Capturing Gold Leaf: Photographing St Johns College MS 26

By Sophie Bacchus-Waterman, Special Collections Photographer

A number of the items which are going to be digitized for the St Johns College Digitization Project include gold leaf. The application of gold leaf to illuminations was done by hand, and the process is still the same as it was centuries ago.

We are lucky enough to have several items which include extensive gold leaf within St Johns College’s special collections. It can be seen in the aureole around Isaiah’s head in MS 26, the horn of a unicorn in MS 61 (a 13th century bestiary), the illuminations of MS 23 (a genealogical chronical of the Kings of England), and many of our manuscripts.

When lit correctly, gold leaf can illuminate a page, brightening the surrounding colours, and revealing hidden cracks and imperfections in its application. When not lit correctly, it produces a brassy colour, flat and not true to life. For an example of the differences between incorrect and correctly lit gold leaf, see the below images.

St Johns College MS 26, fol. 3r

The left photograph was taken with incorrect lighting – two flash lamps on either side of the cradle. The right image was photographed with a ring light surrounding the camera lens. This ring light is constantly attached around the camera’s lens, and powered by a power pack below the cradle. When photographing gold leaf, the ring light flashes at the same time as the two flash lamps, lighting the page from above. This light then bounces off the gold leaf, making it shine in the way it does on the right image.

Besides lighting the image correctly and revealing the beauty of the gold leaf, images of this quality also reveal details about the illuminating process. It is clear to see on both images that the blue background was completed before the gold leaf was added, as there is a tiny piece of gold leaf missing from the top right corner of the left step of the letter. The scroll was also added after the letter, as there is a tiny guideline over the scroll, joining the two sides of the letter to one another. The ring light’s lighting also picks out the details of white lines on Isaiah’s orange cloak, which is more vibrant in the right image.

St Johns College MS 26, fol. 1r
St Johns College MS 26, fol. 125v
St Johns College MS 26, fol. 127v
 St Johns College MS 26, fol. 129v

MS 26 includes four gold leaf illuminations, on folios 1r, 3r, 125v, 127v and 129v. By lighting gold leaf illuminations from above, and allowing the ring light to brighten the pages, I am capturing an experience as close to seeing it in person, the experience the viewer was intended to have when the gold leaf was first applied centuries ago.

If you’re interested in reading more about the St John’s digitization project, please explore the Digital Library, read our blog posts, and follow #DigiLibSJOL on Twitter!

Further Reading

2 thoughts on “Capturing Gold Leaf: Photographing St Johns College MS 26

  1. What effect, if any, would the use of a circular polarizer have on the gold leaf?

    1. Hello Todd,

      Thank you for your question! I have never used a circular polarizer on gold leaf so I can’t be certain, but it may help to combat the white patches which sometimes occur when gold leaf catches the light.

      I hope that helps.

      All the best,


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