All books during the Medieval times were written by hand and typically included original art work and elaborate borders. Ornate books whose covers and pages were laced with gold and, at times, silver became known as “illuminated manuscripts” simply because they radiated elegance and shone even from a distance.
Manuscript illumination reached its production peak around 1100 but the earliest surviving manuscripts date back to the 5th century. The establishment of the Gutenberg printing press put an end to the golden era of illuminated manuscripts. When Gutenberg flourished between 1450 and 1455, the prominence of gilded books began to wane in favour of this more cost-efficient publishing.
Book usage in the Medieval era was at first exclusive to the upper class and the clergy. Holy men like priests and monks needed as many liturgical books as possible to spread the word of God and carry out their mission. Whenever a new church or monastery was erected, a new set of illuminated manuscripts appeared. During the 12th century, Medieval society encouraged the production of manuscripts for individual purposes and not just for religious congregations. As a result of this secularisation, workshops operated by expert scribes grew in numbers and illuminated manuscripts were made available to common folks.
The Latin equivalent of the word illumination is illuminare, which means “light up”. A term that captures the very essence of Medieval manuscripts, a number of which were made luminous by the frequent incorporation of gold and silver.
The making of the text usually came first in the process of illumination. Scribes would cut the sheet of parchment or vellum prepared beforehand into the desired size. As soon as he finalised the page layout, including the borders and the design of the first capital letter, the scribe would dip a reed pen or sharp feather quill into an ink-pot and work on the rest of the letters.
Preferences and traditions were generally taken into account prior to installing the text. The early Medieval times frequently made use of big Roman letters, which eventually went out of fashion. In its place came the Uncial and semi-Uncial scripts, widely used in the British Isles. Thick, ornately textured black-letter was not added to the script until the 13th century. The font grew more popular in the latter part of the Medieval era.
Scribes spent a great deal of time before the actual production. They outlined their work and made sure the outcome matched the original plan. In the past, when careful planning was not an important concern among artists, lettering looked cramped and crowded with over-sized ornate capitals. Creating a script became a necessary procedure to avoid producing low quality illuminated manuscripts. The scribes also left blank spaces for supplementary decorations. This method helped expedite the illumination process particularly if one person handled the inscription while another took care of the illumination.
Medieval manuscript illumination was considered a luxury item that only the wealthy could afford. Because illumination was a time-consuming process and illustrators and scribes had to be properly compensated for their hard work, gilded manuscripts cost a fortune. Art style per book varied depending on specific customer requirements. Instructions had to be provided before the start of the illumination process so that artisans could immediately work on the manuscripts.
Gold may be the highlight feature of an illuminated manuscript, but an assortment of bold colors was also used to add different dimensions to the manuscripts appearance. From a religious stance, each color “mostly plant-based”, symbolized a particular virtue or moral value, that, when taken together, represented heaven’s gifts. The splash of colors gave a vibrant appeal to each page and caught the eye of the readers. Though gold and silver made the manuscripts brilliant and glossy, the absence of colorful art would have dulled the impact.
Through hand painting, early printed books were created to mimic illuminated manuscripts. However, the practice of manuscript illumination eventually faded. By the 16th century, the printing press took center stage and little was left of gilded books.
The people responsible for producing golden manuscripts were called illuminators (alternately, scribes). There were illuminators in priestly and noble quarters but the secularization of manuscript illumination gradually gave rise to humble craftsmen who put up their own shops or travelling artists who journeyed far and wide in search of commissions. On one hand, wealthy households enjoyed the exclusive service of court artists.
Most of the local illuminators were part of the painter’s guild or guilds characterized by book trading. They did not disclose their names to the public and anonymously went about their commissions. In the late Middle Ages, when artists rose in status and were glorified everywhere, many illuminators started signing their works.
One example of a 13th century manuscript illumination depicted the assassination of Thomas Becket. Monasteries were the primary producers of manuscripts before the secularization period in Paris, the Netherlands and Italy. Holy books like the Bible were often subjected to the illumination process. The wealthy were in the habit of commissioning artists to outline prayer books such as the “books of hours”with gold and silver. In Paris, towards the end of the Middle Ages, there was a burgeoning number of female painters who took charge of illuminating manuscripts.
Although the invention of cost-efficient printing machines caused the demand for illuminated manuscripts to drop, the elegance and sophistication they exuded not only lasted throughout the centuries but also became a source of the inspiration for future books. We hope you enjoyed reading this article on illuminated manuscripts if you would like to learn more about medieval art and literature please look at the medieval art and medieval literature sections of this website or follow the links at the bottom of this medieval illuminated manuscripts page.