Broken Seal
Behind the scenes Collections Short read

Imaging takes an Isolated View (Part 5): Sigillography, a study of wax seals

I became interested in the symbols, the designs chosen, and what that says about the person to whom the seal belong?

I was interested in the seals of the Simon Papers letters from both a typological perspective and an informational one.

Wax seals are about identity and integrity of information; unique identifiers both authenticating the origin of a message and, if unbroken, showing that the enclosed information remained secure.

Photographing the archives of Heinrich Simon, I was struck by the amount of correspondence, the physical qualities of the letters giving them an intimate feel. Though I could not read the letters (being mid-19th century German script) I became interested in the symbols, the designs chosen, and what that says about the person to whom the seal belongs.

Of course, the vast majority of seals within the archive were already broken at the time of photographing as the correspondence had largely been received and read, so I decided to try and reconstruct some of them, enhance the designs to make them clearer, and present them next to each other to see what kinds of variations and complexities might be revealed.

The archive of Heinrich Simon is split chronologically into eight volumes, each of which is largely correspondence, so I decided to look through the images and choose letters from each volume, as this would then give a view over time. When the archive was photographed the letters were shot as whole pages and the wax seal halves are relatively small within the image, so it is not possible to crop in that close without compromising image quality, add to that the lighting for shooting a page of manuscript is not optimal for showing a textured surface. Therefore, I tried to select shots in which the seal had not been too badly damaged or had the surface texture worn away.

I then processed the images, using Photoshop, in the following way:

  1. I began by selecting the broken halves of each seal and putting them each on their own new layer, allowing me to match up the sides and rotate them so that the design would be upright.
  2. I then added an empty layer to clean the image, as some of the seals have a dark discolouration in places which would obscure the detail I was trying to highlight. To minimise this, I set the empty layer blending mode to ‘Lighten’, used the colour picker to match my brush colour to the seal, then used a soft brush at 30% opacity to lighten the discoloured areas. For some seals I found it necessary to repeat this layer after the image had been further processed.
  3. A Curves adjustment layer was added, with a gentle S-curve, to slightly increase contrast.
  4. The next few layers are to try and subtly bring out highlights and shadows by:
    • Using the ‘Select Colour Range’ tool to select Highlights/Shadows only
    • Copying the Highlight/Shadow selection into a new layer
    • Setting the new layer opacity to 50% and the blending mode to Screen (for a highlights layer) or Multiply (for a shadow layer).
  5. This should help to increase the contrast in detailed areas while leaving the rest of the image unchanged. These layers can also be duplicated to increase the effect.
  6. The final step is to stamp down all the visible layers (do not include the background layer) and sharpen it using Smart Sharpen, with an amount of 200. Then reduce the layer opacity to 50% and set the blending mode to Darken, so that it mostly affects the contrasty edge areas.
A selection of stamps reconstructed.
A detail of the reconstructed stamp from a number of broken parts.


0 comments on “Imaging takes an Isolated View (Part 5): Sigillography, a study of wax seals

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: