Jehan le Begue, the Paulus Hector Mair of Painting

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    In 1431, a French bureaucrat named Jehan le Begue made a good copy of a manuscript or set of notes he had obtained from a Johannes Alcherius. Alcherius had spent the years around 1400 persuading painters from Northern France to Northern Italy to let him write down their recipe collections. Le Begue does not seem to have been a practicing painter (he just paid for manuscripts to be illuminated) so some things were lost in transmission. The manuscript contains:

    Jehan le Begue: Table of Synonyms
    Index (incomplete)
    118 experiments on colours

    Johannes Alcherius
    – Jacob Cona De Coloribus Diversis Modis Tractatur
    – Antonio di Compendio de Diversis Coloribus
    – anonymous MS in possession of Fra Dionisio
    – Johannes the Norman on ultramarine
    – Theodore on coloured waters
    – book in possession of Johannes de Modena
    – Michelino di Vesuccio on ultramarine

    Theophilius de diversis artibus liber I (around the year 1120)
    Petrus de Sancto Audemaro on the composition of colours (circa 1300?)
    Eraclius de artibus romanorum (7th century? 13th century? depends on who you ask)

    You can find the manuscript at and Mary P. Merrifield’s introduction at

    Jean Chandler

    Wow, neat. The paint recipes especially back then are always some pretty interesting chemistry


    Painting recipes also involve optics, because light passes through some layers and reflects off others.

    When I experiment with tempera painting I will use some of the ferrous oxides reds and yellows, calcium based whites, carbon blacks, and copper blues and greens. I won’t touch any of the scary high number of late medieval pigments with lead, arsenic, or mercury in them.

    Jean Chandler

    Right, quite a few of those. We were just talking about the use of orpiment as an arrow poison in another venue. I learned about that when I almost touched the wrong part of a medieval illustrated manuscript. Avoid the yellows!

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