Scholarly sleuth Kathleen Maxwell deciphers telling tidbits in illustrated Greek gospel books from the Middle Ages. Pigment, gilded motifs, and vellum choices give away details about Byzantine illustrators, scribes, and wealthy patrons. Even personal glimpses echo off the page, the professor of art history argues in a chapter she contributed to the recent volume The New Testament in Byzantium.
One intricate pattern in rich magenta ink hints that it was commissioned by a wealthy, aged donor before entering a monastery or convent.
“That was considered a good way to end your life,” Maxwell says, “moving into a more ascetic phase.”
Digital tools also are helping Maxwell and colleagues up their global detecting game by analyzing manuscripts and suggesting related texts. A digital aid called the Clusters tool assessed known works by 13th-century illuminator and scribe Theodore Hagiopetrites.
“In a manuscript, it will tell you the closest known textual relatives to it,” Maxwell explains. “And what you can do is look at it and see if it’s one known to art historians. Or you may go, ‘Oh my God, maybe that’s an illustration that no one’s looked at.”
In Theodore’s case, the Clusters tool identified other manuscripts scattered in collections worldwide that he borrowed from or may have had a hand in creating.