Illuminated Manuscripts: Colorful Mirrors of the Middle Ages

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Illuminated Manuscripts: Colorful Mirrors of the Middle Ages


Stern, Fred, The World and I


Side by side, they worked in silence. And their efforts created irreplaceable masterpieces.

For a period of six centuries, from 800 AD to 1300 AD, in the monasteries of France, Italy, Great Britain and Germany, patient monks laboring in scriptoriums or silent rooms, meticulously produced hundreds of texts. Many contain artful lettering and superbly executed drawings. Much of what we know about the Middle Ages comes from these old, leather-bound books.

Contribution of the monks

Imagine how surprised these monks would be to know that their creations were considered works of art, to be viewed in museums hundreds of years later. For such was not their goal. Instead, the monks' efforts were in response to the need of the community to visualize images from the Bible such as scenes from the Gospels, Psalms of David, and countless more. To this religious purpose, the devout monks brought their imagination and creative energies. Their illustrations were highly valued by the populace, because it made it possible for the illiterate among them--and that included many of the wealthy--to comprehend the liturgy with this visual help.

Additionally it was typically monks who were typically responsible for translating into drawings, the results of scientific studies, atlases, and emerging knowledge in the fields of zoology, anatomy and astronomy knowledge. The conscientious application of their skill to illustrations of Greek and Roman documents, plays and treatises no doubt helped to preserve the content of these texts for another millennium, up until our time and likely beyond. The monks' scientific works, like their religious ones, remain amazingly well preserved because of their high quality paper-like parchment and their bindings of vellum, an equally high quality calf skin that had been carefully cleaned, treated and stretched thin using frames.

Currently a special exhibit at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art presents some fifty outstanding examples of surviving masterpieces from this time under the title "Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the Middle Ages."

Creating small masterpieces

One of the most important components of the medieval drawing was the illuminated (or decorated) initial letter which began each chapter, or in some cases, each page. It offered the monk-artist an inviting playground for his imagination. He could use a floral design if he so chose, or select a human figure and interlace it with the initial. He might decide to represent a saint, or Jesus, or his king or a local official. In these representations we learn what some of the historical figures looked like.

Often the initial was used to illustrate a landscape, a castle, a church, the vineyards of Palestine etc. The illuminated letter was equally important for the illiterate "reader," guiding him to desired places in the book and assisting him to understand the text which followed.

How was an illuminated manuscript produced? Vellum sheets were usually prepared in a pre-determined size and each page was carefully planned so that the illustrated initials and other illustrations would take up the area assigned to them. Using a quill or reed pen, the written portion was executed before any of the illustrations were finalized. Next came the illustrations. Not surprisingly, not all the monks were equally gifted, so there were pattern books to assist them and which the scribes could follow. These contained illuminated letters of the alphabet and some of the more popular saints' faces and story sequences.

The monk-scribes used all kinds of materials for creating color in the manuscripts. Reds were created from cinnabar or vermilion; yellow was made with saffron. Green could be made from berries or a variety of copper compounds and so forth. In the later Middle Ages actual gold and silver were used. Gold often appears in the halos of Christ, the saints and the Virgin Mary.

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