Illuminated manuscripts were the artistic medium of the Middle Ages par excellence. They could be religious, devotional, bestiaries, or herbaria, but their appeal to our modern eyes is undeniable. Medieval Illuminated manuscripts were written by hand and “illuminated” with gold and silver. The most well-known ones like the Lindisfarne Gospels, were mainly produced by Christian monks, between 500 and 1600 CE. Their decorative apparatus include shiny initials, painted miniatures, and marginal illustrations. These decorations were ornamental, but they also served an important educational function.
6. An Obscure Illuminated Manuscript: The Black Hours
Among the most curious of all illuminated manuscripts, the Black Hours strikes our contemporary eyes with its unique dark blueish shades. This unusual page color is due to the extremely corrosive process used to dye the vellum with iron gall ink. Made in Bruges (Flanders) between 1460 and 1475, this illuminated manuscript was probably realized for a sophisticated patron of the Burgundian Court.
Not only are the pages painted black, but the miniatures themselves also use the same dark tones. In fact, the color palette is very limited in its depictions: colored in blue, old rose, green, gray, and white, with a few touches of gold. The margins are also decorated with blue borders, gold acanthus leaves, and other drolleries. The stylistic elements of this masterpiece are so distinctive that the artistic attribution has been advanced by scholars; it is believed the artist could have been a follower of the circle of Willem Vrelant, one of the most influential Flemish illuminators of the period.
Given the extremely delicate nature of the manuscript, it has suffered from conservation issues and requires careful treatment. However, its pages are available for browsing on the Morgan Library and Museum website.
5. An Ancient Illuminated Manuscript: The Book of Kells
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A picture can indeed say more than a thousand words, and the humans of Medieval Europe knew this well! Creating an illuminated manuscript was a long, tiring, extremely expensive process. Medieval scribes mainly worked in Christian monasteries, carefully hand-copying the original texts of the Bible. It must have been an exhausting task: in the margins of some manuscripts, one can find actual complaints written by the monastic copyists! Nevertheless, their work was of vital importance to Christianity. It served to pass on and preserve religious knowledge for posterity and the creation of these codices was also a method of indoctrination. These bibles and illustrated gospels enabled even illiterate people to understand Christian doctrine.
The Book of Kells, dating from 800 CE, is an ancient, illuminated manuscript and it served precisely this educational and religious function. The codex narrated through images and text the four gospels of the Christian New Testament, with prefaces and descriptions. It is currently preserved in the library of Trinity College in Dublin (Ireland), and it is a masterpiece of medieval Irish illustration. Because of their value, illuminated manuscripts like the Book of Kells were not used during ordinary religious services but were reserved only for special liturgical occasions and ceremonies.
The actual place of creation of the Book of Kells is shrouded in mystery. Academic studies have attributed the authorship to the scriptorium of Iona (Argyllshire). The book later took refuge in a new monastery in Kells (Ireland) because of a Viking invasion. Therefore, work on the manuscript could have taken place in both places.
The copied text of the Kells is not the most accurate illuminated manuscript: there are numerous errors throughout. Much more attention was paid to the elegant illustrations. In particular, among the most famous pages, we find the Chi-Rho folio — the Chi-Rho is made from the first letters of the word “Christ” in ancient Greek. The decoration is intricate but meticulous. In the center are letters, incipit for the narration of the life of Christ; while all around them is a swarm of spirals, whorls, and curved inflorescences. In some of the margins of the Book of Kells, there are also depictions of animals, both exotic and domestic. Perhaps they could be linked to a legacy of pagan iconography or maybe they are simply an illustration of everyday scenes from monastic country life.
4. The Secrets of the Lindisfarne Gospels
One cannot speak of illuminated medieval manuscripts without mentioning the Lindisfarne Gospels. This manuscript is among the most famous surviving examples of Insular Art (or Hiberno-Saxon art). It was, in fact, produced around 700 CE on the island monastery of Lindisfarne in Northern England, also known as “The Holy Island”. This remote place was a destination for important pilgrimages, being the site of the body of Saint Cuthbert. The Lindisfarne Gospels themselves contributed to the spread of this cult from the Celtic tradition.
As in the case of the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels is a very fine copy of the four gospels which recount the life and lessons of Jesus Christ. Like many medieval manuscripts, it was probably created by several hands. In the colophon (an introductory statement with credits), the Bishops Eadfrith and Ethelwald, the anchorite Billfrith, and the priest Aldred are named. Each of them had a fundamental role in the construction of the manuscript: scribe, illuminator, cover-maker, binder, or glossator. The Lindisfarne Gospels were a true team effort, and it was subject to later additions in the late 10th century.
One of the most famous pages from the book is undoubtedly the illustration of Saint Mark the Evangelist. The saint is represented with his typical iconographic attribute: the lion. It is precisely the illustration of the lion that catches the eye of scholars. The animal is not depicted with fantastic features as often happens in medieval illuminated manuscripts. On the contrary, it has realistic features. For example, it has a realistic golden coat.
Another particularly significant page is the opening page of the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The sheet bears the Latin phrase “Liber generationis iesu christi”, which opens the gospel with the nativity of Jesus Christ. The British Library holds the Lindisfarne Gospels among its other masterpieces. Anyone can have the privilege of leafing through it, or you can browse through it in its entirety online here, losing yourself in its incredible illustrations.
3. The Westminster Abbey Bestiary and its Fantastic Animals
Animals in medieval manuscripts often occupy the margins of pages. Together with scribbles, annotations, and glosses, they enrich the pages with symbols and decorations. However, there were also many manuscripts devoted entirely to animals, such as bestiaries. The Westminster Abbey Bestiary is one of the best-preserved and most curious bestiaries from the Middle Ages. Dated to 1275-1290 CE, it was probably created in York. It has more than 160 illustrations of exotic and native animals, including birds, snakes, insects, sea creatures, and wild beasts.
However, the peculiarity of the Westminster manuscript is its fantastic animals, like the fascinating unicorns often found in medieval tapestries. This bestiary includes griffins, three-headed animals, and dragons. The imaginations of these medieval scribes were vivid. They were not concerned with providing faithful representations of animal species, but rather with creating symbolic animals. Each animal was associated with moral qualities and had allegorical meanings. The bestiaries were not for scientific research, they were philosophical and interdisciplinary.
One of the most iconic pages from the Westminster Bestiary is certainly that of the elephant. It is probably a war elephant, masterfully depicted with all its features. The exotic image was popular in medieval times. Legend has it that Charlemagne owned an elephant as a pet, named Abul-Abbas. In medieval iconography elephants are often surmounted by a small tower; in this illustration, this tradition is represented as a castle. The designer of this curious illuminated image has also tried to reproduce the size of the imposing animal and its wrinkled skin. The Westminster Bestiary thus demonstrates an unusual degree of detail.
2. The Sophisticated Book of Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux
Among the most common types of illuminated manuscripts, besides evangeliaries, are books of hours. This kind of codex was dedicated to prayers and private devotion. Each hour of the day corresponded to a type of prayer that had to be recited. The first Books of Hours were derived from older Breviaries and Psalters and they were intended to accompany the faithful in their daily religious life. They were therefore an extremely private object, closely linked to the clients they were made for. Therefore, their shape and style were also calibrated to their owners’ tastes.
One of the most sophisticated examples is the Book of Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux (1310-1371 CE). She was the queen of France and the last wife of Charles IV. It was common for medieval royals to own this type of precious object. However, this illuminated manuscript is very peculiar for a royal commission. First of all, it is very small and somewhat sober. There is no gold or any other precious additions, a strange fact that seems to be unsuitable for a queen!
It is the book’s authorship that makes it invaluable. The manuscript was probably realized in Paris by Jean Pucelle, one of the most famous illuminators of his time. The colors are not bright and sumptuous, but its masterful use of the greyscale makes it appear sophisticated. The figures, illustrated in grisaille, have an accentuated sculptural rendering. Pucelle defines space as never before. The seven-hundred delicate illustrations tell the story of the life of Christ, from his childhood to his passion. They also narrate the hagiography of Saint Louis, considered an ancestor of the queen.
The marginalia are also valuable; outside the main scene, the pages are crowded with beggars, street dancers, and musicians. Jean Pucelle painted the characters of his medieval Paris. He gave free rein to his imagination, even in a piece of religious artwork. The manuscript is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and it is an example of a veritable breakthrough in gothic illumination.
1. A Decorated Illuminated Manuscript: The Très Riches Heures of Duc du Berry
Another book of hours of historical and cultural significance is the illuminated codex Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. It is a masterpiece of early 15th century French and Flemish art. Preserved today at the Musée Condé in Chantilly, the manuscript was commissioned in Bourges by the Duke Jean de Berry. The object was created by several hands, however, the best-known artists who worked on it were the Limbourg brothers: Paul, Jean, and Herman de Limbourg. All three probably died during the terrible plague of 1416.
The Limbourg brothers, like Jean Pucelle, revolutionized medieval miniatures through their skillfully crafted artistry. They were able to fuse the features of late International Gothic with new virtuosity related to the rendering of light and space. The scenes in the Très Riches Heures are complex and they are set in remarkable buildings and landscapes.
The most striking part of this illuminated manuscript, however, is its cycle of months. Each month is accompanied by a lunette with a calendar and its zodiac sign, as well as illustrations of the activities carried out during that period of the year. The court life of the aristocrats, in which the Limbourg Brothers probably took part at their patron’s court, is depicted in detail. But there are also illustrations of agricultural scenes, harvests, and folk festivals from the everyday life of the simplest peasants. In January, for example, a sumptuous banquet and the tradition of exchanging gifts is depicted; in September it’s time for the grape harvest, with a fairy-tale castle behind it. The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and its miniatures are extremely accurate and they provide an unforgettable insight into the customs, fashion, and society of the medieval era.