Ancient Illuminated Manuscripts

A modern example (1912) from the poem, Morte D'Arthur by Alfred Lord Tennyson. Illuminated by Alberto Sangorski.
A page from an illuminated Book of Hours circa 1455. It is housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
A page from a French illuminated book circa 1450.  It is housed at the Washington University Library in St. Louis, Mo.
A medieval example of illumination from the Rouen Book of Hours

Ancient Illuminated Manuscripts

By Liz Holderman

If you have ever been lucky enough to see a page from an ancient illuminated manuscript, you will never forget the breathtaking colors and designs. Illuminated manuscripts are those in which the text is supplemented by elaborate illustrations in decorative gold or silver leaf (or other shiny metallic finishes). These illustrations project a flashing brilliance and were intended to give expensive stature to ancient documents.

Because most of these original books have disintegrated over time, the collection of individual pages has become acceptable by bibliophiles. Since the majority of these books are more than 500 of years old, even single leaves carry extremely high values.

The earliest surviving works date to AD 400. They were usually religious in nature and were primarily produced in monasteries in Ireland, Italy and other European locations. During the Middle Ages, publishers also appeared in the Netherlands, British Isles and Paris, where writing masters taught the craft to apprentices. (Individual books could take years to complete.) The introduction of the printing press in the late 1400s led to the decline of illuminated text, but the hand-painted technique continued into the 16th century.

Illumination was complex and costly. It was usually reserved for special display books (such as an alter Bible), devotional books purchased by the wealthy, commemorative or ceremonial books, diplomatic gifts and books in celebration of royal marriages. In later years, however, it was also used in more secular works such as illustrative chronicles, histories, law books, alchemy guides, maps and even romances. In addition to full-page frescoes, the technique was applied to the leading initials of chapters or paragraphs and to complex borders around the text, including interlacing columns of foliage and flowers. In more lavish examples, enlarged letters contained tiny biblical scenes and fantasy creatures disguised in the margins.

The embellished pictures that accompany the text are often called miniatures, not only because they are small, but also because the Latin word “miniare” means to color with red lead. That term has been used to describe these shimmering illustrations since the Middle Ages.

Illumination Techniques

Illuminated illustrations were usually painted with egg tempera on vellum parchment (a fine grade of goat, calf or sheep skin which has been soaked in lime). Brilliant colors were pulled from a variety of sources. Red came from iron oxide earth compounds; yellow from arsenic sulfide, turmeric or saffron; green from copper compounds such as verdigris and malachite; blue from ultramarine, lapis lazuli and indigo; white from lead carbonate and chalk; black from carbon and charcoal; and gold or silver from hammered-thin leaf. Calligraphic pen-work and text were produced with a black ink mixture of either lampblack or acidic iron gall.

Many medieval illuminated books contain neither dates nor illustrator names, because our modern concepts of self, place and time were mostly irrelevant during that period. However, the style of the script and the type of ornamentation can generally be attributed to a particular region or city and within certain date ranges.

Further Information and References:

For those with further interest, the Philadelphia Museum of Art contains an exhibit on the genre entitled “Leaves of Gold.” There are also numerous books and articles on the subject. References for this essay include “A Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts,” by Phil Barber (2007), “Manuscript Illumination in Northern Europe,” by Susan Jones (2002) and “Illuminated Manuscripts,” by Louis Brehier and Bryan R. Johnson, transcribed from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX (1910).

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