer applied by painters to make a painting look smooth and shiny (and protect it).

Cennino Cennini, like Van Boendale, also had some critique on the practice of painting faces. Contrary, however, to Van Boendale’s moral critique on the trickery involved in face painting, Cennini, as a painter, was well aware of the health risks involved in using some of the painter’s materials for painting the skin:

But I will tell you that if you wish to keep your complexion for a long time, you must make a practice of washing in water – spring or well or river: warning you that if you adopt any artificial preparations your countenance soon becomes withered, and your teeth black; and in the end ladies grow old before the course of time; they come out the most hideous old women imaginable.4 

Cennini was certainly right to warn against face paint. At least since antiquity many of the materials used on the face included toxic ingredients, such as the pigment lead white for applying a ‘foundation’, or vermillion for making one’s cheeks look red and blushing. Such pigments poisoned the person using it, and, eventually, could even lead to death. Here the old Dutch proverb – that one has to suffer for beauty – applies a little too well.

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1. Daniel Varney Thompson (ed.), The Craftsman’s Handbook: the Italian “Il libro dell’ arte”. Cennino Cennini, New York, 1960, p. 123 and for the Italian see: Fabio Frezzato (ed.), Il libro dell’arte. Cennino Cennini, Vicenza, 2004, p. 203 [nr. CLXXIX].

2. Rosamund Borradaile and Viola Borradaile, The Strasburg manuscript: A medieval painter’s handbook/Das Strassburger Manuskript: Handbuch für Maler des Mittelalters, München, 1976, p. 83.

3. Gerrit Komrij, De Nederlandse poëzie van de twaalfde tot en met de zestiende eeuw in duizend en enige bladzijden, Amsterdam, 1994, p. 103, English translation by author

4. Thompson (ed.), The Craftsman’s Handbook, p. 123.