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Pigments in Jain manuscript art

Contributed by Silvia Amato

In the spring of 2013, the Science Section at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) carried out a short project on the pigments used in paintings in Jain manuscripts held in the institution.

Pigments are substances used to produce colours in art and are normally powders that are mixed with a binding medium, such as water or oil, to create paints the artist can use. Jain manuscripts of certain texts are noted for their heavy use of colourful illustrations, because the items themselves are considered precious and are sometimes even treated as sacred objects worthy of worship. Pigments are also often used in manuscript text, for example to mark verse divisions, for emphasis or punctuation.

Before the advent of artificial colouring agents, many traditional pigments were derived from animal or insect products. A well-known example is carmine, a bright red material made from boiled cochineal beetles. The Jain doctrine of non-violence means that, in principle, only pigments produced from plants or minerals should be used in Jain art. Jain manuscripts also frequently use precious materials in their miniature paintings, such as gold or lapis lazuli.

The V&A team used several scientific methods to examine a selection of folios from Jain and Hindu manuscripts. As well as spectroscopic techniques of different kinds, these methods included optical microscopes to reveal information that the naked eye cannot see. The project discovered that the pigments used remained largely traditional, although the artistic styles developed. Even so, later on some colours were obtained using more modern pigments. The comparison with Hindu manuscripts also brought to light some differences.

What was the goal?

Twenty-one folios from a number of Jain and Hindu manuscripts in the Victoria & Albert Museum collections were analysed using non-destructive scientific techniques. The aim was to find out:

  • about the palette of pigments used in the manuscript paintings
  • if any differences could be seen, depending on the provenance, period and religion of the manuscript.

Methods

The powerful Raman microscope analyses pigments and dyes on the surface of an artefact to produce its characteristic 'Raman fingerprint'.

Using a Raman microscope
Image by Victoria and Albert Museum © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The procedures used to reach these goals ranged from standard microscopy to ultraviolet imaging. Certain characteristics of the manuscripts are invisible to the human eye but modern analysis techniques can discover what lies hidden in the material of an artefact. These can point to the item's provenance, age and other information that may be very difficult to find out without complete documentary records.

The V&A team which undertook the analysis of these manuscripts included Bhavesh Shah, who led the XRF analysis, Lucia Burgio, senior scientist, and the curator Nick Barnard. The Raman and optical microscopy analyses were carried out by Silvia Amato, a visiting scientist on a post-graduate traineeship.

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