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Illuminations - a Lost Art Form

Updated on June 2, 2011
SamboRambo profile image

Sam has been a foreign war soldier, a writer of books and articles, an illustrator and a graphic artist. He also reads and plays the piano.

The art of illumination is - as defined in our times - decoration of printed or hand-lettered text used on some manuscripts or printed works. Earlier definitions of illuminations involved only those decorations that were enhanced with laminated or painted gold or silver, because they reflected light; thus, the name. The art of illuminating probably goes back further than 400 AD, but nothing significant is found that is dated before that time.

Illumination - which seems to have started in Italy - has typically been done by hand, and in “codex” documents, or the type of book typically produced today, with the pages bound together on one edge. When Gutenberg printed the Bible in German back in 1450, he first tried putting all illuminations through the printing process. But it seemed to present more problems than if he just had them done manually.

A gold-leafed illumination from the Gutenberg Bible. The designs at the left continue upward and downward in the margin. The red letters above the design is called "rubrication."
A gold-leafed illumination from the Gutenberg Bible. The designs at the left continue upward and downward in the margin. The red letters above the design is called "rubrication." | Source
Christ in Majesty - Folio 4 verso of the Aberdeen Bestiary.
Christ in Majesty - Folio 4 verso of the Aberdeen Bestiary.

A close look at the Gutenberg Bible shows that they were mostly done by hand, as each one is shown to have its own productive identity. In addition, there is evidence that different artists from a variety of geographical influences worked on those illuminations. Thus, the Gutenberg Bible is exquisitely unique in two or more ways: 1) The illuminations were done by hand, and 2) this Bible represents the first major work done with moveable type, which Gutenberg invented.

These details, and the fact that only 22 surviving Gutenberg Bibles exist, puts an insanely high value on one of these books: It’s estimated to be about 100 million dollars!

Even facsimiles are costly: Gutenberg facsimile Bibles from Paris are advertised at $9.5 thousand.

Illumination is not just limited to Christian literature. They are found in oriental works, Muslim books, pieces from India, and books covering secular themes, to name a few; and they are mostly antiques. If any of you out there has a book that has illuminations - even if they’re produced by printing, you may be sitting on a pile of gold.

A few very nice hubs have been written to show more detailed illuminations, and their history. To see them, follow these links:


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    • SamboRambo profile imageAUTHOR

      Samuel E. Richardson 

      7 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      Thank you, vision and abstract. The illumination in this hub is basically red and blue on black, in the tradition of most illuminations of the Gutenberg Bible. After Gutenberg and his workers decided to abandon the idea of mass-printing the art, there appears to be three or four different artists who did the rubrications or painting. One used only red ink (or paint), another used red and blue, and yet another used red and blue with a light wash of green.

    • RunAbstract profile image


      7 years ago from USA

      I think we are rather bound to ignore these remarkable kinds of works until someone has the good sense to point them out to us! Thanks so much for doing just that!

      I loved the intro you did up top with your own illumination art! Very creative and interesting! A very nice touch!

    • visionandfocus profile image


      7 years ago from North York, Canada

      Gtreat hub! And I enjoyed the links you provided. Thank you!

    • SamboRambo profile imageAUTHOR

      Samuel E. Richardson 

      7 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      Thanks for stopping by, Taj. The book at the top of this article is old, but has very few illuminations among the text. There are paintings at the beginning of some books, but not ornate capital letters.

    • profile image


      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      The art of illumination is very interesting. Although, it's very rare to see one today. However, that book in the photo looks very beautiful.


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