Illuminated Manuscripts

All books during the Medieval times were written by hand and typically included original artwork 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.

Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Times

History of Illuminated Manuscripts

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 favor of this more cost-efficient publishing.

Gutenberg Press

In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg decided to make use of the previously available and traditional screw press and combine its prowess with new pieces of equipment that he himself invented.

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.

Johannes Gutenberg Famous Medieval People

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.

A Medieval Scribe at Work

Medieval Scribes recorded history and designed illuminated manuscripts

Illuminated Manuscripts Definition

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.

  • Medieval books were written by hand, often elaborately decorated with fancy letters & borders
  • Fancy borders and books laced with silver and gold were called Illuminated manuscripts
  • The origins of Illuminated manuscripts date back to the 5th century, reached their peak around the 11th Century
  • The Gutenberg press was invented in the 14th century and brought an end to the illuminated manuscripts
  • Illuminated manuscripts were most prevalent in religious writings and exclusive to the clergy and upper classes.
Illuminated Book Pages Written In Latin

Illuminated Book Pages Written In Latin

Illuminated Letters and Alphabet

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 finalized 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.

Illuminated Manuscripts Medieval Scribe Eadwine at work psalter christ church canterbury

Illuminated Manuscripts Medieval Scribe Eadwine at work psalter christ church canterbury

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, the 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.

Medieval illuminated manuscripts

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 oversized ornate capitals.

Creating a script became a necessary procedure to avoid producing low-quality illuminated manuscripts.

Illuminated Manuscripts Gold Lace Codex Bruchsal

Illuminated Manuscripts Gold Lace Codex Bruchsal

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.


Illuminated Manuscripts From Medieval Times Meister der Wenzel Werkstatt

Illuminated Art

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.

Illuminated Book Pages Illuminated Manuscript

Illuminated Book Pages Illuminated Manuscripts – Boucicaut Meister

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 appearance of the manuscript.

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.

  • To illuminate a manuscript, the succeeding steps should be followed:
  • Silver would be added to the drawing of the design
  • The scribe would start applying gold dots on the page
  • Other colors would be modulated
  • The first three steps would be repeated while figures along the margins would be outlined
  • The scribe would pen a rinceau at the border of a page
  • Hand-painting of the marginal figures comprises the last step

Illuminated Books

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.

Medieval Scribes and the Painters Guild *Illuminated Manuscripts

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 traveling artists who journeyed far and wide in search of commissions.

On one hand, wealthy households enjoyed the exclusive service of court artists.

Western Caligraphy Book of Columba

Book of Columba is an illuminated manuscript masterwork of Western calligraphy

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.

The Guttenberg Press

The decline of Illuminated manuscripts and the Rise of Printing

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 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.