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Medieval Manuscript Illumination

 400 to 1435


Manuscript Illumination started around the first century AD and is related to Egyptian 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. 

According to Medieval historian, Julia De Wolf Addison, "The transition from the Roman illuminations to the Byzantine may be traced to the time when Constantine moved his seat of government from Rome to Constantinople. Constantinople then became the centre of learning, and books were written there in great numbers. For some centuries Constantinople was the chief city in the art of illuminating. The style that here grew up exhibited the same features that characterized Byzantine art in mosaic and decoration. The Oriental influence displayed itself in a lavish use of gold and colour; the remnant of Classical art was slight, but may sometimes be detected in the subjects chosen, and the ideas embodied. The Greek influence was the strongest. But the Greek art of the seventh and eighth centuries was not at all like the Classic art of earlier Greece; a conventional type had entered with Christianity, and is chiefly recognized by a stubborn conformity to precedent."

The manuscripts were produced in monastic centers, called scriptoriums,  in the British Isles during the seventh and eighth centuries.  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.

 The codex, our common form of book with folded pages and bound cover, became widespread in the third century AD.  The codex tradition was well established by the Carolingian  and Byzantine period.

With the triumph of Christianity,  artists aspired to reawaken the divine spirit of holy figures rather than depict their physical qualities.  Their unique style is a  combination of  frontal simplicity, truth to nature, harmonious unity together with precision in details.  The use of costly materials such as gold, precious stones and ivory indicates the degree of wealth that was common during this period, and attests to the sophistication of the Mediaeval society. 

In the earlier Middle Ages, books were generally handwritten and painted in monastic scriptorium.  The scriptorium was a place for the copying and writing of books.  Monks were regularly commissioned by royalty and members of the Church.  According to Medieval historian, Julia De Wolf Addison, "There is evidence of great religious zeal in the exhortations of the leaders to those who worked under them. Abbot John of Trittenham thus admonished the workers in the Scriptorium in 1486: "I have diminished your labours out of the monastery lest by working badly you should only add to your sins, and have enjoined on you the manual labour of writing and binding books. There is in my opinion no labour more becoming a monk than the writing of ecclesiastical books.... You will recall that the library of this monastery... had been dissipated, sold, or made way with by disorderly monks before us, so that when I came here I found but fourteen volumes." By the 1350s the manufacture of manuscripts had become a profitable secular profession. Supplies 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 masterpieces. 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. The finest miniature painters and calligraphers were famous, highly sought after for their incredible talent. They often  received sumptuous gifts and even estates from their rich patrons.


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References - Illuminated Manuscripts by John W. Bradley