What Is an Illuminated Manuscript?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the history and techniques behind the illuminated manuscript, and test your understanding of art history, the middle ages, and artistic production.

Illuminate Me

An illuminated manuscript is a hand-written book with text that is decorated with ornamental initials, marginalia (borders) and miniature illustrations. Traditionally, only manuscripts decorated with gold or silver were considered illuminated, but today the term refers to any highly decorated manuscript from the European middle ages, a period roughly from the 400s to 1400s. Illuminating was one of the highest art forms of the middle ages. It required skill, and lots of patience.

Illuminated page from the Book of Kells
Book of Kells

History of Illumination

Nobody knows for sure the exact origins of the illuminated manuscript as an art form, but several influences are clear. Western Europe lost a lot of its literary culture during the medieval era, with only monks carrying on the tradition of writing. The early Catholic Church copied bibles and wrote prayer books for centuries in isolated libraries. Islamic communities across Africa and Spain, which maintained a high rate of literacy and active intellectual culture, copied the classic works of ancient Rome and Greece. They also wrote, and illustrated, new manuscripts and sold them to Europeans well into the 1100s. These authors wrote on science, math and astronomy and introduced paper to Europe. Before this, Europeans most often wrote on vellum, animal skins that have been thinned and processed into high-quality parchment for writing.

Illuminated page from the Aachen Gospel
Aachen Gospel

By the 5th- 6th century, Christian monks began producing illuminated manuscripts, building on their own traditions as well as Islamic influences. The new style went beyond writing text to adding illustrations and ornate, detailed decorations. These manuscripts tended to be gigantic; one was so large it took three monks to lift it. The monks who illuminated manuscripts were highly respected and had their own work areas called scriptoriums, where they were not to be disturbed.

By the late 1100s, rich people began building up personal libraries, and more non-religious manuscripts were produced. Wealthy patrons fueled the market for illuminated manuscripts, and by the 1300s, commercial businesses had replaced monks as the main producers of the art form. By the 1400s, these shops divided up the labor, so that one person might write the next, another create the borders, and another do the illustrations. Illuminated manuscripts fell out of style with the invention of early printing presses.

Illustration of a battle on an illuminated page
illuminated page

Techniques and Styles

Creating a manuscript began with lots of planning. First, the parchment had to be created and cut to size. Next, a general layout was mapped onto the page that set aside areas for borders, illustrations, and text. Parchment, ink, and other materials to illuminate the page were quite expensive, so the scribe needed to ensure the page was perfect before dipping in his quill and setting to work.

Pages like this one from the Lindisfarne Gospel took lots of planning
Lindisfarne Gospel

The text was written first, to ensure that the words that needed to be on the page would fit. Around that, decoration was added. This was a slow, careful process. A single page could take days. Each scriptorium developed its own styles, fonts, and decorations. Most illuminated pages had a decorative border and some illustration, generally enclosed in a red square. In the early middle ages, historiated initials, large, decorative letters with figures interwoven into them, became popular. By the late 1200s, drolleries were added, which are images of creatures or people drawn into the right or left margin next to the text that sometimes became part of the border.

This page has historiated initials and drolleries
Initials and drolleries

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