The manuscript illuminator was a miniature painter and calligrapher who flourished from the Early
Middle Ages to the
Illuminated manuscripts are hand-painted and hand-written books. Many
of the greatest illuminators of Europe were nomadic, traveling from
country to country is search of commissions. The greatest illuminators
of all time were the Limbourg Brothers.
Manuscript Illumination started around the first century AD and is related to
papyrology (the art of ancient writing and painting on papyrus). The
pages of the books were made out of goat or sheep skins - called
parchment or vellum. The manuscripts were produced in monastic
centers in the British Isles during the seventh and eighth
According to Medieval historian, Julia De Wolf Addison, "Many
different arts were represented in the making of a mediŠval book. Of
those employed, first came the scribe, whose duty it was to form the
black even glossy letters with his pen; then came the painter, who must
not only be a correct draughtsman, and an adept with pencil and brush,
but must also understand how to prepare mordaunts and to lay the gold
leaf, and to burnish it afterwards with an agate, or, as an old writer
directs, "a dogge's tooth set in a stick." After him, the binder
gathered the lustrous pages and put them together under silver mounted
covers, with heavy clasps. At first, the illuminations were confined
only to the capital letters, and red was the selected colour to give
this additional life to the evenly written page. The red pigment was
known as "minium." The artist who applied this was called a "miniator,"
and from this, was derived the term "miniature," which later referred
to Page 334 the pictures executed in the developed stages of the art.
The use of the word "miniature," as applied to paintings on a small
scale, was evolved from this expression.
The early Christian artists favored morose and emaciated figures,
hollowed cheeks and deep-set eyes, wide and feverish, filled with love
for Christ. The miniature painting of the Irish, Gallic, and
German monks was a melding together of painting and calligraphy. From
the scrolls and flourishes purely calligraphic human forms are
constructed. These early depictions were severe as judges
with pitiless dignity, they stare from the pages like threatening
tables of law, demanding submission, fear, and obedience, but according
neither mercy, comfort, not redemption.
As time passed illuminators added a touch of whimsy and humor. Julia De Wolf Addison asserts"In
medieval times, the sense of humor in art was more developed than at
any period except our own day. Even-while the monk was consecrating his
time to the work of beautifying the sanctuary, his sense of humor was
with him, and must crop out. The grotesque has always played an
important part in art; in the subterranean Roman vaults of the early
centuries, one form of this spirit is exhibited. But the element of wit
is Page 351 almost absent; it is displayed in oppressively obvious
forms, so that it loses its subtlety: it represents women terminating
in floral scrolls, or sea-horses with leaves growing instead of fins.
The same spirit is seen in the grotesques of the Renaissance, where the
sense of humor is not emphasized, the ideal in this class of decoration
being simply to fill the space acceptably, with voluptuous graceful
lines, mythological monstrosities, the inexpressive mingling of human
and vegetable characteristics, grinning dragons, supposed to inspire
horror, and such conceits, while the attempt to amuse the spectator is
With the triumph of Christianity, illuminators aspired to reawaken the
divine spirit of holy figures rather than depict their physical
Manuscript illumination was adored by kings and high-ranking
By the fourteenth century the manufacture of manuscripts had become a
profitable secular profession. Artists were regularly commissioned by
royalty and members of the clergy.
The best illuminators, such as the
Limbourg Brothers, were celebrities, highly sought after. They received sumptuous gifts and money from their royal patrons.
Material to make to produce illuminated manuscripts were
extremely costly, and included
ground up precious stones and
gold and silver leaf. The labour involved was tremendous and
illustrated manuscripts often took years and sometimes decades to
complete. Only the rich and powerful could afford to purchase such
Most members of royal families had a collection of specially commissioned books. Illuminated books were status symbols and considered to be as precious as gold.