illumination, in art, decoration of manuscripts and books with colored, gilded pictures, often referred to as miniatures (see miniature painting); historiated and decorated initials; and ornamental border designs.
The earliest known illustrated rolls come from Egypt; they include the oldest example, the Ramesseum Papyrus (c.1980 BC) and fragments from the Book of the Dead, found in tombs. Little or nothing survives of ancient Greek illumination, although scientific treatises and epic poetry are said to have contained pictures. It is thought that by the 2d cent. AD the long papyrus roll began to be replaced by the parchment codex (or leaved book). Thus a new, compact format was introduced as the framework for the picture. From the late classical period (probably 5th cent. AD) come the illustrations of Vergil (Vatican) and the Iliad (Ambrosian Library, Milan).
Illumination in Early Christendom
Most illuminations of the early Christian period, whose style was based on Hellenistic prototypes, are preserved only in medieval copies made in monasteries. Sumptuous Byzantine codices of the 6th and 7th cent., such as the Vienna Genesis, also show the adaptation of antique models to biblical subject matter.
In the 7th and 8th cent. the work of the Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and Lombards displayed rich decorative geometric designs with intricate human and animal interlacing, largely concentrated in initials and title pages. Among the masterpieces of Hiberno-Saxon illumination are the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells (both: Trinity College Library, Dublin), and the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Mus.).
The chief works of the Carolingian period date from the beginning of the 9th cent. and were created for the court of Charlemagne, whose aim was to revive the art of antiquity. The existence of several local monastic schools led to a variety of styles; prominent were the Ada group, characterized by splendid coloring and figures full of movement and expression, e.g., The Gospel Book of Ada (Municipal Library, Trier), and the Reims school, known for vibrant pen drawings with little color, e.g., the Utrecht Psalter (9th cent.; University Library, Utrecht).
Works of the Reims school greatly influenced the English school of Winchester in the 10th and 11th cent. The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold (c.980) typifies this style, with sketchy drawings of elongated figures in fluttering drapery, enriched by foliated borders. Contemporary with the flowering of the Winchester school was the Ottonian renascence in Germany. Germanic illuminators used thick, luxurious colors with vigorous outlines and dynamic movement. Reichenau, Hildesheim, and Fulda were prominent centers of Ottonian art.
In Byzantine miniatures a more classical mode continued into the 13th cent. in such works as the Joshua Roll (10th cent.; Vatican), along with images of a hieratic austerity. Italy was important for the diffusion of the Byzantine style; the most original works are the Exultet rolls (Pisa), containing joyous hymns. Byzantine work declined after the capture of Constantinople in 1204.
In Spain, where there was a mixture of Christian and Arabic elements, a highly inventive work was the Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse (a 10th-century copy is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City). The illumination of large books, Bibles and psalters, was fashionable in the Romanesque era. Richly decorated initials graced these books and, in the early 12th cent., stylized figures enhanced by complex garments and gestures were plentiful. Characteristic of mid-12th-century work is the Winchester Bible.
Before the 14th cent. illuminated manuscripts in the West were nearly always made of vellum. Both ink outline and full-color drawings were common. The color medium was usually tempera, and the gilt was burnished to a high luster. Lavish illumination was most commonly applied to religious books, including early gospels, fashioned for rich patrons, then psalters and books of hours. A few other sorts of manuscripts, such as the bestiary, were, by tradition, profusely illustrated.
The Golden Age of Illumination
Paris was the birthplace of new ideas in book ornamentation at the beginning of the 13th cent. Picture and text were more closely integrated. The most striking quality of the Gothic miniatures was their parallel to stained glass windows in the use of similar colors, drawing, and medallion frameworks. Book size decreased, initials were expanded, and grotesque little monsters and drolleries appeared in the margins.
Lay schools emerged in the 14th cent., directed by individual artists, such as Maître Honoré and Jean Pucelle. Gold fields were replaced by colored and landscape backgrounds, although colors were sometimes abandoned for grisaille, as in the Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux (c.1325; Metropolitan Mus.) by Jean Pucelle.
Greater realism and a wealth of ornament in the margins can be seen in the works done in the early 15th cent. for the duc de Berry by the Burgundian court artists André Beauneveu, Jacquemart de Hesdin, and the Limbourg brothers. The epitome of elegance was reached in the Très riches heures du duc de Berry (Chantilly) by the Limbourg brothers, showing a fusion of the refined Parisian style with the more realistic art of Flanders and also the influence of Italian panel painting.
Other notable works of the 15th cent. include the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (c.1428–45; Morgan Library) and illuminations of the Master of Mary of Burgundy (Bodleian, Oxford). The Boucicaut Master also made notable contributions. From the region of Tours came the highly accomplished Hours of Étienne Chevalier (Chantilly) by Jean Fouquet and the work of his pupil Jean Bourdichon. In England the early 14th-century art of illumination was nearly indistinguishable from that of France, e.g. Queen Mary's Psalter (British Mus.).
Italy was an important center of illumination in the 15th and 16th cent. Among those who worked as illuminators were Fra Angelico, Mantegna (briefly), Liberale da Verona, and Giulio Clovio. In general, illuminations were no longer closely related to the text but became little paintings in Renaissance frames. The decline of the art of the miniature was made inevitable by the invention of the printing press, and toward the end of the 15th cent. wood-block prints began to replace painted illumination.
Illumination in the Middle East and India
For information on the art of illumination in the Middle East and in India see Persian art and architecture; Islamic art and architecture; Mughal art and architecture; Indian art and architecture.
Since the mid-1960s many illuminated books have been published in relatively inexpensive facsimile editions. See S. Mitchell, Medieval Manuscript Painting (1965); D. Diringer, The Illuminated Book (rev. ed. 1967); D. M. Robb, The Art of the Illuminated Manuscript (1972); O. Pacht, Book Illumination in the Middle Ages (1987); J. J. G. Alexander, The Painted Page (1995); T. B. Husband, The Art of Illumination (museum catalog, 2009).