Saturday, 8 March 2014

Book Review: The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets From the Middle Ages by Spike Bucklow

Pros: very well researched, explains things clearly using numerous examples, goes over various historical traditions

Cons: only mentions the most expensive pigments artists used, only a few illustrations

This is an exploration of colours used by painters in the middle ages by way of their ‘scientific’ and alchemical significance.  It mentions myths, traditions, physical and spiritual significances of the materials according to Traditional beliefs.  It also goes over the alchemical procedures that made these already expensive pigments even more important.

I was expecting a treatise on all the different pigments used in the middle ages, something akin to a teaching manual.  Instead, I got a mind blowing exploration of philosophy and world beliefs of the past.  I’ve always been interested in alchemy, and this book explained things like Plato’s cave, 4 element theory, and the Philosopher’s Stone in a way that was easy to understand.  While there were only a few simple figure drawings, the clarity of the writing meant illustration wasn’t really necessary (even if it would have been welcome).

Only a few pigments are mentioned: Tyrian purple, ultramarine blue, vermilion and dragonsblood (both red), and gold.  Later chapters revisit some of these materials showing their spiritual, rather than physical, significance.  I appreciated learning that the location and method of obtaining materials had meaning for the later artwork and use of the pigments, which I hadn’t expected.  Similarly, it doesn’t cover all aspects of alchemy, just those associated with the pigments being discussed.

The opening’s a bit condescending in the way of ‘we don’t think as they did, so it will be hard for you to understand what I’m about to say’, but he quickly moved on to the topic at hand, and only occasionally gave a modern analogy for those who might have trouble wrapping their heads around the Traditional world view (as opposed to the modern Scientific, analytical view).

This is a fascinating book and if you have any interest in alchemy I can’t recommend it enough.  Another thing it showed, that modern audiences don’t recognize, is how interconnected the world of the past was.  We see Europe as an isolated area, ignoring the fact that materials and ideas traversed borders and continents to influence them.  I also didn’t realize just how much Christianity took from other traditions.  Looks like I’ve a whole lot more reading and research to do.

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