The Canticle of Creatures

Mineral pigments, plant dyes and shell gold on paper, bound with linen thread, 25x32x2cm.

Date31 October 2021
Limited edition reproduction (4/15 remaining)
Category, , ,

A rendering of St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creatures in Arabic, in the style and materials of the Qarmatian Qur’an, complemented with foraged earth and plant pigments.


The spreads

The translation is based on the official Arabic version(s), with minor changes. The English captions below directly reflect the Arabic. (Reminder: Arabic reads from right to left, and the right-hand page in each spread comes first.)

“Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honour, and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.“Praised be, o God, for all your creatures, especially the lady sister Sun; as she is the day and illuminates us, and she is beautiful and radiant and points to You, Most High.

Praised be, o God, for Sister Moon and the stars, which You created in heaven glittering and bright.
“Praised be, o God, for Sister Air and the wind and clouds, and clear skies and all weathers, with which you nourish Your creatures.

Praised be, o God, for Brother Water, who is useful and humble, precious and pure.

“Praised be, o God, for Sister Fire, who illuminates the night; and she is beautiful and playful, vigorous and strong.

Praised be, o God, for our sister Mother Earth, who protects us and guides us and brings forth fruits and flowers and herbs.
“Praised be, o God, for those who forgive out of love for You, and bear illness and misfortune; blessed are those who endure in peace, for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be, o God, for our brother, bodily Death, from whom–

–none can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin; blessed are those he finds in Your most holy will, for they shall not be harmed by the second death.

Praise God and bless Him and give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.”


Background and Creation Process

The Canticle of Creatures:

Also known as Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures) or the Canticle of the Sun, it was composed around 1224 in Umbrian, the Italian dialect native to Francis. The original text can be found here.

The Qarmatian Qur’an:

This is a very beautiful manuscript of which relatively few leaves survive, and in much altered condition. It was made in Persia or Central Asia, and is tentatively dated to 1180 or earlier.

Metropolitan Museum of Art 29.160.23

I reconstructed the script, which I believe was a one-off variant of mainstream Eastern Kufic, by studying a number of pages. I must specify I’ve never seen a page in the flesh, only in photos, which is far from the ideal way to deduce the materials used, but as the calligraphic tradition was quite consistent and this was a luxury production, I’m fairly sure of the core pigments I can see: carbon ink for the rasm (the core text), vermillion for harakāt, lapis lazuli for sukūn, and verdigris for shadda, hamza and ihmāl (no green is visible in any photo but all these are brown or burned through, which betrays the use of this unstable pigment. It’s also consistent with tradition.) The borders and verse markers are clearly illuminated with shell gold. The elaborate scrolling vines of the background appear to be done in (organic, plant-based) ink rather than (mineral) pigment, but I could be wrong on this point. It’s just that the variety of colours used (some pages still show a red, yellow or blue background pattern), the way some have faded, and the motif itself, which is more practical to do with a pen and a fluid colour, all suggest this medium. In any case that’s what I decided to go with.

Note I wasn’t attempting to reconstruct the Qarmatian Qur’an exactly, and adjusted both layout and materials for my purposes. But I did want to use authentic materials and complement them with natural ones prepared using medieval methods.

The Materials:

  • Carbon ink (midād) for the rasm.
  • Cinnabar for harakāt, verdigris for shadda and i’jām, lapis lazuli for sukūn.
  • The borders are painted with two shades of yellow ochre I personally gathered on the same site, near Tannourine in Mount Lebanon (I chose not to use gold on the borders). The outer border is lapis lazuli, also used for the background of the title.
  • For the punctuation markers, shell gold is laid over a background of lead tin yellow (instead of orpiment, which would have been used but is highly toxic), and shell palladium over a light grade of azurite (I used palladium instead of silver to avoid the severe tarnishing silver goes through).
  • The background pattern is drawn with different organic inks, some of which are traditional (from the western or eastern tradition or both), others my own:
    Pages 1-2 (praise, carmine): Lac
    Page 3 (sun, golden yellow): Chamomile
    Page 4 (moon, blue): Privet
    Page 5 (air, yellow): Buckthorn
    Page 6 (water, teal): Privet
    Page 7 (fire, scarlet): Wallflower
    Page 8 (earth, green): Iris
    Page 9 (the forbearing, brown): Horse chestnut
    Pages 10-11 (death, purple): Poppy
    Page 12 (praise, orange): Pomegranate flower
  • The end papers are dyed with horse chestnut husks, and painted with lac.
  • The cover is bookcloth paper, the flap embroidered with gold thread.

Step by step:

(Hover for captions.)


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