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A History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts form a group of some of the world's most richly stylized texts. This Buzzle article will shed light on the history of illuminated manuscripts.
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Illuminated manuscripts
Illuminating Fact
Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy (1342-1404), is known to have had the largest personal library in the Gothic period. The library reportedly housed about 600 illuminated manuscripts.
Manuscripts form a very important resource that, to a great extent, helps us understand and reconstruct history. Even small fragments of these manuscripts can prove to be extremely useful in, say, connecting two different historical events. Moreover, these hand-written documents also provide us with a valuable insight about the techniques of writing during various periods in history, the materials used in the process, the script(s) that was prevalent, and many a time, even provide information about the person(s) who wrote that particular manuscript―his name, place of residence, position, etc.

As of today, archaeologists and historians around the world boast of having hundreds and thousands of ancient and medieval manuscripts, many of which are complete. Apart from the vast information these manuscripts carry, a deeper, physical study of these documents can tell us a lot of interesting things about their evolution―how they evolved from simple, undecorated pieces of information in the initial days to become extremely stylized and attractive during the Middle Ages. The large number of medieval illuminated manuscripts that we have, testify the genius of people involved in their creation.

What is an Illuminated Manuscript?

Decorated page of a manuscript
A stylized page from an illuminated manuscript

An illuminated manuscript contains a lot of beautiful decorative elements, alongside the main text. These decorative elements might or might not be related to the text of the document, and include decorated initials, beautiful marginalia or borders bearing floral or geometric motifs, and awe-inspiring miniature paintings, depicting some interesting event.

In stricter terms, an illuminated manuscript essentially contains an extensive use of gold and silver―some of the earlier versions were actually called 'illuminated' because of the glow that gold and silver gave to the documents.

Muslim manuscript
Muslim illuminated manuscript
Painted manuscript
Indian painted manuscript

However, with the passage of time, the term began to be commonly used for all kinds of vividly illustrated and decorated manuscripts belonging to the Western traditions. Sometimes, because Islamic manuscripts are also known to use the techniques, which were similar to their Western counterparts, they are also referred to as illuminated.

We also have several evidence of decorated manuscripts from the Far East (including the Indian subcontinent). Many of these medieval manuscripts are also richly embellished with floral borders and miniature paintings supplementing the text; however, these are, more often than not, only referred to as painted manuscripts rather than illuminated ones.

A Brief History

Gold manuscript
Manuscript with more use of gold
Colored manuscript
Manuscript with more use of other colors than gold

The earliest important evidence of illuminated manuscripts come from Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. These manuscripts belong to the period between 400 CE and 600 CE. Majority of the illuminated manuscripts that we have today, belong to the Middle Ages, though there are some from the Renaissance period also.

In order to ease the study and analysis of these documents, art historians have classified illuminated manuscripts according to the historic periods in which they were produced. These include Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, etc.

In the initial days, only Gospel books were illuminated. However, from the Romanesque period onwards (1000 CE to 1300 CE), we have examples of entire Bibles that were illuminated.

While religious texts were primarily illuminated till the Romanesque period, the Gothic period (1301 CE to 1350 CE) saw a further development. Secular works began to be illuminated, apart from the religious ones.

We have several surviving examples of Gothic illuminated manuscripts with legends and short stories about the various Christian saints, knights, mythological characters, and so on. Moreover, some of these manuscripts also addressed important social issues of that time.

One of the most interesting examples of Gothic illuminated manuscripts are the Books of Hours, which were often owned by affluent people as their personal devotional books. Most of these books were so heavily stylized and ornamented that they might have been extremely expensive during those times as well.

The Byzantines had their own way of producing illuminated manuscripts, and several versions of these works were distributed amongst many other areas influenced by Orthodox and Eastern Christian systems. Many famous illuminated manuscripts produced by the Byzantines are the so-called palimpsests, which were made by scraping the surfaces of older parchments and reusing them for writing afresh.

All through this time, illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the Muslim world as well. By the latter half of the Middle Ages, Western Europe saw an upsurge of educational institutions and universities, as the intellectual community of the region began to grow.

Throughout the 1100s, illuminated manuscripts of ancient treatises on astrology, sciences, mathematics, and medicine were provided to these universities by the Muslim World (especially the Iberian Peninsula). During this time, books written on paper arrived in Europe for the first time ever.

It should be noted that the process of making these manuscripts involved a substantial amount of money. So, up to the 12 century CE, most of them were produced only if a wealthy patron or the king commissioned them.

Moreover, most of them were produced particularly in religious establishments, like monasteries, with a purpose of making a valuable addition to the library therein. It is, in fact, interesting to note that most of these monasteries had a specially designated area, called scriptorium, where monks worked on these illuminated manuscripts (and other as well).

By the 14th century CE, however, the scriptorium, which was a non-commercial facility, gave way to various urban scriptoria, which were more commercial in nature. These owed their development to the rising demand of illuminated manuscripts in Europe from the 14th century CE onwards. Some of the important urban scriptoria were located in Paris, Rome, and the Netherlands.

By the late 14th century CE, the manuscript-producing industry grew in Europe to a considerable extent, and the illuminators (and their agents) began taking even long-distance commissions. By the end of the 14th century CE, even women began to paint illustrations in the illuminated manuscripts, specifically in Paris.

Even in the Far East (as mentioned above), illuminated (painted) manuscripts continued to be produced all through the medieval period, and from this region also, we have some extremely outstanding examples of marginalia, miniature paintings, and calligraphy.

Illumination Process: The Steps Involved

Creating an illuminated manuscript was a fairly complex process that involved several intricate steps. The scribe as well as the painter (if they were two different people) had to carefully plan the process step-by-step with accuracy and maximum attention to detail.

In most cases, the text was written before the manuscript was illuminated with paintings and other decorative elements. Locally prevalent script was used by the scribes, who wrote in ink, either with a sharpened quill or a reed pen, depending on the material on which the manuscript had to be written (papyrus, animal hide, paper, and so on).

More often than not, the very first letter of each chapter was highlighted in a certain way―making it bold with a dark, black script; using calligraphic alphabets, etc. It was important that the scribe left enough blank space around the text so as to allow the illumination of the manuscript.

Painting
Painting in an illuminated manuscript

Once the entire text was written, paintings and marginalia were made. While the paintings narrated some event relating to the subject of the manuscript, the stylized borders consisted of foliage designs and/or geometric motifs.

Brushes made from animal hair were used for painting. The colors were essentially natural dyes that came from various natural and locally available sources. Some colors were also insect-based.

Pure gold leaves were used to achieve the illumination. Often shell gold, gold powder mixed with egg (for binding) was also used. Silver leaves were also often used like those of gold. However, sometimes tin leaves were also used to obtain silver color.

The amount of gold and silver utilized in illuminating the manuscript depended on the nature of the text. For instance, if it was a religious manuscript, some letters of the text were also gilded with gold.

There is no doubt that illuminating a manuscript involved a lot of efforts and was very expensive as well. However, the art historical value that these manuscripts have, today, cannot be ignored.
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Published: March 31, 2014
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lovely article... - KB [March 31, 2014]