Illuminating a manuscript meant embellishing it with gold and/or silver.

Gold leaf was made by taking a small lump of gold, putting it between layers of goldbeater’s skin (a membrane derived from the gut lining of cattle) and beating it till it became thin. Wikipedia tells us that 1000 bits of cleaned and processed goldbeater’s skin stacked one on top of the other would only measure an inch thick. The American Institute for Conservation provides fairly gruesome detail on the making of goldbeater’s skin. Apparently malnourished cattle were preferred: less fat to get rid of.

Over a hundred layers of membrane/gold/ membrane could be beaten thin as one operation. Thin meant very thin: 1/250,000 of an inch. If a piece of gold leaf was left unattended by an open window it would fly away on the lightest breeze.

Publishers are notoriously careful, and gold isn’t something they throw around. That gold stamping on the spine of the book you’re reading isn’t gold (metal) it’s just gold (color). The only exception to this is in Bible production, where for a de luxe Bible you will find gold leaf used for the stamping on the leather cover and for the edge gilding of the pages.

This video (click on the title of this blog post if you don’t see a video below this paragraph) shows an Ochsner Edge Gilding machine in operation. You can see the gold leaf in the bottom of the track; it is pressed, with heat, against the thoroughly sanded and smoothed book block.

Bell Type and Rule Company will sell you a kit including sheets of 23 carat gold foil so you can personalize your Bible, and no doubt, those of all your friends.

You can get hold of gold leaf fairly easily. Amazon offers you a pack of 25 5½” square sheets for $7.98 with free same-day delivery for Prime members. The manufacturer does however admit to you that this gold leaf is really only “golden leaf”, being made of 85% copper and 15% zinc. Real gold leaf is available for a higher price but, as they keep emphasizing its edibility, seems to be directed at the cooking/baking/ candy-making market. Fair enough; there probably aren’t a man market of illuminators out there these days.

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