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A Brief Introduction to the History of the Illuminated Manuscript

What Is Illumination?

The practice of illumination—adding decoration to book manuscripts—dates back to the early fifth century and continued into the Middle Ages, when scribes, monks, and other artists used richly colored pigments as well as gold and silver leaf to decorate the pages of books and Bibles. The glittering materials used were said to "light up" or illumine the text.

Because the Scriptures were not available in vernacular languages, they were not accessible to many, even those in the upper classes. Furthermore, in the sixth century, illiteracy was common, evidenced by the fact that only one in seven of the laity could write his or her own name. Even Charlemagne, the "Father of Europe" and eventual Holy Roman emperor, was among those who struggled to hold a pen and produce his own name on parchment two hundred years later.

By illuminating texts, skilled artists were able to beautify the pages of the Bible as a way to summarize, explain, and, ultimately, preserve its message. Monks would spend long hours where the lighting was best, usually in their cloister's writing room—the scriptorium—prepping the writing surface and hand-copying the Scriptures onto parchment or thin sheets of animal skins. Even some of these copyists were unable to read the text themselves, simply becoming adept at the mechanics of the task of copying symbols from one book to another.

To prepare the writing surface, animal skins were scraped, soaked, and dried to create each writing surface. Various colored inks were mixed with a binding agent like egg whites using ingredients such as plants and minerals, and other elements such as mercury, sulphur, and cinnabar. The most affordable—and therefore common—colored ink used was an orange hue called minium, made by grinding the burnt-orange crust that resulted from roasting a pigment called white lead.

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Pages would then be prepared to accept the various colored pigments, as well as the delicate gold and silver leaf, with several layers of a plaster, water, sugar, and egg white mixture. Once set and burnished, monks known as rubricators would then begin the artistic work of illustration, starting with black ink outlines and then filling them in with color.

An Ancient Tradition

The oldest-known example of an illuminated manuscript, dating back to 560 AD, is an Irish book of psalms called An Cathach. Other examples of illuminated manuscripts include the Book of Durrow (produced in the British Isles around 650 AD), the Lindisfarne Gospels (produced on an island off the northeast English coast around 700 AD), and perhaps the most famous, the Book of Kells (produced in Ireland in the 800s AD).

Embellishment of texts was a long, elaborate process—and therefore extremely expensive. In the 1400s—the zenith of the practice—only one in ten manuscripts were illuminated. Only the most revered texts received this royal treatment, and were often stored in the confines of monasteries and churches until much later, when wealthy private citizens began acquiring them as status symbols.

The practice of illumination continued unabated worldwide until the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, which slowed and then effectively stopped most instances of the labor-intensive process. Thankfully, though the art of illumination slowed, many ancient manuscripts have survived the intervening centuries and are displayed in libraries and museums worldwide.

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