The St. Chad Gospels: Potentials for 3D in the study of manuscripts

 In this video, Bill Endres of the University of Kentucky talks about potentials for 3D in manuscript studies. He has scanned Lichfield Cathedral’s St. Chad Gospels, an 8th-century illuminated manuscript. For images of the complete manuscript, visit ‪
This video was made for the 2012 Digital Transformation Moot in London, sponsored by the Art and Humanities Research Council.

“Hello, I’m Bill Endres from the University of Kentucky. I want to demonstrate some potentials for 3D in the study of manuscripts. A challenge of digital versions of manuscripts is to offer scholars and viewers an encounter as dynamic as having the manuscript in their presence, one that can match on some level experiences like play of light on cracked pigments, or the feel of a pages stiffness as it resists being turned; experiences that lend themselves to knowing. At the same time, a digital version can never be the same as a physical artefact. Segolene Tarte calls digital versions ‘avatars’: they exist in a different reality, with different rules and potentials. They can offer unique and profound experiences of a manuscript.

One way to present a digital version of a manuscript in 3D is through video. Video flyovers offer a dynamic interaction by taking advantage of 3D techniques and the way that the eye sees. Motion or changing stimuli are necessary for clarity of sight. To see a 2D image clearly, the eye must make jitter movements to keep its photoreceptors active. This is not the case with a moving 3D image. These 3D flyovers are pages from the St. Chad Gospels, an illuminated manuscript made around 730CE that I imaged with the kind permission of the Chapter of Lichfield Cathedral. 3D flyovers offer a more intimate experience than 2D images, giving viewers a feeling of the manuscript’s dynamic nature; perhaps even inspiring awe, as desired by the medieval artist who illuminated the St. Chad Gospels. More importantly for researchers, 3D reveals significant information about a pages contours and condition, along with the layout of its text, its decorative flow and artistic flourishes.

 A 3D image combines a mesh file, representing a page’s contours, with a texture file providing the appearance of a page’s surface. With 3D images, I can change their texture files; that is, the image that covers the mesh. For the St. Chad Gospels I took a set of at least 12 different spectral bands for each page, ranging from near ultraviolet to infrared. I can generate a multispectral visualization by stacking all the images in a set and calculating values across the stack for each pixel. These calculated values can be mathematically represented, and a colour map applied to highlight salient features.

The density of data in 3D meshes offers opportunities to generate further information. One of particular usefulness for manuscripts is taking accurate measurements. Holes, flaking pigments, and features of letters and decoration can be measured for conservation and scholarly purposes. A convenient format for 3D renderings is Adobe’s PDF. Adobe Reader includes a measurement tool.

I am currently working with our Director of Research Computation and Application Development, Noel Adler, to deliver 3D images of the St. Chad Gospels over the Web. With the release of Web GL, a Javascript API for rendering interactive 3D images, this has become viable.

John Berger tells us that the relationship between what we see, and what we know, is never settled. Use of 3D presents new potentials for seeing, and therefore new potentials for knowing. 3D can supply practical data like measurements, facilitate interaction and tap into native ways of seeing. It opens an intriguing future, an inspiring one; one worthy of the digital humanities.”

More than Meets the Eye: Going 3D with an Early Medieval Manuscript | Bill Endres, University of Kentucky

Whilst doing some basic housekeeping of files and blog posts today I stumbled across the notes I took attending the Digital Humanities Congress in Sheffield last September, which I’d like to post here today.  

I recall finding it awkward having to leave rooms, often whilst the lecture was still in progress, to get myself to the next session, but once I’d gotten over the problems of navigating around each lecture room I managed to attend Professor Bill Endres’ wonderful talk on the use of 3D imaging when dealing with manuscripts, in particular the St Chad Gospels (an 8th century illuminated manuscript and one of the oldest and most important illuminated manuscripts in England). It also has a wonderful link to Wales, in that at some point during its history the Gospel found itself in the hands of a Welshman named Gelhi – who had traded his best horse for it! – and in fact in its margins contains the earliest examples of written Old Welsh. 

Professor Endres was interested particularly in “the ways that uses of visuals affect our epistemologies” – the relationship between what we see, and what we know. In his talk at Sheffield he suggested that the justification for the use of 3D imaging was to to return the manuscript to its original state, and thus enhance our knowledge of the item and to generate new information about it. He described how our vision is construction from a combination of 2D and 3D, and that if we see an upper portion of text our mind fills in the bottom. We fill in the gaps ourselves. Therefore, posited Professor Endres, would using 3D change our ways of seeing? Would we then create knowledge in slightly different ways?

3D, he said, was not simply there to assist in our understanding of the 2D image. It allows us, for example, to create infrared images as well as a normal image, which helps in showing bleed throughs on manuscript pages. Once the 3D is there different textures can be applied (by stacking multi-spectral bands), and thus the 3D image can show every lump and bump in the page – creating a dynamic experience for the user without the user having to access the original document. 

Professor Endres then went on to discuss the nuts and bolts of the project generally – that it began in 2010, and that the 3D required a lot of plug-ins and applications. They began the project using Web GL but the timescale “wasn’t working”, and so he attempted to use Adobe for 3D which, he said, “worked quite well”. 

They took 22 images of a page, quickly, and once they had the files they could use Adobe, “but it only work[ed] on a PC”, so that was obviously a limitation. However, the benefits of using 3D were multiple: the ability to measure defects on the manuscript page, for example, like areas of flaking paint. 

Professor Endres said that from a preservation perspective, the work in 3D was “valuable…but from a scholarly perspective, who knows?”

During the Q&A session afterwards, Endres addressed the potential pitfalls of using 3D imaging. The images “still have a computer generated look”. They had been forced to use a flat frame to get rid of shadowing on the page, “and because a manuscript is so dynamic and that’s lost somewhat in the image”. Melissa Terras, who was also in attendance, brought up the issues of truth and representation: the importance of maintaining a “digital truth on a pixel basis”, so that the user can go back to the original if necessary, but also navigating the basic fear a user might have of trusting what the computer image is telling you is correct.

I’m very interested, from my own research perspective, in how we can communicate the intellectual content of a manuscript, and how we can do so in a way which engages, and certainly the use of 3D imaging appears to be one method of doing that. But what of these issues of truth, and the practical problems of the user not being quite able to escape from the computer generated shine of a 3D image? Whilst some of these issues are technical and will no doubt be solved over time, the other is not so easy to shake off: whilst an enthusiastic amateur might be content to access a 3D image of a manuscript, would a scholar be happy to take what the 3D image is telling them at face value, and base their research upon it? This distrust is something which is not so easily solvable. 

The link to the Lichfield University’s web page for the St Chad Gospels can be found here


Any 2 Web Pages Are No More Than 19 Clicks Apart, According to Hungarian Physicist

This is a fascinating idea – akin to the pop culture idea of “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”! Professor Barabási posits that “the tools of network science can help us understand the Web’s structure, development and weaknesses. The Web is an information network, in which the nodes are documents (at the time of writing over one trillion of them) connected by links. Other well-known network structures include the Internet, a physical network where the nodes are routers and the links are physical connections, and organisations, where the nodes are people and the links represent communications.” [Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society]