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Illuminated Manuscripts

Medieval life and Times

Illuminated Manuscripts - Illumination
The illumination or decoration of manuscripts was one of the most common forms of Medieval Art. The word illuminated comes the Latin word 'illuminare' meaning adorn, enlighten or illuminate and is defined as the embellishment of a manuscript with luminous colors (especially gold). The artist who produced the sumptuous artwork on illuminated manuscripts were called Illuminators.

Illuminators could be male or female (see Hildegard of Bingen) and were members of monasteries or convents.

Illuminated Manuscripts - Medieval Monks
Medieval Monks were dedicated to a pious and religious life in monasteries and painstakingly copied religious texts and embellished these manuscripts with rich colors which often featured the use of gold and silver. The monks worked in the Scriptorium which was the room in a monastery used by clerics or scribes to copy manuscripts of religious text. The production of these beautiful illuminated manuscripts brought both wealth and prestige to the monasteries. The different types of Illuminated manuscripts ranged from using miniature illuminations or full page illuminations to decorate the religious text.

Creating Illuminated Manuscripts
Illuminated Manuscripts were generally written in ink on parchment or vellum. Parchment was made by brushing, stretching and drying calf, sheep, or goat skin. The best quality of parchment was called vellum and traditionally made of unsplit calf skin. The text was first written by a scribe and then the gilding, or the application of gold leaf, formed the first stage in the painting process of illumination by the illuminator. The application of color was then added following a planned design.

Illuminated Manuscripts - The Decorations
The decorations found in illuminated manuscripts included the following art work:

  • Miniature, or small pictures which were incorporated into the text decorating sections of the page or part of the border

  • Large pictures, which were rarer, which occupied the whole of a page
  • Initial alphabet letters either containing scenes ( referred to as historiated initials) or with elaborate decoration
    • An historiated initial is an enlarged letter which contains a picture found usually at the beginning of a paragraph but were also added to other section of text of illuminated manuscripts
    • Borders can also be historiated
  • Borders of illuminated manuscripts also contained elements of decoration consisting of illustrative miniatures or decorative motifs. They may enclose the whole of the text space or occupy only a small part of the margin of the page. Some borders were in panelled form whilst others were composed of foliate decorations or bars which often sprouted plant forms and were known as foliate bar borders

Illuminated Manuscripts History Overview
The Illuminated Manuscripts containing Medieval Religious Art was created largely for the Christian Catholic Church. Christian art and religious iconography began, about two hundred years after the death of Christ and the earliest surviving illuminated manuscripts are from the period 400AD. Illuminated manuscripts are classified into their historic periods and types including Byzantine manuscripts, Romanesque manuscripts, Gothic manuscripts and Renaissance manuscripts. During the the late Middle Ages manuscripts began to be produced on paper and were printed which rapidly led to the decline of illumination.

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