The Art of the Book
Medieval Europe. One of the darkest periods known to mankind: Pestilence
and plague, darkness and fear, witch-hunts and illiteracy roam the land.
It is a world where most people seldom leave their place of birth for
any distance longer than 10 miles, where few people even live beyond
the age of 30. In this inhospitable milieu, secluded in the scriptoria
of cold monasteries, under the light of feeble oil lamps, mittened against
the biting cold; some of the greatest book designers that ever lived,
created some of the most beautiful books the world has ever seen. The
colophons of the their creations are testimony to their short lives
since most of the books that they worked upon were only completed in
several of their brief lifetimes, one scribe replacing the other over
decades. We call these beautiful books Illuminated Manuscripts.
An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented
by the addition of decoration or illustration, such as decorated initials,
borders and miniatures. In the strictest definition of the term, an
illuminated manuscript only refers to manuscripts decorated with gold
or silver. However, in both common usage and modern scholarship, the
term is now used to refer to any decorated manuscript.
earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period
AD 400 to 600, primarily produced in Ireland, Italy and other locations
on the European continent. The meaning of these works lies not only in
their inherent art history value, but in the maintenance of a link of
literacy. Had it not been for the (mostly monastic) scribes of late antiquity,
the entire content of western heritage literature from Greece and Rome
could have perished. The very existence of illuminated manuscripts as
a way of giving stature and commemoration to ancient documents may have
been largely responsible for their preservation in an era when barbarian
hordes had overrun continental Europe.
majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many
illuminated manuscripts survive from the 15th century Renaissance, along
with a very limited number from late antiquity. The majority of these
manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from 13th century
onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most illuminated
manuscripts were created as codices, although many illuminated manuscripts
were rolls or single sheets. A very few illuminated manuscript fragments
survive on papyrus. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were
written on parchment (most commonly calf, sheep, or goat skin) or vellum
(calf skin). Beginning in the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be
produced on paper.
manuscripts are the most common item to survive from the Middle Ages.
They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting. Indeed,
for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples
A scriptorium (plural scriptoria) was a room devoted to the hand-lettered
copying of manuscripts. Before the invention of printing by moveable type,
a scriptorium was a normal adjunct to a library. In the monasteries, the
scriptorium was a room, rarely a building, set apart for the professional
copying of manuscripts. The director of a monastic scriptorium was the
armarius or scrittori, who provided the scribes with their materials and
directed the process. Rubrics and illuminations were added by a separate
class of specialists.
Illumination was a complex and frequently costly process. As such, 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.
the writing surface of choice in Antiquity, became prohibitively expensive
as commercial supplies dried up propably through over-harvesting (see
Papyrus) and was replaced by parchment and vellum. During the 7th through
the 9th centuries, many earlier parchment manuscripts were scrubbed and
scoured to be ready for rewriting. Such overwritten parchment manuscripts,
where the original text has begun faintly to show through, are called
palimpsests. Many of the works of Antiquity often said to have been preserved
in the monasteries were only preserved as palimsests. In the 13th century
paper began to displace parchment. As paper became cheaper, parchment
was reserved for elite uses of documents that were of particular importance.
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.
script depended on local customs and tastes. The sturdy Roman letters
of the early Middle Ages gradually gave way to cursive 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.
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 onto the vellum (possibly with the aid
of pinpricks or other markings, as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels).
Art historians classify illuminated manuscripts into their historic periods
and types, including (but not limited to): Insular script, Carolingian
manuscripts, Ottonian manuscripts, Romanesque manuscripts and Gothic manuscripts.
The term insular is used to refer to manuscripts produced in monastic
centres in the British Isles in the seventh and eighth centuries. Insular
manuscripts were written in uncial or half uncial scripts and were the
first manuscripts to introduce spaces between words to make it easier
to read. They were decorated in abstract linear patterns adapted from
Anglo-Saxon and Celtic metalwork and where zoomorphic forms were included
these were stylised and either copied from earlier art or drawn from the
imagination. Three forms of decoration are commonly found in insular manuscripts:
ornamented borders enclosing full page illustrations; ornate initials
used for beginning of gospels and important passages; and carpet pages,
which are full pages of decorative designs. Well known examples of Insular
manuscripts are the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.698AD), the Book of Durrow
(c.680AD) and the Book of Kells (c.800AD).
The Book of Kells, Ireland, A.D. 800
The Book of Durrow, Ireland, 7th century
The Book of Lindisfarne, England, late 7th or early 8th century
The Codex Aureus, England, 9th century
The Ottonian style is associated with the courts of the Saxon
emperors from 960-1060. Gospel books, pericopes (books of Gospel readings)
and the Apocolypse were more popular than entire bibles. Ottonian manuscripts
were influenced by Byzantium, featuring the use of burnished gold backgrounds
and large eyed figures in rigid, hieratic poses.
Ottonian manuscripts, Germany, 10th and 11th centuries
The Carolingian style is associate with the court of Charlemagne
who set out to revive book design and production. Manuscripts during this
period were made for imperial and aristocratic use as well as for ecclesiastical
use and it was at this time that manuscript production expanded from the
monasteries to secular workshops. Caroline manuscripts were written in
Caroline miniscule text and were more classical in style. They sometimes
included sections written in gold or silver ink on purple vellum and often
contained lavish quantities of gold. The illuminations were display a
combination of two dimensional ornament and increased sense of three dimensions
in the depiction of figures. The Old Testament was a popular subject popular
because its political themes appealed to a courtly audience. One of the
best-known, but not typical, Carolingian mansucripts is the Utrecht Psalter
reading and images
Carolingian manuscripts, France, 7th to 10th centuries
The Romanesque style, which dates from the year 1000, was an
international rather than a national style and examples of Romanesque
manuscripts come from a wide geographical area. During this period a wider
variety of books was produced, including large Bibles and commentaries,
lives of Saints, theological works, missals and Psalters as well as Gospels.
An increase in monasticism meant that many books were produced for public
use, leading to the production of larger sized books. Romanesque manuscripts
feature grotesques (a variety of real and imaginary creatures), textured
or gold backgrounds, and historiated initials. These initials, found at
the commencement of a chapter, combined the initial of the opening word
with foliage, figures or pictures illustrating a portion of the text.
These initials, which were more common than full-page illustrations, could
sometimes extend the length of the page. One well-known example of a Romanesque
manuscript is the Winchester Bible (c.1150-1200AD)
The St.Albans Psalter,
England, 12th century
The Gothic style dates from around 1150AD and, like the Romanesque,
was an international style. The rise of universities and cathedral schools
led to an increased demand for books of all kinds. During the Gothic period
books became smaller and more delicate, with increased integration between
illustrations and text. Generally there was less text on page, with blank
spaces in lines of text being filled with decorative bars. Illustrations
were sometimes combined with borders, and marginal sketches and grotesques
(now known as drolleries) were reintroduced. Historiated initials were
reduced in size, but illustrations, known as bas de page, were included
at the bottom of text pages. Decorative scrolls of ivy leaves were a feature
of many Gothic manuscripts. The mid fourteenth century saw the introduction
of original illustrations. Previously text was copied from book to book
and so were illustrations (modified of course to suit changing tastes),
leading to continuity in iconography. However from mid-fourteenth century
some illustrators were making their own images, which became increasingly
naturalistic. Famous Gothic manuscripts include the works the Limbourg
Brothers produced in the fifteenth century for the Duc de Berry.
Gothic book pages from the 13th century
Gothic book pages
from the 14th century. Second from left: The Fitz-Payne Book, second from
right the Queen Mary Psalter.
Gothic book pages
from the 15th century, from France, Italy and Hungary.
Chronicles of Hainaut. France, 15th century
Book of Hours
A Book of Hours is the most common type of surviving medieval illuminated
manuscript. Each Book of Hours is unique, but all contain a collection
of texts, prayers and psalms, along with appropriate illustrations, to
form a convenient reference for Christian worship and devotion. The Books
of Hours were composed for use by lay people who wished to incorporate
elements of monasticism into their devotional life. Reciting the hours
typically centered upon the recitation or singing of a number of psalms,
accompanied by set prayers. The most famous of these were created by the
Limbourg Brothers for the Duc de Berry at the beginning of the 15th century.
Books of Hours for the Duc de Berry. Top: Les Tres belles Heures du
Duc de Berry, bottom: Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.
Books of Hours were not limited to the Duc de Berry's library. Here are
a few more samples from the 15th and 16th centuries:
Books of Hours
from France and the Netherlands. 15th and 16th centuries
Music scores (antiphoner) from late Gothic times.
In Typography diminuendo is the art of arranging letters starting with
a large initial and progressively diminishing the point size of the type
as it runs into the body text, assuring a smooth transitio between initial
and body text. Possibly the most captivating design features of illuminated
manuscripts are these initials and the diminuendo, both of which are widely
implemented in contemporary editorial design today as well:
Initials and Diminuendo
Medieval Europe metamorphosed into a new age through the Renaisance these
beautiful hand crafted books inevitably gave way to the onset of a new
technology: The printing press, whereby books could be mass produced and
became everyday objects of use rather than the jewels hidden in the libraries
of Popes, Dukes and Kings as they had been for many many centuries. However,
as we shall see in the next section, the change was gradual and although
the beauty of the illuminated manuscript was forever lost another beauty
came to replace it: The mastery of the grid and of type.
reading and images