Dragon’s blood, obtained from the species Dracaena draco, Dracaena cinnabari, and likely Daemonorops draco from the island of Sokotra, was available in Europe since at least the first century CE. Later, with the expansion of European voyages, the resin was also obtained from Dracaena draco from the Canary Islands in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Although not as popular as brazilwood, cochineal, and vermilion, dragon’s blood was used as a colorant to create a red pigment throughout the medieval and early modern periods.
Dragon’s blood is used in a wide variety of applications in seven recipes in Ms. Fr. 640. It is used as a remedy as well as an ingredient in colored varnishes.
When soaked in spirits, it can be used as a glue, and, as the title of the recipe implies, this glue would be used to connect two halves of an imitation gem to make a “doublet.”
Fol. 7r - "Doublets"
Good dragon’s blood soaked in eau-de-vie carries its mastic or glue in itself, as do sap green & saffron.
The material is fully introduced in this recipe, which explains how to prepare dragon’s blood for use—as in the “doublet” recipe, many applications require that it be soaked in alcohol—and how to select good quality samples for purchase.
Fol. 29v - "Dragon's blood"
The darker dragon’s blood is the best & has more of a tint; it is the tear that is found in gr pieces like peas and large hazelnuts which look like [illustration].
Take a well chosen tear of it which shows off its transparent red. And in a glass bottle put the best eau-de-vie you can find, in sufficient quantity. For it And stop it well and so diligently that it does not vent, otherwise it would be worth nothing. And leave it thus for a long time, because the longer it stays there, the more beautiful & better it will be & it will dissolve if it is good, otherwise it will become like wine lees. When you want to use it, make a small hole in the stopper of the bottle & pour a little & stop it again each time, then apply it on gold.
The good kind of dragon’s blood can be found in large pieces like pieces of cake this one has no value and is adulterated, & once broken it shows on its edges scales, transparent as ro rouge clair enamel, it is also lumpy in some parts like small rubies. The eau-de-vie needs to be very ardent & passed* several times.
Instructions to stop a bleeding nose by applying a powder of dragon’s blood (medical use).
Fol. 38v - "Against nosebleed and for dyeing"
Pestle some sorrel or lapathum acutum* of the sort that is red-veined, which is called dragon’s blood, and apply it to the forehead of the one who bleeds. This herb is a strong dye & makes beautiful violet.
The recipe gives detailed instructions for producing a shiny, enamel-like material from a dragon’s blood solution, and applying it to silver sheets, presumably in order to make the eponymous cross.
Fol. 40v - "Cross of the commanders of Malta"
This beautiful rouge clair which makes the field of the white enamel cross is of fine tear of dragon’s blood tempered with eau-de-vie or else Indian laque platte, which in my opinion is made in Flanders, tempered with clear turpentine & tear of mastic & laid down on a silver leaf, not the kind which the painters use, but a thicker kind, which is burnished by those who make gemstone foils or by goldsmiths, & that gives it this beautiful brilliance.
The recipe gives a similar recipe for a varnish that, colored with dragon’s blood, can be used as a red-tinted coating for wood.
Fol. 98r - "Varnish for lutes"
They take a little turpentine, & oil of turpentine or of spike lavender, & amber pulverized & passed very subtly, & make like that of mastic, & add in a little dragon’s blood to color it and make it reddish, and others some terra merita for yellow.
This is the only explicit use of dragon’s blood as a colorant, but, as in other recipes, it is used particularly for application on a material other than a canvas or panel, and it is used in combination with metal leaf.
Fol. 102v - "Painting on crystal or glass"
They paint in oil without lines, except for the faces where they trace the nose & the mouth with black in small work, then they make strokes & highlights in white, next they coat all with flesh color. And as for the ground, they make it with azur d’Acre for more beauty, or with lake for a quickly-done red, or with dragon’s blood for the most beauty. But one needs to layer it little by little so that it appears even & of one color, & thus for other colors. Next, they put underneath it a foil backing for topaz, or one of gold or silver.
Instructions here are for imitating the visual effect of dragon’s blood on gold or silver by using lake pigment, and do not involve the material itself.
Fol. 165r – “Dragon’s blood”
It can be imitated with lake, which surpasses the dragon's blood in beauty if, tempered in oil, you glaze on gold or silver. Tempered in varnish, it dies.
Robin Reich, “Dragon's Blood,” in Secrets of Craft and Nature in Renaissance France. A Digital Critical Edition and English Translation of BnF Ms. Fr. 640, ed. Making and Knowing Project, Pamela H. Smith, Naomi Rosenkranz, Tianna Helena Uchacz, Tillmann Taape, Clément Godbarge, Sophie Pitman, Jenny Boulboullé, Joel Klein, Donna Bilak, Marc Smith, and Terry Catapano (New York: Making and Knowing Project, 2020) https://edition640.makingandknowing.org/#/essays/ann_037_sp_16. DOI: https://www.doi.org/10.7916/428x-aq29.
L. Masschelein-Kleiner, “Dragon’s blood,” in Ancient Binding Media, Varnishes and Adhesives, trans by Janet Bridgland, Sue Walston, and A.E. Werner (Rome: ICCROM, 1985), 75.
Image: An engraving depicting Draco arbor. The Dragon Tree, from "Theatrum Botanicum" ("The Theater of Plants: Or, An Herball of a Large Extent…") by John Parkinson (London, 1640). Research Library, The Getty Research Institute (archive.org).
Helena Seo, Columbia University