Table of Contents
Main Sections
I. Function of Books
II. Book Production
III. Book Structure
IV. Typology of Books
V. Book Illumination
    1-2. History, Artists, Works
    3.Techniques of Illumination
Back to the previous subchapter        V. Manuscript Illumination  Credits  
1. The History of Manuscript Illumination

The earliest surviving illuminated manuscripts date from the fifth century, but books and scrolls were already decorated in the classical world. Papyrus rolls were probably illustrated in ancient Egypt and Greece, and Varro and Martial, for example, describe author portraits in Roman manuscripts. The great rise of manuscript illumination, however, was triggered by the invention of the "book", that is, the change from papyrus rolls to codices that consisted of bound parchment leaves. This change took place gradually between the second and fourth centuries A.D. Book illumination remained one of the most flourishing forms of art until the sixteenth century when the luxuriously decorated, hand-written codices were gradually replaced by the printed book.

2. The Artists and the Works

In the early Middle Ages, most painters in miniatures were monks - occasionally nuns, members of the secular clergy, or even laymen - who worked in the scriptoria of monasteries by the side of the scribes or scriptores, who were usually monks themselves.

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They executed large numbers of illuminated manuscripts needed for liturgical services, theological studies, or private devotion, as well as a innumerable other works that formed part of the learning of the period, including secular books handed down by antiquity. Although manuscripts continued to be written and decorated in monasteries and friaries in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance as well (especially active were the Carthusians and the Brethren of the Common Life in fifteenth-century Netherlands), in this period many illuminators were already specialized lay craftsmen who worked in their workshops with the help of assistants and apprentices. In fact, as early as the eleventh and twelfth centuries professional laymen working for pay appeared, and often lay artists were called into monasteries for a short period of time necessary for the execution of the work. Most of the professional artists of the late Middle Ages worked only in book illumination, but some others were involved both in miniature and large scale painting such as frescos and altarpieces. Illuminators usually belonged either to the guild of painters or to guilds involved in the book trade (text writers, binders, book sellers, etc.); this arrangement varied from town to town. Until the late Middle Ages most illuminators remained anonymous. Although scribes began signing their names as early as 586, when the famous Rabula Gospels was signed by its scriptor, no signatures of illuminators survive before the eighth or ninth centuries, from which period we possess two certain signatures of illuminators. Even though the lack of artists' signatures can partly be explained by the fact that in some cases the scribe and the illuminator could have been one and the same person (as in the case of the Lindisfarne Gospels written by Bishop Eadfrith in 716), illuminators' signatures remain infrequent until the late medieval period. With the gradual rise of the status of the artist from simple artisan to acknowledged artist, illuminators also showed more self-awareness. Besides the increasing number of signatures, self-representation was also becoming frequent from the twelfth century on.

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From the thirteenth century, the growing number of surviving documents, mainly of legal nature (contracts, tax rolls), provide additional information on lay artists. Illuminators have been especially well-documented in towns where book production was a major occupation. University towns such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge played a very important role in this respect, being the main centers for the production and trade of books. In the early phase of medieval book painting, the training of illuminators took place in the monasteries by personal instruction, although also some technical manuals were available from the ninth century on. Later, as the number of lay artists increased, the training was usually done by apprenticeship in the workshops, according to the rules set down by the guild to which the illuminators belonged. Illuminators often shared the execution of works. The various stages of a single miniature were executed by different members of the same workshop: the master was responsible for the most difficult and determining parts of the job such as the layout of the composition, while apprentices were entrusted with the more mechanical, time-consuming jobs that also required less expertise, such as the preparation of the ground or the reinforcement of the preliminary drawing in ink. Sometimes the separate sheets of a yet unbound codex were given out to different painters to decorate. In these cases, special attention was paid to the overall harmonization of the work. The overall unity of a book decoration was also of prime importance when an unfinished project was completed later, by different artists: the original program (often indicated by completed underdrawing) was usually treated with respect and followed as closely as possible. A famous fifteenth-century example is Jean Colombe's completion of the work of the Limbourg brothers on the Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry. Colombe kept and followed the original compositions, most probably because he was ordered to do so by the owner of the famous Book of Hours. The decoration of codices greatly varied in amount and complexity. The simplest of designs was the border decoration or marginalia, although these were sometimes quite intricate and included carefully worked out figures of animals, monsters, and human characters

The initial letters of texts were very frequently decorated, often with a scene, in which case they are called historiated initials.

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The most ambitious decorations filled either a quarter, a half or a full page. Because of their square format, these miniatures often imitated large-scale painting. In many cases the direct influence of monumental paintings or even woodcuts have been demonstrated in miniatures. Illuminators also often copied other miniatures or borrowed designs from pattern books.

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Pattern books usually included various studies from life and copies made from all sorts of works. They were often handed down from one artist or workshop to another. In the late Middle Ages some highly finished pattern books may also have been used as advertisement, to show the artist's capabilities to potential customers. Illuminated manuscripts were always widely circulated and copied. Especially sumptuously decorated codices were given as diplomatic or wedding gifts. Traveling scholars and monks carried books with them and brought them to their home libraries. In the late Middle Ages some single-leaf miniatures were created specifically for the art market, and often for export. These decorated sheets were then inserted into already bound codices for decoration. As such practice hazarded the market positions of local workshops, the guilds sometimes forced illuminators to mark their own work with a stamp and forbade the import of single-leaf miniatures from elsewhere. Such a decree was issued in Bruges in 1426.

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