Various examples of pages from illuminated manuscripts

An illuminated manuscript is a formally prepared document where the text is decorated with flourishes such as borders and miniature illustrations. Often used in the Roman Catholic Church for prayers and liturgical books such as psalters and courtly literature, the practice continued into secular texts from the 13th century onward and typically include proclamations, enrolled bills, laws, charters, inventories, and deeds.[1][2]

The earliest surviving illuminated manuscripts are a small number from late antiquity, and date from between 400 and 600. Examples include the Vergilius Romanus, Vergilius Vaticanus, and the Rossano Gospels.[3] The majority of extant manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many survive from the Renaissance. While Islamic manuscripts can also be called illuminated and use essentially the same techniques, comparable Far Eastern and Mesoamerican works are described as painted.

Most manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment until the 2nd century BCE, when a more refined material called vellum, made from stretched calf skin, was supposedly introduced by King Eumenes II of Pergamum. This gradually became the standard for luxury illuminated manuscripts,[4] although modern scholars are often reluctant to distinguish between parchment and vellum, and the skins of various animals might be used. The pages were then normally bound into codices (singular: codex), that is the usual modern book format, although sometimes the older scroll format was used, for various reasons. A very few illuminated fragments also survive on papyrus. Books ranged in size from ones smaller than a modern paperback, such as the pocket gospel, to very large ones such as choirbooks for choirs to sing from, and "Atlantic" bibles, requiring more than one person to lift them.[5]

Paper manuscripts appeared during the Late Middle Ages. The untypically early 11th century Missal of Silos is from Spain, near to Muslim paper manufacturing centres in Al-Andaluz. Textual manuscripts on paper become increasingly common, but the more expensive parchment was mostly used for illuminated manuscripts until the end of the period. Very early printed books left spaces for red text, known as rubrics, miniature illustrations and illuminated initials, all of which would have been added later by hand. Drawings in the margins (known as marginalia) would also allow scribes to add their own notes, diagrams, translations, and even comic flourishes.[6]

The introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century but in much smaller numbers, mostly for the very wealthy. They are among the most common items to survive from the Middle Ages; many thousands survive. They are also the best surviving specimens of medieval painting, and the best preserved. Indeed, for many areas and time periods, they are the only surviving examples of painting.


The 63rd page of the Book of Hours (Use of Utrecht), c. 1460–1465, ink, tempera, and gold on vellum, binding: brown Morocco over original wooden boards, overall: 59 × 116 mm, Cleveland Museum of Art (Cleveland, Ohio, US)

Latin Europe

Art historians classify illuminated manuscripts into their historic periods and types, including (but not limited to) Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance manuscripts. There are a few examples from later periods. Books that are heavily and richly illuminated are sometimes known as "display books" in church contexts, or "luxury manuscripts", especially if secular works. In the first millennium, these were most likely to be Gospel Books, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is the most widely recognized illuminated manuscript in the Anglosphere, and is famous for its insular designs.[7] The Romanesque and Gothic periods saw the creation of many large illuminated complete bibles. The largest surviving example of these is The Codex Gigas in Sweden; it is so massive that it takes three librarians to lift it.

Other illuminated liturgical books appeared during and after the Romanesque period. These included psalters, which usually contained all 150 canonical psalms,[8] and small, personal devotional books made for lay people known as books of hours that would separate one's day into eight hours of devotion.[9] These were often richly illuminated with miniatures, decorated initials and floral borders. They were costly and therefore only owned by wealthy patrons, often women.

As the production of manuscripts shifted from monasteries to the public sector during the High Middle Ages, illuminated books began to reflect secular interests.[1] These included short stories, legends of the saints, tales of chivalry, mythological stories, and even accounts of criminal, social or miraculous occurrences. Some of these were also freely used by storytellers and itinerant actors to support their plays. One of the most popular secular texts of the time were bestiaries. These books contained illuminated depictions of various animals, both real and fictional, and often focused on their religious symbolism and significance, as it was a widespread belief in post-classical Europe that animals, and all other organisms on Earth, were manifestations of God. These manuscripts served as both devotional guidance and entertainment for the working class of the Middle Ages.[10][11]

The Gothic period, which generally saw an increase in the production of illuminated books, also saw more secular works such as chronicles and works of literature illuminated. Wealthy people began to build up personal libraries; Philip the Bold probably had the largest personal library of his time in the mid-15th century, is estimated to have had about 600 illuminated manuscripts, whilst a number of his friends and relations had several dozen. Wealthy patrons, however, could have personal prayer books made especially for them, usually in the form of richly illuminated "books of hours", which set down prayers appropriate for various times in the liturgical day. One of the best known examples is the extravagant Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry for a French prince.

Illuminated manuscripts housed in the 16th-century Ethiopian Orthodox Church of Ura Kidane Mehret, Zege Peninsula, Lake Tana, Ethiopia

Up to the 12th century, most manuscripts were produced in monasteries in order to add to the library or after receiving a commission from a wealthy patron. Larger monasteries often contained separate areas for the monks who specialized in the production of manuscripts called a scriptorium.[12] Within the walls of a scriptorium were individualized areas where a monk could sit and work on a manuscript without being disturbed by his fellow brethren. If no scriptorium was available, then "separate little rooms were assigned to book copying; they were situated in such a way that each scribe had to himself a window open to the cloister walk."[13]

By the 14th century, the cloisters of monks writing in the scriptorium had almost fully given way to commercial urban scriptoria, especially in Paris, Rome and the Netherlands.[5] While the process of creating an illuminated manuscript did not change, the move from monasteries to commercial settings was a radical step. Demand for manuscripts grew to an extent that monastic libraries began to employ secular scribes and illuminators.[1] These individuals often lived close to the monastery and, in instances, dressed as monks whenever they entered the monastery, but were allowed to leave at the end of the day. In reality, illuminators were often well known and acclaimed and many of their identities have survived.

Greek Europe and the Islamic world

Frontispiece of the Maqamat al-Hariri (1237 CE) depicting a ruler in Turkic dress (long braids, Sharbush fur hat, boots, fitting coat), possibly Baghdad.[14][15][16]

The Byzantine world produced manuscripts in its own style, versions of which spread to other Orthodox and Eastern Christian areas. With their traditions of literacy uninterrupted by the Middle Ages, the Muslim world, especially on the Iberian Peninsula, was instrumental in delivering ancient classic works to the growing intellectual circles and universities of Western Europe throughout the 12th century. Books were produced there in large numbers and on paper for the first time in Europe, and with them full treatises on the sciences, especially astrology and medicine where illumination was required to have profuse and accurate representations with the text.[citation needed]

The origins of the pictorial tradition of Arabic illustrated manuscripts are uncertain. The first known decorated manuscripts are some Qur'ans from the 9th century.[17] They were not illustrated, but were "illuminated" with decorations of the frontispieces or headings.[17] The tradition of illustrated manuscripts started with the Graeco-Arabic translation movement and the creation of scientific and technical treatises often based on Greek scientific knowledge, such as the Arabic versions of The Book of Fixed Stars (965 CE), De materia medica or Book of the Ten Treatises of the Eye.[18] The translators were most often Arab Syriac Christians, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq or Yahya ibn Adi, and their work is known to have been sponsored by local rulers, such as the Artuqids.[19]

An explosion of artistic production in Arabic manuscripts occurred in the 12th and especially the 13th century.[18] Thus various Syriac manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, such as Syriac Gospels, Vatican Library, Syr. 559 or Syriac Gospels, British Library, Add. 7170, were derived from the Byzantine tradition, yet stylistically have a lot in common with Islamic illustrated manuscripts such as the Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, pointing to a common pictorial tradition that existed since circa 1180 in Syria and Iraq which was highly influenced by Byzantine art.[20][21][22] Some of the illustrations of these manuscript have been characterized as "illustration byzantine traitée à la manière arabe" ("Byzantine illustration treated in the Arab style").[21][23]

The Persian miniature tradition mostly began in whole books, rather than single pages for muraqqas or albums, as later became more common. The Great Mongol Shahnameh, probably from the 1330s, is a very early manuscript of one of the most common works for grand illustrated books in Persian courts.


Page from a Latin book of hours, with miniatures of saints. Book of Hours of Alexandre Petau, 16th century, Rouen, well after printing had become more common.

Illumination was a complex and costly process, and was therefore usually reserved for special books such as altar bibles, or books for royalty. Heavily illuminated manuscripts are often called "luxury manuscripts" for this reason. In the early Middle Ages, most books were produced in monasteries, whether for their own use, for presentation, or for a commission. However, commercial scriptoria grew up in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands, and by the late 14th century there was a significant industry producing manuscripts, including agents who would take long-distance commissions, with details of the heraldry of the buyer and the saints of personal interest to him (for the calendar of a book of hours). By the end of the period, many of the painters were women, especially painting the elaborate border, and perhaps especially in Paris.

The author of a manuscript at his writing desk. 14th century


The type of script depended on local customs and tastes. In England, for example, Textura was widely used from the 12th to 16th centuries, while a cursive hand known as Anglicana emerged around 1260 for business documents.[24] In the Frankish Empire, Carolingian minuscule emerged under the vast educational program of Charlemagne.[25]

The first step was to send the manuscript to a rubricator, "who added (in red or other colors) the titles, headlines, the initials of chapters and sections, the notes and so on; and then – if the book was to be illustrated – it was sent to the illuminator".[13] These letters and notes would be applied using an ink-pot and either a sharpened quill feather or a reed pen. In the case of manuscripts that were sold commercially, the writing would "undoubtedly have been discussed initially between the patron and the scribe (or the scribe's agent, but by the time the written gathering were sent off to the illuminator, there was no longer any scope for innovation.)[26]

The sturdy Roman letters of the early Middle Ages gradually gave way to scripts such as Uncial and half-Uncial, especially in the British Isles, where distinctive scripts such as insular majuscule and insular minuscule developed. Stocky, richly textured blackletter was first seen around the 13th century and was particularly popular in the later Middle Ages. Prior to the days of such careful planning, "A typical black-letter page of these Gothic years would show a page in which the lettering was cramped and crowded into a format dominated by huge ornamented capitals that descended from uncial forms or by illustrations".[27] To prevent such poorly made manuscripts and illuminations from occurring, a script was typically supplied first, "and blank spaces were left for the decoration. This presupposes very careful planning by the scribe even before he put pen to parchment."

Engrossing: The process of illumination

A common process of manuscripts illumination from the creation of the quire to the binding
I. Charcoal powder dots create the outline II. Silverpoint drawing is sketched III. Illustration is retraced with ink IV. The surface is prepared for the application of gold leaf V. Gold leaf is laid down VI. Gold leaf is burnished to make it glossy and reflective VII. Decorative impressions are made to adhere the leaf VIII. Base colors are applied IX. Darker tones are used to give volume X. Further details are drawn XI. Lighter colors are used to add particulars XII. Ink borders are traced to finalize the illumination
A 13th-century manuscript illumination, the earliest known depiction of Archbishop Thomas Becket's assassination in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170. British Library, London

The following steps outline the detailed labor involved to create the illuminations of one page of a manuscript:

  1. Silverpoint drawing of the design is executed
  2. Burnished gold dots are applied
  3. Application of modulating colors
  4. Continuation of previous three steps in addition to outlining marginal figures
  5. Penning of a rinceau appearing in the border of page
  6. Finally, marginal figures are painted[28]

The illumination and decoration was normally planned at the inception of the work, and space reserved for it. However, the text was usually written before illumination began. In the Early Medieval period the text and illumination were often done by the same people, normally monks, but by the High Middle Ages the roles were typically separated, except for routine initials and flourishes, and by at least the 14th century there were secular workshops producing manuscripts, and by the beginning of the 15th century these were producing most of the best work, and were commissioned even by monasteries. When the text was complete, the illustrator set to work. Complex designs were planned out beforehand, probably on wax tablets, the sketch pad of the era. The design was then traced or drawn onto the vellum (possibly with the aid of pinpricks or other markings, as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels). Many incomplete manuscripts survive from most periods, giving us a good idea of working methods.

At all times, most manuscripts did not have images in them. In the early Middle Ages, manuscripts tend to either be display books with very full illumination, or manuscripts for study with at most a few decorated initials and flourishes. By the Romanesque period many more manuscripts had decorated or historiated initials, and manuscripts essentially for study often contained some images, often not in color. This trend intensified in the Gothic period, when most manuscripts had at least decorative flourishes in places, and a much larger proportion had images of some sort. Display books of the Gothic period in particular had very elaborate decorated borders of foliate patterns, often with small drolleries. A Gothic page might contain several areas and types of decoration: a miniature in a frame, a historiated initial beginning a passage of text, and a border with drolleries. Often different artists worked on the different parts of the decoration.


While the use of gold is by far one of the most captivating features of illuminated manuscripts, the bold use of varying colors provided multiple layers of dimension to the illumination. From a religious perspective, "the diverse colors wherewith the book is illustrated, not unworthily represent the multiple grace of heavenly wisdom."[13]

The medieval artist's palette was broad:[29]

Color Source(s)
Red Insect-based colors, including:

Chemical- and mineral-based colors, including:

Yellow Plant-based colors, such as:
  • Weld, processed from the Reseda luteola plant;
  • Turmeric, from the Curcuma longa plant; and
  • Saffron, rarely due to cost, from the Crocus sativus.

Mineral-based colors, including:

Blue Plant-based substances such as:

Chemical- and mineral-based colors, including:

  • Gold leaf, gold hammered extremely thin, or gold powder, bound in gum arabic or egg; the latter is called shell gold.
  • Silver, either silver leaf or powdered, as with gold; and
  • Tin leaf, also as with gold.


The 11th-century Tyniec Sacramentary was written with gold on a purple background. National Library of Poland, Warsaw.

On the strictest definition, a manuscript is not considered "illuminated" unless one or many illuminations contained metal, normally gold leaf or shell gold paint, or at least was brushed with gold specks. Gold leaf was from the 12th century usually polished, a process known as burnishing. The inclusion of gold alludes to many different possibilities for the text. If the text is of religious nature, lettering in gold is a sign of exalting the text. In the early centuries of Christianity, Gospel manuscripts were sometimes written entirely in gold.[5] The gold ground style, with all or most of the background in gold, was taken from Byzantine mosaics and icons. Aside from adding rich decoration to the text, scribes during the time considered themselves to be praising God with their use of gold. Furthermore, gold was used if a patron who had commissioned a book to be written wished to display the vastness of his riches. Eventually, the addition of gold to manuscripts became so frequent "that its value as a barometer of status with the manuscript was degraded".[26] During this time period the price of gold had become so cheap that its inclusion in an illuminated manuscript accounted for only a tenth of the cost of production.[30] By adding richness and depth to the manuscript, the use of gold in illuminations created pieces of art that are still valued today.

The application of gold leaf or dust to an illumination is a very detailed process that only the most skilled illuminators can undertake and successfully achieve. The first detail an illuminator considered when dealing with gold was whether to use gold leaf or specks of gold that could be applied with a brush. When working with gold leaf, the pieces would be hammered and thinned.[30] The use of this type of leaf allowed for numerous areas of the text to be outlined in gold. There were several ways of applying gold to an illumination. One of the most popular included mixing the gold with stag's glue and then "pour it into water and dissolve it with your finger."[31] Once the gold was soft and malleable in the water, it was ready to be applied to the page. Illuminators had to be very careful when applying gold leaf to the manuscript because gold leaf is able to "adhere to any pigment which had already been laid, ruining the design, and secondly the action of burnishing it is vigorous and runs the risk of smudging any painting already around it."


Monasteries produced manuscripts for their own use; heavily illuminated ones tended to be reserved for liturgical use in the early period, while the monastery library held plainer texts. In the early period manuscripts were often commissioned by rulers for their own personal use or as diplomatic gifts, and many old manuscripts continued to be given in this way, even into the Early Modern period. Especially after the book of hours became popular, wealthy individuals commissioned works as a sign of status within the community, sometimes including donor portraits or heraldry: "In a scene from the New Testament, Christ would be shown larger than an apostle, who would be bigger than a mere bystander in the picture, while the humble donor of the painting or the artist himself might appear as a tiny figure in the corner."[5] The calendar was also personalized, recording the feast days of local or family saints. By the end of the Middle Ages many manuscripts were produced for distribution through a network of agents, and blank spaces might be reserved for the appropriate heraldry to be added locally by the buyer.


See also


  1. ^ a b c Kauffmann, Martin (26 July 2018). "Decoration and illustration". In Kwakkel, Erik; Thomson, Rodney (eds.). The European book in the twelfth century. Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–67. doi:10.1017/9781316480205.005. ISBN 978-1-316-48020-5.
  2. ^ Berenbeim, Jessica (2015). Art of documentation: documents and visual culture in medieval England. Text, image, context. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. ISBN 978-0-88844-194-2.
  3. ^ Weitzmann, Kurt (1977). Late Antique and Early Christian book illumination. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 978-0-7011-2243-0.
  4. ^ Davenport, Cyril (1912). "Illuminated Manuscripts". Journal of the Royal Society of Arts. 60 (3087): 245–251. ISSN 0035-9114. JSTOR 41339989.
  5. ^ a b c d De Hamel, Christopher (2001). The British Library guide to manuscript illumination: History and techniques. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0-8020-8173-5.
  6. ^ Brown, Michelle Patricia; Teviotdale, Elizabeth Cover; Turner, Nancy K. (2018). Understanding illuminated manuscripts: a guide to technical terms. Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 978-1-60606-578-5.
  7. ^ Mark, Joshua J. "Book of Kells". World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12 April 2024.
  8. ^ "The Psalter as Scripture - Response - Seattle Pacific University". Retrieved 12 April 2024.
  9. ^ Stein, Authors: Wendy A. "The Book of Hours: A Medieval Bestseller | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History". The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Retrieved 12 April 2024.
  10. ^ "The Getty Museum". Getty Museum. Retrieved 17 April 2024.
  11. ^ Retrieved 17 April 2024. ((cite web)): Missing or empty |title= (help)
  12. ^ Kauffmann, Martin (2003). "Scriptorium". Grove Art Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.t077202. ISBN 978-1-884446-05-4.
  13. ^ a b c Putnam, George Haven (1897). Books and their makers during the Middle Ages: A study of the conditions of the production and distribution of literature from the fall of the Roman Empire to the close of the seventeenth century. London: Putnam.
  14. ^ Flood, Finbarr Barry (2017). "A Turk in the Dukhang? Comparative Perspectives on Elite Dress in Medieval Ladakh and the Caucasus". Interaction in the Himalayas and Central Asia. Austrian Academy of Science Press: 232.
  15. ^ Hillenbrand 2010, p. 126 and note 40.
  16. ^ Contadini 2012, pp. 126–127: "Official" Turkish figures wear a standard combination of a sharbūsh, a three-quarters length robe, and boots. Arab figures, in contrast, have different headgear (usually a turban), a robe that is either full-length or, if three-quarters length, has baggy trousers below, and they usually wear flat shoes or (...) go barefoot (...) P.127: Reference has already been made to the combination of boots and sharbūsh as markers of official status (...) the combination is standard, even being reflected in thirteenth-century Coptic paintings, and serves to distinguish, in Grabar's formulation, the world of the Turkish ruler and that of the Arab. (...) The type worn by the official figures in the 1237 Maqāmāt, depicted, for example, on fol. 59r,67 consists of a gold cap surmounted by a little round top and with fur trimming creating a triangular area at the front which either shows the gold cap or is a separate plaque. A particular imposing example in this manuscript is the massive sharbūsh with much more fur than usual that is worn by the princely official on the right frontispiece on fol. 1v."
  17. ^ a b Snelders 2010, p. 3, note 14.
  18. ^ a b Snelders 2010, p. 3.
  19. ^ Snelders 2010, p. Chapter4, 4th page.
  20. ^ The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1997. pp. 384–385. ISBN 978-0-87099-777-8.
  21. ^ a b The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1997. pp. 384–385. ISBN 978-0-87099-777-8.
  22. ^ Snelders 2010, pp. 1–2.
  23. ^ Snelders 2010.
  24. ^ Derolez, Albert (2003). The palaeography of Gothic manuscript books: from the twelfth to the early sixteenth century. Cambridge studies in palaeography and codicology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-80315-1.
  25. ^ Kitzinger, Beatrice E.; O'Driscoll, Joshua (2019). After the Carolingians: Re-defining manuscript illumination in the 10th and 11th Centuries. Sense, matter, and medium. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110579499. ISBN 978-3-11-057467-8. S2CID 241300499.
  26. ^ a b De Hamel, Christopher (1992). Scribes and illuminators. Medieval craftsmen. London: The British Museum Press. ISBN 978-0-7141-2049-2.
  27. ^ Anderson, Donald M. (1969). The art of written forms: the theory and practice of calligraphy. New York: Holt. ISBN 978-0-03-068625-2.
  28. ^ Calkins, Robert G. (1978). "Stages of Execution: Procedures of Illumination as Revealed in an Unfinished Book of Hours". Gesta. 17 (1): 61–70. doi:10.2307/766713. ISSN 0016-920X. JSTOR 766713. S2CID 190805404.
  29. ^ Melo, Maria J.; Castro, Rita; Nabais, Paula; Vitorino, Tatiana (1 December 2018). "The book on how to make all the colour paints for illuminating books: unravelling a Portuguese Hebrew illuminators' manual". Heritage Science. 6 (1). doi:10.1186/s40494-018-0208-z. ISSN 2050-7445.
  30. ^ a b Lovett, Patricia (2017). The art and history of calligraphy. London: The British Library. ISBN 978-0-7123-5668-8.
  31. ^ Blondheim, D. S. (1928). "An old Portuguese work on manuscript illumination". The Jewish Quarterly Review. 19 (2): 97–135. doi:10.2307/1451766. ISSN 0021-6682. JSTOR 1451766.




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