homepage logo

Medieval Times: Award-winning artist discusses scribal arts during First Tuesday Speaker Series

By Staff | May 17, 2019

Aaron Steele describes the differences between the plant-based and chemical-based inks used in Medieval books, during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ on May 7. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN – Award-winning illuminator, painter and calligrapher Aaron Steele spends his days working with internet technology, but finds a relief from his technical work by creating art. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Steele wields his set of quills and brushes under the title of Master Subetei.

“I didn’t know his name until three years after I met him,” said fellow Society for Creative Anachronism member Rev. Gayle Bach-Watson, with a laugh.

According to Bach-Watson, Steele recently received the society’s highest award for arts and sciences, the Order of the Laurel, for his work in the scribal arts. The scribal arts, Steele said, involve both writing calligraphy and ornamenting paper with depictions of the text or natural objects.

“I started out at age 18, using terrible paint and paper that wasn’t really representative of the Medieval culture. Someone handed me a calligraphy knit and pack of paper,” Steele said, during the First Tuesday Speaker Series at Christ Reformed United Church of Christ. “If we look back early in our history, we look at manuscripts of legal documents, Bibles and bestiaries that were passed down through generations as status symbols.”

According to Steele, the majority of books from the Middle Ages were made from sheep, goat or calf skin, which was then stretched out flat so the hair could be rubbed off and it could be left to dry out.

“Most of the documents that were made early on were just text. They wouldn’t have a lot of images, until you look at the Book of Kells, which was for church use,” Steele said. “As you progress through time, we do eventually get to cotton paper.”

While Steele has experimented using older forms of paper for his art, he uses a modern version of the Medieval cotton paper, which is sold as “Bristol” paper in arts and crafts stores.

According to Steele, the expensive part of his craft is the cost of his paints. Steele uses chemical-based and plant-based paints that might have been used in the Middle Ages, along with some paints made from gem stones and gold. His chemical-based paints hold the most danger, as some of them are chemically identical to the paints used by monks back then.

“I do have some pigments up here that are chemically identical to the Medieval pigments, that use lead, mercury, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals to get their color,” Steele said, mentioning he is careful with these paints and only uses them in a closed-in space.

But, even though his craft requires a lot of his time and money, Steele views it as a gift that he has to share with his fellow SCA members.

“Most of this is done for free – when you give a scroll, it’s a donation,” Steele said, mentioning one scroll announcing a fellow member’s award can take six months to make.