Dragons, griffins, unicorns and other mythical creatures come to life under Hannah Charlton’s fingers, as she carefully creates illuminated manuscript pages.
During January, you can watch the magic happen in the Lab at the North Spokane Library, or even make some magic of your own. Charlton is January’s creator in residence. The program and the accompanying workshops are sponsored by the Friends of the North Spokane Library.
This modern woman’s love of medieval art began in 2012 when she interned at the Grunewald Guild in Leavenworth, Washington.
“The Guild is an art retreat center,” Charlton said. “During the summer they have classes on pottery, weaving, basic painting … and that’s where I was introduced to medieval calligraphy.”
She studied art, graphic design and history at Whitworth University, graduating in 2014, and found the art of medieval manuscript illustration to be a perfect blend of her areas of study.
“Illuminated manuscripts are hard to describe because we don’t have them anymore,” she said. “The Middle Ages don’t get a lot of attention in general. The art is so different than we’re used to seeing. It’s quite abstract. They don’t use light or shadow.”
Charlton is working on two projects: passages from “The Book of the City of Ladies,” a 15th century feminist book on women in history, and a bestiary, which she’ll work on during her library res idency.
“A bestiary is a genre of books from the middle ages – it’s a mix of zoology and biology with a religious reference,” Charlton said. “It’s a really beautiful art form.”
She’s working her way through the alphabet, but not in sequence.
“The ‘A’ is actually giving me the most problems right now,” she said, laughing.
Each page is hand-drawn and hand-painted on cellulose parchment. Original parchment was made from animal skins and is hard to come by.
“The Book of Kells,” is perhaps one of the most widely known illuminated manuscripts.
“An art historian did the math and estimated that it took the skin of 200 calves to create it,” Charlton said. “He was probably a very sad art historian after that.”
She said it’s difficult to estimate the time she spends on each project. The research and layout is time-consuming and exacting. Then comes the text and the first layer of ink.
“The text is where the most errors happen,” she said. “You can make ‘typos.’”
There’s even a patron demon of scribes called Titivillus. He was said to work at the behest of Satan to cause scribes to make errors in the sacred texts.
“Ironically, his name is very hard to spell.”
The artist uses a parallel pen filled with a black ink cartridge to create the text, and if Titivillus shows up, no worries.
“I can actually scrape the ink off with an exacto knife,” she said.
She uses gouache, an opaque water color, to paint the illustrations.
“It’s kind of like making a map,” she said. “The colors have to be exact.”
In her workshop for children, Charlton will explain the history of art during the middle ages, as well as talk about how difficult making books was prior to the invention of the printing press. The kids will create medieval shapes and designs and learn how to make medieval letters.
During her adult and teen workshop, attendees will create illuminated bookmarks, with two designs to choose from.
Charlton works at an immigration law firm by day.
“It gives me the ability to make art,” she said.
Her gilded prints and other work are available for purchase on her website, and she’s exhibited at local venues.
“I’m sold out of the unicorn right now,” she said.
Whitworth University recently bought a piece, as well.
Charlton is thrilled to be preserving this art form and introducing it to new generations.
“So many books we have today are because of this art form,” she said, adding when a buyer purchases one of her prints, “They’ve purchased not only art, but a little piece of medieval history.”
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