Awestruck by an 800-year old charmer: the Conservation of a late 11th – early 12th century Byzantine manuscript and its 15th century binding

20 December, 2018

Juliet Baines joined the Chester Beatty conservation team for a three-month placement from June until September 2018. The internship was part of Juliet’s training as a book and paper conservator at the University of Amsterdam.

When a Byzantine manuscript (CBL W 139) was brought in for treatment in the Chester Beatty conservation lab I was awestruck. The manuscript, dating from the late 11th – early 12th century, is by far the oldest and the most beautiful object I have ever had the chance to work on in my (short) career as book and paper conservator so far. The layout of the text with gold highlights throughout, the unbelievably detailed images, and the wavy parchment leaves, make this manuscript beautiful in many ways. It is bound in a Byzantine-style binding, likely dating from the late 15th century. In this blog, I will describe the conservation treatment that was carried out to prepare the book for inclusion in the Gift of a Lifetime exhibition.

To determine if an object can be safely exhibited and handled, its condition is carefully assessed. In the case of CBL W 139 the binding structure and the text-block were in remarkably good condition; the majority of the individual pages were intact and the binding functioned well, opening easily. There are of course some aspects of the condition that do give away the age of the manuscript. Over the years handling of the leaves has given the corners of each page a lovely thumbed appearance, and exposure to environmental changes has caused planar distortions in the parchment. These aspects of the condition are a physical account of the history of the book and are not likely to threaten the condition of the manuscript in anyway. However, on closer examination, there were three aspects of the manuscript’s condition that did concern me. These were the partialy detached cover, which was extremely fragile, some of the illuminations where the pigments were unstable, and a number of tears in the edges of some of the parchment pages. To stabilise the exterior as well as the interior of the book an overall treatment of the manuscript was needed.

A detail of the endband and spine before Conservation.

A detail of the endband and spine after Conservation.

The textile covered binding was extremely fragile, particularly at the spine and along the edges of the boards where the velvet covering material was abraded and had suffered losses. The two layers of cloth used to line the spine were also partly detached. For the treatment, Japanese paper bridges and wheat starch paste were used to re-adhere and stabilise the spine linings and the velvet cover. The broken threads of the binding were also consolidated with wheat starch paste.

Detail from a folio of CBL W 139 showing the unstable paint layer.

The illuminations and decorations throughout the manuscript were studied closely with a microscope. A small brush was used to gently touch the paint layers to assess their stability. It was found that the paint layers were unstable, mainly around areas of loss where the media was lifting. Furthermore, there were areas where the paint was powdering; particularly the dark blue and green decorative borders and frame lines.

To stabilise the paint layers, the lifting media was consolidated with a 2% isinglass solution. First isopropanol was applied as a wetting agent, then the isinglass solution was applied with a fine brush immediately afterwards. The isopropanol reduced the surface tension of the adhesive allowing it to flow underneath the lifting media. In this way the isinglass re-adhered the flakes of media to the parchment surface preventing further loss.

The powdery paint layers were consolidated with a 0,5% isinglass solution applied with a nebuliser.

Powdery media was also consolidated using isinglass. This time the consolidant could not be applied using a brush as the loose particles would be picked up causing more damage. Instead a nebuliser—a medical device used for inhalation of a medicine in a fine mist—was used to apply a 0.5% solution of isinglass. The nozzle emits the consolidant as a vapour which settles on the powdering pigment and acts as a binding agent, without having to touch the surface of the paint layers directly.

Lastly the tears in the parchment pages were repaired. Most tears were situated at the lower edge of the page where there is a potential risk of further tearing when the pages are turned. A remoistenable tissue was prepared with acrylic toned Tengujo mulberry paper and isinglass. This way the tears could be repaired with the use of minimal moisture. The repairs are hardly visible and do not obscure the text but do provide enough strength to stabilise the tear.

A tear in a parchment folio before treatment.

A tear in a parchment folio after treatment.

Overall, I am happy that my treatment has ensured that this beautiful manuscript can be safely exhibited and enjoyed. Now that the cover is stable the likelihood of further losses occurring during handling is minimised and the manuscript can be opened safely. It was a great privilege to treat this manuscript and to be the one to help the book continue safely into the future. I would like to conclude this blog with a thank you to my colleagues. An emerging conservator can only learn so much within the walls of a university, so practical training in a studio with a real collection is crucial in order to learn the intricacies of the job. At the Chester Beatty training for the future is taken seriously and I am very grateful that the team of conservators took me in as an intern. Working with conservators Kristine, Julia and Alice has been immensely valuable to me as they generously shared knowledge and techniques and encouraged me to work on the beautiful objects from the collection.

Juliet Baines received her post-master’s degree from the University of Amsterdam in October 2018. CBL W 139 is now on display at the Chester Beatty in the current exhibition Gift of a Lifetime (19 October 2018 – 28 April 2019).

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