How Were Illuminated Manuscripts Made?

Illuminated manuscripts took years of hard work and dedication to make, passing through many hands throughout the production process.

Oct 14, 2022By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

how were illuminated manuscripts made


Illuminated manuscripts are among the world’s finest treasures. Dating as far back as the 7th century, these strikingly detailed books have survived in part, or whole, for hundreds of years, a testament to the incredible skill and years of patient dedication that went into their making. Long before the days of factory production and printing presses, illuminated manuscripts were made entirely by hand – hence the origins of the name, deriving from the Latin word manuscriptus – ‘manu’ meaning by hand and ‘script’ meaning written. Making them was a long and complicated process involving many hands. We outline the stages of each step in the production of these exquisite masterpieces.


Parchment Pages

Illuminated manuscript on parchment (vellum) pages, via Christie’s


Before the days of paper, books in medieval times were made from parchment, a flat, porous surface derived from animal skin. Making parchment was a technical process that required a very specific skill set. First, parchment makers would soak the skin of sheep, goat or calves in lime water. They then soaked them in water to remove the lime and stretched the skins tightly over a frame where they could dry out flat and smooth.


Next, artisans would scrape the surface to achieve a smooth surface. This surface was rubbed with pumice to roughen it and dusted with a sticky powder. By now, the skins looked more like the paper we know today. These sheets could then be cut to the desired size, depending on how big the book was going to be. It was common practice to fold sheets in half, ready to be bound into books.


The Medieval Bookbinder

A demonstration of medieval bookbinding techniques. Leather thongs on the spine, which are woven into the wooden cover, via Randy Asplund.


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Bookbinding was another highly technical skill for the medieval ages. Folded pages of parchment were sewn into leather supports called thongs, using strong linen thread. Then the binder sewed end bands to the top and bottom of the book spine to secure it in place. Next, bookbinders made the book cover from flat wood boards.


The ornate gold embossed leather of an illuminated manuscript from France, 1480s, via Christie’s


They attached bound book pages to the wooden boards by weaving the leather thongs into holes, securing them with wooden pegs or nails. Binders covered the wooden boards of the illuminated manuscript with a soft, smooth material, such as leather, silk or velvet. Some covers were stamped or tooled with gold, adorned with jewels, or even featured sculpted panels made from precious metals and ivory. Sometimes, a metal clasp on the book cover held the pages in tight and stopped the parchment from expanding over time.


The Scribe

Illuminated manuscript from 13th century England written in Latin on vellum, via Christie’s


The intricate lettering of illuminated manuscripts had to be written by a skilled writer, or ‘scribe.’ All writing was put in place before any illustrations were added in. In medieval times scribes were usually monks, nuns and other religious leaders who had the necessary skills in reading and writing. In later centuries skilled craftspeople also set up secular workshops for making manuscripts on non-religious subjects, including poetry, romance and herbology.


A page from an illuminated manuscript made in 13th or 14th century France, via Christie’s


Scribes wrote the manuscript in ink. The ink itself came from naturally derived sources including ground gall nuts or carbon powder, mixed with liquid. Quill pens made from bird feathers could be carved into to create a fine point. Patrons expected the text to be impeccable, and scribes had to work with exacting, meticulous standards. They inscribed straight lines to write on. If they made a mistake, they could scrape it away using a small penknife once the ink was dry. Thankfully the parchment was strong enough to withhold multiple revisions. As we see in surviving illuminated manuscripts, many scribes added distinctive decorative textual features, such as dramatic drop caps, marginalia and ornate writing styles.


The Illuminator

An llustrated page from a medieval Book of Hours illuminated manuscript. This one illustrates the Adoration of the Magi and was made in France in 1450. Image via Christie’s.


The hand-written manual was then passed on to an illuminator. It was their job to finely decorate the pages of the book. First, the illuminator sketched out their designs lightly in ink. These compositional line drawings laid the groundwork for rich colors and precious metals. First, the illuminator applied gold leaf to the book pages. Passages of sticky gesso or gum were carefully painted into areas of the drawing. Gold leaf was applied to these areas, and any excess brushed away. The remaining gold leaf was then polished to a high shine.


An ornately detailed illustration from a French Book of Hours illuminated manuscript. Made between 1445-1450. Image via Christie’s.


Then the illuminator applied rich shades of color, going from the darkest to the lightest hues. Paints made from vegetable dye or mineral substance created the most vivid tones. Amazingly, they have survived for hundreds of years. Finally, dark lines and white highlights could be applied, the finishing touches to true masterpieces, worthy of their esteemed place in the history of art.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.