Few things are more captivating than a book’s words coming to life through the imagery they invoke, and nowhere have such images been more dazzling than within illuminated manuscripts. An artistic tradition comprising the decorating of hand-scribed books with intricately ornamented initials and vignettes, manuscript illumination has deep historical roots and incorporates a rich variety of media and motifs. Equally compelling is the field’s evolution from ancient world to Renaissance era, as cultural and technological transitions transformed the styles and subjects seen within these pages.
Join us as we page through manuscript illuminations over history. We’ll highlight the key eras and core techniques showcased through some of the most celebrated artists and examples associated with the field. We’ll also offer some insights on collecting these colorful volumes on the market today.
The Advent of Manuscript Illumination
Manuscript illumination can trace its origins far back into antiquity when the scribes of the ancient empires would transcribe texts line by line. For example, the written works of the ancient Egyptians captured on scrolls of hand-pressed papyrus, like the 13th-century BCE Book of the Dead, were often richly decorated with pictorial imagery both in the form of hieroglyphics and in vibrant illustrations of essential scenes.
Illuminated manuscripts gained renewed interest centuries later in ancient Greece and Rome. The 5th-century Virgilius Romanus, for instance, is widely recognized as one of the earliest illuminated manuscripts to offer an extensively illustrated edition of the writings of the famed Roman poet Virgil. Meanwhile, illuminated manuscripts also continued in the service of religious devotion. Fragments of the 4th- or 5th-century Greek Cotton Genesis reveal lively scenes from the first book of the Hebrew Bible (The Book of Genesis) accompanied by Greek text. The same can be said of the 6th-century Greek text known as the Rossano Gospels that recounted the stories of the New Testament including elaborate illustrations of the life of Christ. These scenes served a dual purpose: at the same time these images enlivened the writing they accompanied, they also provided a means for illiterate worshippers to engage with these stories without having to read.
Manuscript Illumination and Religious Symbolism
Surviving examples suggest that by the 7th century manuscript illumination had fully fallen into the service of religion and its symbolism. Two of the most famous manuscripts from this period are the 8th-century Lindisfarne Gospels and the 9th-century Book of Kells, both books that recounted the canonical New Testament gospels. Both gospel books were made by anonymous artists yet are world-renowned for their impeccably complex illuminations that waver between geometric patterns and infinitesimally intricate miniatures that testify to the skill that these illuminators embodied. This is perhaps most evident in the Book of Kells, where full-page illustrations undulate with color, gold leaf, and a myriad of miniature forms and figures.
By the 9th century, manuscript illumination continued to grow and diversify. The 9th-century, Vienna Coronation Gospels used by Charlemagne, for instance, revealed imagery that reflected a dedicated study of Classical Greco-Roman art down to the toga-like garments that main figures like Saint John wear. At the same time, elegantly illuminated manuscripts recounting the central Islamic text of the Qur’an also began to emerge. One of the most splendid of this period is the Blue Qur’an, known for its indigo-blue dyed pages and elegant gold-leaf calligraphy. The reach of these elegant illuminated Qur’ans only continued to expand across the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.
The Regal Illuminated Manuscript from the Medieval to the Renaissance Era
The extensive use of gold seen across these illuminated manuscripts added an air of reverence, both in terms of the importance of the divine figures found in the pages and also for the owner of these books. As a result, as time progressed these illuminated manuscripts became coveted as symbols of both piety and power that offered aristocratic classes a beautiful means of portable devotion (particularly as the Book of Hours, a personal book of prayers, grew in popularity). The more lavish the illustrations and extensive the gold leaf, the more prestigious the patron. Perhaps the most luxurious to note is the 13th-century Bible of Saint Louis, most likely created for Blanche of Castille, Queen of France under Louis VIII. This exceptional manuscript comprises page after page overwhelmed with applied gold leaf.
The illuminated manuscript’s prestige diminished somewhat during the 15th century, as the arrival of the printing press democratized access to the printed page. That said, manuscript illuminations continued to be central to an ever-increasing breadth of books. In addition to amply illustrated editions of work by major authors like Petrarch, scholarly compendiums like the Liber Chronaricum published in Nuremburg (also known as the Nuremburg Chronicles) offered some of the most extensively illustrated accounts of both scientific and religious writings.
Moreover, some of the most celebrated manuscript illuminators thrived during this period. The Limbourg brothers – Paul, Jean, and Herman – conjured the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416) replete with extravagant calendar page illustrations that depicted the labors and entertainments for each month of the year. Several decades later, Jean Fouquet would create the equally compelling Book of Hours of Étienne Chevalier (circa 1452) for the treasurer of the French King Charles VII. Women also commissioned such lavish texts, as exemplified in the Book of Hours rendered by the 15th-century Master of the Hours of Catherine of Cleves. Commissioned in celebration of her marriage to Duke Arnold of Guelders, this book of hours features numerous images interspersed with familial crests and portraits of both Catherine and Arnold perhaps to remind the reader of their patronage.
Manuscript Illumination Materials and Techniques.
These historical examples of manuscript illumination share several materials and methods that contributed to their shining status. These elements included:
Vellum or Parchment Pages
Core to many of these illustrations was the substrate of either vellum or parchment, both of which were derived from animal skins to give them particular durability.
- Parchment is made from the skin of sheep or goats.
- It was the more common material used for manuscripts during the earlier medieval period.
- Parchment was widely used from late antiquity through the medieval period.
- Vellum is made from calf skin, specifically the skin of a young calf.
- It became more prevalent in the later medieval period and the Renaissance.
- Vellum was considered a higher quality material and was often used for more luxurious and prestigious manuscripts.
The images that came to life on these pages were accentuated by a vibrant palette of colors that were derived from natural ingredients and, at times, semi-precious resources. Blue shades, for instance, were often conjured from crushed lapis lazuli, while green could be developed from ground malachite.
Further augmenting these saturated hues was the frequent application of gold leaf, which was often applied delicately to the background of scenes to emphasize the importance of the figures or narratives within.
The exterior cover of these manuscripts can seem secondary to the brilliant illuminated pages within, but often the bindings for these manuscripts were just as striking. Rigid wood gave these covers stability. Often they were then covered in luxurious materials, including embossed leather, velvet, and sometimes precious metals that could be further accented with inset semi-precious stones and crystals.
From the Renaissance to the Contemporary Age – a Collector’s PerspectiveAside from the work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 19th century, the practice of manuscript illumination never returned to the feverish pace of production last enjoyed during the Renaissance era. That said, the relative rarity of antique illuminated manuscripts has made them a coveted collector’s item both for the texts they preserve and the breathtaking delicateness of the imagery that illuminates the writing. For those intrigued by the prospect of purchasing manuscript illuminations, there are a couple of core points to keep in mind.
When assessing an illuminated manuscript, ensure that the date provided aligns with the materials and techniques observed in the book. For example, a manuscript that purports to date to the 15th century but bears pages lacking the translucent, waxy finish typical of vellum would be a red flag. In addition, if the color palette incorporates synthetic colors or the binding exhibits the use of glues other than gum Arabic, the authenticity of that illuminated manuscript is sure to be suspected.
Size, Extent, and Rarity of Illustration
Also contributing to the value and desirability of an illuminated manuscript is the size of the book and the amount of illustration included. A richly illuminated book of hours will probably be valued more than one that bears occasional illuminated capitals or singular full-page illustrations. Rarity is also an important consideration. Some manuscripts have been broken up over history, resulting in single sheets at times being put up for sale. While this incompleteness might generally diminish value, if the page comes from a particularly rare text, even a single illustration can fetch high hammer prices.
Like most artworks, the condition of manuscript illuminations also plays a role in their value and collectability. Some wear is expected, particularly if a manuscript is centuries old. That said, abnormally faded pigments or warped pages can allude to poor protection of a manuscript from light and temperature changes. Furthermore, insects and mold can further degrade the surface of vellum pages.
Collecting in an Illuminated Field
Tracing the evolution of manuscript illumination reveals an incredible history of artistic ingenuity that transformed straightforward pages of calligraphic texts into visually captivating vignettes. From the days of ancient Egypt to the pinnacle of the Renaissance, scribes and book artists showcased just how artful the dance between word and image could be on the page. From a contemporary collector’s perspective, these manuscript illuminations offer a scintillating escape into the past, where small vignettes and delicate details consistently remind of the brilliance of artistic imagination.