Illuminated manuscript

An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia) and miniature illustrations. In the most strict definition of the term, an illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold or silver, but in both common usage and modern scholarship, the term is now used to refer to any decorated or illustrated manuscript from the Western traditions. Comparable Far Eastern works are always described as painted, as are Mesoamerican works. Islamic manuscripts may be referred to as illuminated, illustrated or painted, though using essentially the same techniques as Western works.

The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period AD 400 to 600, initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire. The significance of these works lies not only in their inherent art historical value, but in the maintenance of a link of literacy offered by non-illuminated texts as well. Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity, most literature of Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe; as it was, the patterns of textual survivals were shaped by their usefulness to the severely constricted literate group of Christians. Illumination of manuscripts, as a way of aggrandizing ancient documents, aided their preservation and informative value in an era when new ruling classes were no longer literate.

 Illuminated manuscript

Illuminated manuscript

The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from the 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most illuminated manuscripts were created as codices, which had superseded scrolls. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments survive on papyrus, which does not last nearly as long as vellum or parchment. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment (most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin), but most manuscripts important enough to illuminate were written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.

Beginning in the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper. Very early printed books were sometimes produced with spaces left for rubrics and miniatures, or were given illuminated initials, or decorations in the margin, but the introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century, but in much smaller numbers, mostly for the very wealthy.

Manuscripts are among the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages; many thousands survive. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting, and the best preserved. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.


Art historians classify illuminated manuscripts into their historic periods and types, including (but not limited to) Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian manuscripts, Ottonian manuscripts, Romanesque manuscripts, Gothic manuscripts, and Renaissance manuscripts. There are a few examples from later periods. The type of book that was most often heavily and richly illuminated, sometimes known as a "display book", varied between periods. In the first millennium, these were most likely to be Gospel Books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. The Romanesque period saw the creation of many huge illuminated complete Bibles – one in Sweden requires three librarians to lift it. Many Psalters were also heavily illuminated in both this and the Gothic period. Single cards or posters of vellum, leather or paper were in wider circulation with short stories or legends on them about the lives of saints, chivalry knights or other mythological figures, even criminal, social or miraculous occurrences; popular events much freely used by story tellers and itinerant actors to support their plays. Finally, the Book of Hours, very commonly the personal devotional book of a wealthy layperson, was often richly illuminated in the Gothic period. Other books, both liturgical and not, continued to be illuminated at all periods. The Byzantine world also continued to produce manuscripts in its own style, versions of which spread to other Orthodox and Eastern Christian areas. See Medieval art for other regions, periods and types. Reusing parchments by scraping the surface and reusing them was a common practice; the traces often left behind of the original text are known as palimpsests.

Illuminated manuscript

The Muslim World and in particular the Iberian Peninsula, with their traditions of literacy uninterrupted by the Middle Ages, were instrumental in delivering ancient classic works to the growing intellectual circles and universities of Western Europe all through the 1100s, as books were produced there in large numbers and on paper for the first time in Europe, and with them full treatises on the sciences, especially astrology and medicine where illumination was required to have profuse and accurate representations with the text.

The Gothic period, which generally saw an increase in the production of these beautiful artifacts, also saw more secular works such as chronicles and works of literature illuminated. Wealthy people began to build up personal libraries; Philip the Bold probably had the largest personal library of his time in the mid-15th century, is estimated to have had about 600 illuminated manuscripts, whilst a number of his friends and relations had several dozen.

Up to the twelfth century, most manuscripts were produced in monasteries in order to add to the library or after receiving a commission from a wealthy patron. Larger monasteries often contained separate areas for the monks who specialized in the production of manuscripts called a scriptorium. Within the walls of a scriptorium were individualized areas where a monk could sit and work on a manuscript without being disturbed by his fellow brethren. If no scriptorium was available, then “separate little rooms were assigned to book copying; they were situated in such a way that each scribe had to himself a window open to the cloister walk.” The separation of these monks from the rest of the cloister indicates just how revered these monks were within their society.

Illuminated manuscript

Illuminated manuscript

By the fourteenth century, the cloisters of monks writing in the scriptorium had almost fully given way to commercial urban scriptoria, especially in Paris, Rome and the Netherlands. While the process of creating an illuminated manuscript did not change, the move from monasteries to commercial settings was a radical step. Demand for manuscripts grew to an extent that the Monastic libraries were unable to meet with the demand, and began employing secular scribes and illuminators. These individuals often lived close to the monastery and, in certain instances, dressed as monks whenever they entered the monastery, but were allowed to leave at the end of the day. In reality, illuminators were often well known and acclaimed and many of their identities have survived.

First, the manuscript was “sent to the rubricator, who added (in red or other colors) the titles, headlines, the initials of chapters and sections, the notes and so on; and then – if the book was to be illustrated – it was sent to the illuminator.” In the case of manuscripts that were sold commercially, the writing would “undoubtedly have been discussed initially between the patron and the scribe (or the scribe’s agent,) but by the time that the written gathering were sent off to the illuminator there was no longer any scope for innovation.”


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.

Illuminated manuscript

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 process of illumination

A 13th-century manuscript illumination, the earliest known depiction of Thomas Becket's assassination

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.


Illuminated manuscript


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.

2017 History of Graphic Design

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