Illuminated Manuscripts – History

The Middle Ages in Europe came after the fall of the Roman Empire. The early part of it was known as the Dark Ages because of the economic and cultural stagnation that followed. The Roman Empire was broken up into small kingdoms created by Germanic rulers who ruled them locally. They were so occupied consolidating their power that no attention was paid in developing the cultural aspect of the time. As a result, may people were illiterate if not uneducated.

Despite the seeming chaos around, what was left of the civilized culture of the Roman Empire was kept alive by the Christian Church who were then the only educated and literate folk during the time. To insulate themselves from the disorder of the Dark Ages, they built monasteries and sequestered themselves here, focusing more on the spiritual.

Despite focusing on a spiritual lifestyle, these religious saw the need to keep culture alive. They did not want to see it die out like the Roman Empire and in order to ensure this will be learned by the succeeding generations, they put everything into writing. They would create what came to be known as illuminated manuscripts. These are the earliest form of books adorned with initials, borders and illustrations.

(NOTE: While they were widely used in Oriental societies, this topic will focus mainly on illuminated manuscripts in western civilization)

During that time, the printing press did not exist yet and text had to be written by hand. But these writers did not merely write words. They would add illustrations to enhance its appearance as well as its value. They also served to prepare the mind of the reader before they read the text. These manuscripts also served as a status symbol. The more elaborate, the higher the importance of the owner.

How Did They Do It?

Making illuminated manuscripts was a complex process, not to mention expensive. As a result, only special books were made; more often than not, the Bible was the most common illuminated manuscript done and it came as no surprise since it was the Christian Church who had the resources, both material and human, and the capability to do these. Besides the Bible, other religious works were also made in this manner. They were not only used by the religious but also by the elites of the time who would commission the religious to made these manuscripts. Writers of these manuscripts were called scribes.

The Text

Usually the first step was to write the text. Everything was done by hand. Sheets of parchment were cut down to the desired size. After making the general layout of the page, margins were drawn with a pointed stick, and the scribe would go to work. His writing implement was a feather quill or reed pen which he would periodically dip in an ink pot. The script was not uniform all over Europe and may vary from one region to another. In one region, it may be Uncial, in another, half-Uncial.

Another reason text was written first is to prevent such poorly made manuscripts and illuminations from occurring.  One way of ensuring that was to provide blank spaces, usually left to allow for notes and comments. During that time, there were no means to correct errors and any error made would ruin the manuscript and the scribe had to start over again, thus prolonging the process. If done correctly, these blank areas would not be left plainly blank. This was where the decoration would come in.

Illumination Process

Once the text was written down, it was now the turn of the illustrator to go to work and his job could be considered equally tedious as that of the scribe. Most of the time, the scribe and illustrator was the ame person. He would first smoothen the surface of the parchment, then dried it up. He would then employ a technique called silverpoint where he would drag a silver rod over the surface. After which, burnished gold dots would be applied at certain points to create an outline and make the artwork glossy and reflective. Colors were then added and they would employ various techniques to get the desired shade of color. Next would be putting a rinceaux at the border of the page and put marginal figures. The final touch would be burnishing the illustrations with gold foil, thus making the manuscripts truly illuminated.

Using gold had obvious reasons. Given its value, adding it had a symbolic meaning. It could be exalting the text as a way of paying homage to God since his words were laid down. Another possible reason was this was the wish of the patron or the one who commissioned the work as a way to demonstrate his wealth. In the process, this also improved the quality and value of the manuscript.

While these appeared exclusive to the religious and wealthy, the lower classes were eventually able to have access to it and despite their limited ability to read, the illustrations somewhat aided them in understanding these manuscripts which would pave the way for them to improve their reading skills.