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We are looking at parchment together with Jiri Vnoucek.

We are looking at parchment together with Jiri Vnoucek.

Behind | News about the art | Exhibition | 8.mar.2013

The flower is painted on the back of a five-week old calf

The calf cannot have been more than six weeks old when its hide was taken. It might even have been younger, depending on the usual size of the particular race. After all, back then cattle were smaller.

Jiri Vnoucek is a conservator with the Royal Library in Copenhagen and an expert on parchment. In fact he makes his own parchment and teaches others how to make vellum from scratch. All the paintings from the Gottorfer Codex books are painted on parchment, and the picture shows Jiri pointing to a leaf from volume 2 on the light table. He informs us that calves who are older than six weeks are too large to be used for parchment, and that the very finest parchment is made from prematurely born or unborn animals.

Real parchment is not paper

Real parchment, also known as vellum, is made from animal hide. The earliest known examples come from ancient Egypt where animal skins were used for writing and drawing. This practice has been widespread across the world, and sheep, goats, calves, rabbits, deer, camels and even donkeys have supplied the necessary skins. Some animals still do so today, but these days their hides are mainly used for bookbinding purposes. 

Parchment paper is made from paper pulp for other purposes – but it can resemble real parchment because some parchment becomes a little transparent with age. 

In the days when the Gottorfer Codex was created, parchment was made by a specialist craftsman, a so-called parchmenter. He would treat the hides by alternately placing them in vats of lye and vats of water. During and after that baths he would scrape hair and flesh off the hides, and when only the skin itself was left he would stretch it on a wooden stretcher. Here, the hide would be scraped further, powdered with chalk, and polished with pumice. Then it was ready to be sold.

The supply of animals was not unlimited at the time, and parchment would have been a precious material. It was not a question of simply stepping out to butcher and flay an animal whenever you felt like writing a document or painting a flower. 

Duke Frederick III, who owned Gottorf Castle, was wealthy enough to afford having the flowers in his gardens immortalised on parchment. Frederick’s employees were sent to the parchmenter to buy parchment so that Hans Simon Holtzbecker could paint – and paint, and paint – for the ten years he spent in the duke’s employ.

One or two paintings per calf?

During Jiri Vnoucek’s visit the hip area of cows and calves suddenly took on new significance for us. Cows have some very prominent bones clearly visible at the hindmost part of their back where the skin is thinner. This also applies to the skin behind the front legs. 

Jiri demonstrates how marks left by the calf’s protruding bones are clearly visible on the parchment used for the painting of milkweed. At the bottom, between the stems of the two flowers, is a light area forming a Y-like shape. The tail end is turned towards us. At the top we can see two round light spots – these are the "armpits" behind the front legs. This is to say that the lower legs, head, tail, and some of the belly have been removed by the parchmenter (or butcher), and the bookbinder has subsequently cut the parchment’s edges along a ruler.

Only one painting could be fitted onto this calf. Indeed, the parchment feels finer and thinner than many other leaves, so the calf that supplied it would have been very small. The painting measures approximately 40 x 50cm.Billedtekst: We look at parchment together with Jiri Vnouce.

  • By: Anja Scocozza
  • 8.mar.2013
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