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illuminated manuscripts

The illuminated manuscript–a handwritten book with pictures and decoration painted or drawn in bright colors, illuminating, or lighting up, the page–was a major form of artistic expression in ancient and, more particularly, medieval times. Illustration is the oldest type of illumination. In ancient Greece and Rome some manuscripts had the text interspersed with small paintings called miniatures, from minium, a red-orange lead pigment used in their execution. Manuscripts continued to be illustrated with paintings and drawings in the Middle Ages, but illumination was further extended to the ornamentation of the text through the enlargement and decoration–sometimes lavish–of initial letters and through the framing of both text and illustrations with elaborate decorative borders. The production of manuscripts, which in antiquity had been a commercial enterprise employing professional scribes and illuminators, passed to the Christian church by the 7th century and was carried out for the most part in monastic scriptoria (copying rooms) until the 13th century, when it was again taken over by secular scribes and artists working for book dealers or individual patrons. After the invention of movable type in the 15th century, illuminated manuscripts gradually gave way to printed books with engraved illustrations.

Ancient Manuscripts.

The earliest illuminated manuscripts are Egyptian papyrus rolls from the 2d millennium BC, which include Books of the Dead with paintings and funeral and judgment scenes. The oldest surviving Greek illuminations are the drawings in an astronomical text–also on a papyrus roll–from the 2d century BC (Louvre, Paris). Other illustrated Greek papyri exist, but the principal remains of both Greek and Roman book art date from the 5th and 6th centuries AD, when the parchment codex (an early form of the modern bound book) replaced the papyrus roll. A codex containing works of the roman poet Vergil produced c.400 (the Vatican Vergil) has 50 framed miniatures rendered in the style of Roman wall painting. Their resemblance to the illustrations in the early-5th-century Itala Bible fragment (Staatsbibliothek, East Berlin) suggests that both manuscripts were executed in the same scriptorium in Rome. A different style with flat figures and spaceless settings occurs in the miniatures of the Roman Vergil (Vatican) from the later 5th century. Among extant 6th-century illuminated manuscripts are an illustrated edition of Dioscorides' De Materia medica (Nationalbibliothek, Vienna) and two biblical manuscripts written on purple vellum, the Vienna Genesis (National bibliothek, Vienna) and the Rossando Codex (Museo Arcivescovile, Rossano, Italy), a gospel book with scenes from the life of Christ.

Insular Illumination.

Insular is the name used to designate the style of a series of magnificent gospel books made at monastic centers in the British Isles during the 7th and 8th centuries. Insular manuscripts are characterized by decorative embellishment rather than narrative illustration. A page of pure ornament called a carpet page precedes the text, and large initials, together with their frames and sometimes the parchment ground, are filled with intricate, densely packed decoration. The ornament is composed of spiral patterns, interlace, knotwork, and intertwined animals adopted from Anglo-Saxon and Celtic metalwork. The first masterpiece of Insular illumination, the 7th-century Irish Book of Durrow (Trinity College, Dublin), contains miniatures as well as carpet pages. Portraits of the four Evangelists based on Early Christian models but translated into the stylized Insular idiom, were introduced in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Museum, London), written and illuminated about 700 by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne, England. A culmination was reached in the profusely decorated 8th-century Book of Kells (Dublin), which has narrative illustrations in addition to portraits.

Carolingian Illumination.

Book illumination flourished in northern France and western Germany as part of the cultural renaissance initiated by Charlemagne in the late 8th century and continued in the 9th under successive Carolingian emperors. The earliest extant work in the Carolingian style is the Godescalc Gospel book (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris). Dated 781-83, it was written in gold and silver on purple parchment in Charlemagne's court scriptorium at Aachen. This book was the first of a series of luxurious gospel manuscripts from the court school in which monumental evangelist portraits reflecting Early Christian and Byzantine models were juxtaposed to large, ornamental initial pages derived from Insular art. The revival of classical forms can be seen in the illusionistic portraits in Charlemagne's Coronation Gospels (Nationalbibliothek, Vienna) and in direct copies, made by Carolingian artists, of illustrated ancient secular works. Reims, the chief center of book painting (816-35) under Bishop Ebbo, developed a new, emotionally charged version of late antique illusionism in the portraits of the Ebbo Gospels (Bibliotheque municipale, Epernay, France) and the drawings of the famous Utrecht Psalter (University Library, Utrecht). Other 9th-century schools included Tours, Metz, the court school of Charles the Bald, and the Franco-Saxon school, which focused on initial decoration employing Insular motifs. (See CAROLINGIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE.)

Ottonian Period.

The Ottonian emperors and powerful bishops were the principal patrons of the splendidly decorated manuscripts produced at various monasteries in Germany in the 10th and 11th centuries. The books–chiefly gospel lectionaries and sacramentaries used in church services–typically contain portraits of their imperial or ecclesiastical donors as well as extensive New Testament narrative cycles painted in an expressive style that incorporated Carolingian and Byzantine elements. The figures, firmly delineated, with intense glances and gestures, were often set against brilliant gold grounds. Highly burnished gold leaf was also used for the foliate initials. The celebrated Codex Egberti (Stadtbibliothek, Trier, West Germany) has a portrait of Archbishop Egbert, who commissioned the book about 980, and 50 scenes from the life of Christ closely resembling an Early Christian model. It is one of a large and distinguished group of manuscripts traditionally associated with the German abbey of Reichenau. Another is the Gospels of Otto III (Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich), with visionary evangelist portraits, dramatic narrative scenes, and a compelling image of the emperor receiving tribute from the provinces. Books were also illuminated at Echternach, Regensberg, and Cologne, among other centers. (See OTTONIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE.)

Anglo-Saxon School.

Anglo-Saxon book decoration in the 10th and 11th centuries is often called the Winchester school because Winchester was its first center. From the late 10th century on, however, Canterbury became equally important, and other south English monasteries also participated. Impetus was provided by the monastic reform movement. A variety of books were illuminated, ranging from Gospels and liturgical books to books of the Old Testament and works of ancient authors copied from Carolingian intermediaries. The decoration was executed in a lively style, indebted in part to Carolingian sources. Figures have animated postures and fluttering draperies. Movement also dominates the leaf ornament of the spectacular borders and the animal interlace in the initials derived from insular art. Two techniques were used–painting and colored-outline drawing, which was an English specialty.

Romanesque Illumination.

The expansion of monasticism in Europe in the later 11th and 12th centuries (the Romanesque period of western European art) led to a great increase in the production of manuscripts by and for monastic houses. The most popular illuminated books were large Bibles, illustrated with elaborate, historiated initials or prefatory miniatures, and psalters (psalm books), frequently accompanied by biblical scenes. Typical are the Pantheon Bible (Vatican), executed in Rome about 1125, the Bible of Stavelot Abbey (British Museum), completed in 1097, the Winchester Bible (c.1150-80; Winchester Cathedral Library), and the St. Albans Psalter (St. Godehard Church, Hildesheim, West Germany). The last was written about 1120 by a monastic scribe but illustrated by a lay artist, one of the growing number active in the 12th century. Other decorated manuscripts included various liturgical books, works of the church fathers, saints' lives, and scientific texts. The Romanesque style was international, with regional variations sharing certain characteristics: the preference for big books and monumental forms; the two-dimensional rendering of figures with stylized drapery patterns usually of Byzantine origin; flat backgrounds of gold-leaf or colored panels; and the emphasis on large, decorated initials–often composed of vine-scrolls inhabited by struggling men and beasts–many of which contained narrative scenes. From the mid-12th century on in some areas, the style moved toward the Gothic style, with more naturalistic figures and drapery.

Gothic period.

From the end of the 12th century when Gothic illumination first appeared, the production of decorated manuscripts increasingly shifted from monastic scriptoria to urban workshops operated by laymen. Royal patronage and the stimulus of its renowned university helped make Paris the leading center of book illumination in Europe during the 13th and 14th centuries. The art also thrived in cities like London and Ghent and in university towns including Bologna, which was noted for law books, and Oxford. Manuscripts continued to be illuminated for the church, but the greatest demands came from individuals who wanted Bibles or other religious works such as the popular Book of Hours, but also illustrated histories and romances for edification or entertainment. To accommodate the individual reader, Gothic manuscripts were generally smaller in size than Romanesque books. The Gothic style of illumination evolved from a classicizing, early phase in the late 12th century exemplified by the large, softly draped figures on gold grounds in Queen Ingeborg's Psalter (Musee Conde, Chantilly, France) to the small, elegant forms of the courtly style of the Psalter of Louis IX (c.1260, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris). A trend toward more realistic representation developed in the early 14th century with the fully modeled figures and perspective interiors of the miniatures by Jean Pucelle, the dominant master of the first half of the century (The Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux, New York City), and in the deeper space and landscape backgrounds of the second half of the century. The typical decorative frame, the "bar border" consisting of a stemlike projection from the initial into the margins around the text and illustration, yielded at the end of the 14th century to wide borders filled with a lacy pattern of ivy vines and leaves.

15th Century.

Books of hours made for aristocratic patrons were among the most lavishly decorated manuscripts of the 15th century. Miniatures, under the influence of Renaissance panel painting, opened out into broad landscape views full of naturalistic details or into deep, architectural spaces. Both are found in the celebrated Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Musee Conde, Chantilly). Borders, especially in books made in the Low Countries, contain objects like flowers and insects rendered with astonishing realism. Jean Fouquet of Tours was the leading French illuminator (Hours of Etienne Chevalier, Musee Conde, Chantilly). Outstanding among the Flemish was Simon Marmion, and among the Italians, Attavante of Florence. Some splendid manuscripts continued to be made in Italy, France, and Flanders in the early 16th century (for example, the Grimani Breviary, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice), but they mark the end of the age of the illuminated manuscript. JANE ROSENTHAL

Bibliography: Alexander, Jonathan, The Decorated Letter (1978); Calkins, Robert, Illuminated Books of the Middle Ages (1983); Dodwell, Charles, Painting in Europe, 800-1200 (1971); Harthan, John, Books of Hours and Their Owners (1977); Vervliet, H. D. L., The Book through 5,000 Years (1972).

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