Illuminator is an artist who adds illustrations and decorations to illuminated manuscripts, or more generally, a painter of ornamental decoration. One of the earliest mentions of a illuminator's work is found in the book Methods and Materials of Painting by Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865).
Illumination was a complex and frequently costly process. It was usually reserved for special books: an altar Bible, for example. Wealthy people often had richly illuminated "books of hours" made, which set down prayers appropriate for various times in the liturgical day.
In the early Middle Ages, most books were produced in monasteries, whether for their own use, for presentation, or for a commission. However, commercial scriptoria grew up in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands, and by the late fourteenth century there was a significant industry producing manuscripts, including agents who would take long-distance commissions, with details of the heraldry of the buyer and the saints of personal interest to him (for the calendar of a Book of hours). By the end of the period, many of the painters were women, perhaps especially in Paris.
In the making of an illuminated manuscript, the text was usually written first. Sheets of parchment or vellum, animal hides specially prepared for writing, were cut down to the appropriate size. After the general layout of the page was planned (e.g., initial capital, borders), the page was lightly ruled with a pointed stick, and the scribe went to work with ink-pot and either sharpened quill feather or reed pen.
The script depended on local customs and tastes. The sturdy Roman letters of the early Middle Ages gradually gave way to scripts such as Uncial and half-Uncial, especially in the British Isles, where distinctive scripts such as insular majuscule and insular minuscule developed. Stocky, richly textured blackletter was first seen around the 13th century and was particularly popular in the later Middle Ages. Palaeography is the study of historical handwritten scripts, and codicology the related study of other physical aspects of manuscript codexes.
One of the most important features in the production of an illuminated manuscript is the amount of time that was spent in the pre-production stages outlining the work. Prior to the days of such careful planning, “A typical black-letter page of these Gothic years would show a page in which the lettering was cramped and crowded into a format dominated by huge ornamented capitals that descended from uncial forms or by illustrations.” To prevent such poorly made manuscripts and illuminations from occurring a script was typically supplied first, “and blank spaces were left for the decoration. This pre-supposes very careful planning by the scribe even before he put pen to parchment.” If the scribe and the illuminator were separate labors the planning period allowed for adequate space to be given to each individual.
The following steps outline the detailed labor involved to create the illuminations of one page of a manuscript:
1) Silverpoint drawing of the design were executed
2) Burnished gold dots applied
3) The application of modulating colors
4) Continuation of the previous three steps in addition to the outlining of marginal figures
5) The penning of a rinceaux appearing in the border of a page
6) The final step, the marginal figures are painted
The illumination and decoration was normally planned at the inception of the work, and space reserved for it. However normally the text was written before illumination began. In the Early Medieval period the text and illumination were often done by the same people, normally monks, but by the High Middle Ages the roles were typically separated, except for routine initials and flourishes, and by at least the 14th century there were secular workshops producing manuscripts, and by the beginning of the 15th century these were producing most of the best work, and were commissioned even by monasteries. When the text was complete, the illustrator set to work. Complex designs were planned out beforehand, probably on wax tablets, the sketch pad of the era. The design was then traced or drawn onto the vellum (possibly with the aid of pinpricks or other markings, as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels). Many incomplete manuscripts survive from most periods, giving us a good idea of working methods.
At all times, most manuscripts did not have images in them. In the early Middle Ages, manuscripts tend to either be display books with very full illumination, or manuscripts for study with at most a few decorated initials and flourishes. By the Romanesque period many more manuscripts had decorated or historiated initials, and manuscripts essentially for study often contained some images, often not in color. This trend intensified in the Gothic period, when most manuscripts had at least decorative flourishes in places, and a much larger proportion had images of some sort. Display books of the Gothic period in particular had very elaborate decorated borders of foliate patterns, often with small drolleries. A Gothic page might contain several areas and types of decoration: a miniature in a frame, a historiated initial beginning a passage of text, and a border with drolleries. Often different artists worked on the different parts of the decoration.
Use of color in illuminated manuscripts
While the use of gold is by far one of the most captivating features of illuminated manuscripts, the bold use of varying colors provided multiple layers of dimension to the illumination. From a religious perspective, "the diverse colors wherewith the book is illustrated, not unworthily represent the multiple grace of heavenly wisdom." While religious authors view themselves as instilling a part of God's vast glory on the work, many illustrations can be linked to "the history of the texts that were required to be illustrated and the needs and tastes of the readers of those manuscripts." Color brought the images on the page to life and captivated the readers. Without color the impact of the image would have been completely lost.
The medieval artist's palette was broad; a partial list of pigments is given below. In addition, unlikely-sounding substances such as urine and earwax were used to prepare pigments.