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News | Published: Thu 18 Oct 2012

ImageScience illuminating art

An innovative project at the University of Cambridge, MINIARE, is uncovering some of the hidden histories of illuminated manuscripts. Thanks to a new partnership between the Department of Manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Hamilton Ker Institute and the Departments of Chemistry, Physics, History of Art and History and Philosophy of Science, we are now able to learn more about how manuscripts were made, where their pigments came from and what techniques were used by the artists.

Led by Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books at the Fitzwilliam Museum, and Professor Stephen Elliott, from the Department of Chemistry, the MINIARE project is using scientific techniques to identify the composition of illuminations. The research will help conservators repair priceless works of art and provide new insights into the cultural, social and economic circumstances of their production. Art historical and linguistic research has taken us a long way towards answering questions, but it is only with scientific analysis that we can clinch arguments and dispel myths.

Crucially for such unique and fragile objects, none of the techniques involves removing samples or even touching the painted surfaces. The composition of pigments is being revealed by a combination of analytical techniques, including fibre optic reflectance spectroscopy, X-ray fluoresces, and infrared reflectography. The main challenge for the chemists and physicists in the team is to identify very low concentrations of complex mixtures. Scientific protocols need to be refined and equipment developed so that the fingerprint of paints can be analysed at the sub-micron scale.

The current project, funded by the Newton Trust and a private benefactor, focuses on the finest of the 2,000 Western illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The goal is to expand MINIARE to encompass all collections at the University, including African and Asian material. The team is also seeking funding to extend the research project into a teaching programme, aiming to train the next generation of scholars who will bridge the divide between the arts and the sciences.