Before the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439, books were crafted individually by hand. One of the most elaborate books in art history was the illuminated manuscript—a unique, handcrafted book most commonly used to recount religious scripture and lore. As the name implies, illumination is the practice of decorating book pages with glimmering gold or silver leaflets, rich pigments, intricate borders, and even elaborate paintings. These embellishments imbued text with “light” and turned each book into an elevated experience.
What is an illuminated manuscript?
An illuminated manuscript is a handwritten book in which the text is decorated in gold or silver and the pages are filled with illustrations and decorative motifs. Due to the amount of work involved in creating them, illuminated manuscripts have been regarded throughout history as valuable religious relics. Contemporary historians see them as dazzling works of art, while collectors often seek out individual leaves for decorative purposes as they are among the most affordable artifacts from the pre-Renaissance period. Most importantly, illuminated manuscripts are artifacts of a bygone tradition and remind us how people shared knowledge and stories before technological innovations were possible.
The History of an Illuminated Manuscript
The oldest examples of illuminated manuscripts date back to 560 A.D. Monasteries developed them to aid in the daily practices of monks, nuns, and laymen, and the decorations served to present stories from the Bible and evoke the glory of God. The practice continued well into the Middle Ages, which is considered the “golden age” of illuminated manuscripts. Until the 12th century, the most elaborate pieces were reserved for religious works and created only by monks.
The increase in literacy and rise of universities in the 12th and 13th centuries led to more works by secular craftsmen, who also supplied manuscripts to noblemen, the new middle class, students, and professors. While illuminated manuscripts were mainly kept in monasteries, wealthy people began to collect and build personal libraries. During the Renaissance, several important painters worked such as Gerard David, Simon Bening, and Antonio Pisano crafted their own illuminated manuscripts.
After a long history, the invention of the printing press in the 15th century halted this labor-intensive practice. Although a few wealthy aristocrats still commissioned them for private worship, illumination would eventually disappear from the bookmaking industry. Thankfully, many centuries of illuminated manuscripts have survived and are on display in libraries and museums.
How the Illuminated Manuscript is Created
Illumination was a long and painstaking tradition. Monks would spend hours in the writing room, also called a scriptorium, to prep the surface and hand-copy the scriptures. Even during the height of production, only one in ten manuscripts were illuminated due to the expensive process. The practice required books to be passed between the hands of four or more skilled craftsmen: the parchment maker, the scribe, the illuminator or illustrator, and the bookbinder.
Text was usually written first. Before preparing for illumination, sheets of parchment or vellum, a writing surface made from calfskin, were soaked and cut down to the appropriate sizes. A scribe would lightly rule the pages with a pointed stick before using a sharpened quill dipped in black ink to lay down text. The text was often given to a second monk to proofread for errors and inscribe titles in blue or red ink. The script style would vary based on local customs and taste. Once the text was completed, the illuminator would then add leaflets of gold and silver and various colored pigments to the pages.
Once the text was set, an illustrator would begin to sketch pre-planned designs onto the parchment. While early manuscripts did not contain many images, the Gothic period saw manuscripts with a larger proportion of decorated borders, foliate patterns, framed miniatures (small painted scenes), and historiated initials (an enlarged letter at the beginning of a paragraph, often containing a picture).
Illuminated manuscripts are classified by their respective historic time periods, which include:
- Late Antique
Richly illuminated books, known as display books, varied between periods. Bibles and personal devotion books were illuminated during the Romanesque era. The Gothic period saw an increase in production of illuminated manuscripts and secular works, including literature and chronicles.
7 Influential Illuminated Manuscripts
The most common type of illuminated manuscript was the Book of Hours, a collection of Christian prayers to recited during the day. Other types of manuscripts were equally lavish in illumination. The following are among the most influential and beautiful examples.
The Book of Durrow (650–700 CE)
Created either at Iona or Lindisfarne Abbey, The Book of Durrow is the oldest illuminated manuscript of the gospels. The manuscript is adorned with intricate Celtic knot motifs mixed with animal imagery. The small, transportable size of the book meant it was most likely used by missionaries. The Book of Durrow marks the first appearance of Evangelists in illuminated manuscripts and is one of the earliest books to incorporate gold and silver ink to illuminate the gospels, which would eventually become the standard practice in illuminated.
Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 700–715 CE)
Handcrafted at the Lindisfarne Priory, the Lindisfarne Gospels is an illustrated depiction of the gospels of the New Testament made in dedication of the priory’s most well-known member, St. Cuthbert. Although the priory was raided by Vikings in 793 CE (during which it was believed the Lindisfarne Gospels lost its original binding), a few surviving monks managed to flee with the book and transport it to Durham. The Lindisfarne Gospels is regarded one of the finest examples of Insular art, combining Mediterranean, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic elements.
The Book of Kells (c. 800 CE)
The Book of Kells is frequently viewed as the most famous illuminated manuscript of any era and the most significant contribution to medieval art. It was elaborately designed from cover to cover, with enormous letters, painstakingly detailed ornamentation, fine and crisp writing, and an abundance of intricate decorations. Consisting mainly of the four Gospels, it was created in the so-called Hiberno-Saxon style, which blended curved motifs, ornate initials, and bright coloring.
The Westminster Abbey Bestiary (c. 1275–1290 CE)
A bestiary is a book of animals, real or imaginary, accompanied by illustrations. This book style became popular during the Middle Ages when it used to highlight a connection between the natural world and Christianity. The Westminster Abbey Bestiary (similar work illustrated above) is an exemplar of this work, presenting 164 striking illustrations of animals set against deep blue and pink-red backgrounds. The style is characterized by open spaces between stiff figures composed of crisp lines, oval facial shapes, and pointed chins.
The Book of Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (c. 1324–1328 CE)
Created for Queen Jeanne d’Evreux in France, the Book of Hours illustrated by Jean Pucelle is an artistic masterpiece with 25 miniatures that depict the life of Jesus Christ. Along with smaller illustrations, the book exhibited a total of 700 drawn figures and decorative elements. Containing prayers a devout Christian would recite throughout the day, the illustrations are intended to inspire and elevate the reader. The amount of detail and work put into this small manuscript (which is impressively the size of a modern day paperback) makes it one of the most impressive Book of Hours ever illuminated.
The Black Hours (c. 1475–1480 CE)
Created in Bruges, Belgium, the Black Hours manuscript is known for its stained black vellum illuminated with dazzling blue and gold pigments. The combination of light colors and the deep black background created the impression of an otherworldly realm. The contrast distinguished The Black Hours from other Book of Hours and gave it the status as one of the most unique and remarkable illuminated manuscripts.
Prayer book of Claude de France (c. 1517 CE)
Commissioned for the Queen of France, this prayer book is most notable for its diminutive yet functional size. It was mobile enough to fit the palm of one’s hands, and as a result, was easy to carry around and read. Despite its dimensions, it carried 132 intricate images all framed by ornate, eye-catching borders. Some details are so minute that they need to be viewed with a magnifying glass.
The discontinuation of illuminated manuscripts did not stop collectors from seeking out these intricately detailed works of art. Throughout history, illuminated manuscripts were commended for their sense of prestige and exceptional craftsmanship. There was no replacement for these luxurious handcrafted manuscripts, as their history, enduring value, and presentation make them some of the most intriguing objects ever created.