Illumination by Daniel Parnell

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Concise History of Illumination in Medieval Europe

Although usually associated with medieval Europe, illuminated manuscripts were common throughout the Classical ages with examples on papyrus from Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Crafters of illuminated manuscripts had a long precedent of achievement on which to build support. The true transition to modern notions of illumination began right before the Fall of Rome and its Western empire to the Germanic invaders in 476 CE when papyrus was exchanged for the codex. In parallel with the modern book, a codex was a bound collection of leaflets that could be more easily accessed and navigated than the previously used scrolls. The codex not only led to innovations of literary production and distribution, it also encouraged more intricate illumination techniques.

In a time when literacy among the general public was severely restricted, monks of the relatively young Christian church carried the flame of written word knowledge. Without a printing press, all works had to be reproduced by hand. Most monasteries had a special scriptoria in which scribes spent much of their time recopying both Biblical or theological works and respected secular works from Antiquity. Intended for the nobles of the medieval feudal hierarchy, the books were given an extra flourish of decoration by illuminators who worked side-by-side with the scribes. Thus the tradition of illumination began.

The early illumination of the Middle Ages was usually confined to marginalia and historiated initials. Marginalia were decorative borders along the outside of the book that would feature some physical object or pattern snaking its way around. Many times small birds, beasts, or persons were interwoven among the patterns; engaged in various activities. Historiated initials were larger versions of the first letter of a passage, beginning with merely a more decorative and zoomed version and later becoming small intricate scenes in of themselves. For the especially wealthy, many of these decorations were done in more color detail or with fine gold leaf.

By about the late 12th century, a golden age of illumination began. Artisans gained increasing prominence with the start of the gothic architecture style and magnificent cathedrals springing up across Europe and especially France. Illuminators became more specialized and secular, joining with guilds of painters or sculptors. Lay persons involved themselves with the trade, and would visit the scriptoria of monasteries to lay in the finishing touches to works copied out by monk scribes. These professional artists usually focused solely on book illumination, but some also engaged in frescos and paintings that would form the root of the later Renaissance. An extremely profitable venture, by the earlier 13th century many layperson workshops under the direction of an illuminator master had been established. The more creative and skill intensive aspects of illumination such as the underdrawing and aesthetic organization were undertaken by masters of the trade, while to their apprentices were relegated the more tedious tasks of inking or binding.

Another significant development in the realm of illumination was the conception of combining text and picture into one uniform expressive unit. Beginning with the artists of Paris and inspired by the new exquisite stained glass windows crafted for local cathedrals, this idea gave the illuminators far more flexibility. They could now incorporate a fourth or even half page to illustrative pictures, or even craft the pictures first and write text to go along with them (blasphemy!). Many amusing tales of grotesque beasts and raunchy acts of sex (all in the name of religious instruction, of course) were created through this method. Realism was on an upswing as illuminators took cues from the painters of Flanders and Italy to better depict their work. The triumph of the period was the Très Riches Heures (the Book of Hours) by the Limbourg brothers created for the Duc de Berry.

Final Days
Swept up in the innovations of the Renaissance, illumination continued to improve and spread through the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries. Schools of illumination were established by layperson artists. Collaborative works carefully set to a single theme became common among integrated workshops. Many become centers of traditional inheritance passed down through the use of pattern books, highly detailed and colorful collections of illustrations that served as models for any one particular workshop's style. They were sometimes taken about as advertisements for a workshop's skill and quality to both monasteries and nobles considering the purchase of an illuminated devotional. The book trade thrived in centers of literature such as Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and Paris; so there was plenty of demand.

Despite such enthusiasm, the introduction of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1540s ironically signaled the beginning of the end for illumination because of the unprecedented thirst for books it created. The efficiency and speed of the printing press had the poor scribes beat, and their skills became increasingly useless in the face of mass production. With the downfall of the scribes, so too went the illuminators. Text copying and illustration were extremely intertwined; separating one from the other would have been impossible. Although still desired by the nobles of the age, the practice of illumination was reduced to a smaller, more specialized and esoteric practice as it had once been in the early medieval days.

The History of Printing. . Jan 30, 1997.

Sallay, Dó. The Medieval Manuscript Manual: Illumination. .

Jones, Brian. A Report on Medieval Manuscripts. . Jul 4, 2000.

Il*lu`mi*na"tion (?), n. [L. illuminatio: cf. F. illumination.]


The act of illuminating, or supplying with light; the state of being illuminated.


Festive decoration of houses or buildings with lights.


Adornment of books and manuscripts with colored illustrations. See Illuminate, v. t., 3.


That which is illuminated, as a house; also, an ornamented book or manuscript.


That which illuminates or gives light; brightness; splendor; especially, intellectual light or knowledge.

The illumination which a bright genius giveth to his work. Felton.

6. Theol.

The special communication of knowledge to the mind by God; inspiration.

Hymns and psalms . . . are framed by meditation beforehand, or by prophetical illumination are inspired. Hooker.


© Webster 1913.

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