You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Objects > Illuminated manuscripts
Medieval illuminated manuscripts were books written by hand and decorated with paintings and ornaments of different kinds. The word "illuminated" comes from the usage of the Latin world illuminare in connection with oratory or prose style, where it means "adorn." It's believed illuminated manuscripts began in dynastic Egypt, with the Book of the Dead.
With their rich and colorful borders and gilded pictures they are one of the wonders of the Middle Ages. It was during this time period when manuscript painting was considered a high artform. Each and every manuscript is unique. Some have decoration on the first page, while others are decorated throughout. Some have decorated line openings or
endings, but still others have full borders filled with foliage, birds, rabbits and flowers. Imaginary creatures are often depicted in manuscript illumination.
A wide range of colors were used by the medieval manuscript painter. Red was made from natural cinnabar or from such plants as brazil wood or madder. Blue was most commonly made from azurite or the seed of a plant called crozophora. The very best blue came from lapis lazuli, which is only found naturally near Afghanistan. Other pigments include green from malachite or verdigris, yellow from saffron and white from lime, white lead or the ashes of burned bird bones.
Silver and gold leaf were used to create magic on the illustrated page. If gold leaf was used, it had to be applied before the color, since the gold may stick to any pigment already laid. The vigorous act of burnishing could also smudge the painting. The shining of the burnished gold in manuscripts after so many decades is a tribute to the technical skill of the medieval painters.
The decorations are of three primary types: 1) miniatures or small pictures 2) initial letters and 3) borders.
For the most part, manuscripts were written on skin, parchment or vellum. From the 14th century, paper was used for less ornate copies.
Most illuminators charged by the work, rather than the time required to finish the piece. A very rare self portrait of Hugo Pictor, a late eleventh-century Norman monastic painter, shows a tonsured monk sitting holding a page down with a knife in his right hand. In contrast, Simon Bening (a well-known sixteenth-century illuminator) was not a monk,
but married with children.
Many fine examples of illuminated manuscripts remain today, primarily in museums and libraries.