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Medieval Manuscript Illumination in a Nutshell

Updated on June 9, 2008

The History of Medieval Illumination

In the early middle ages most manuscript illumination was executed by monks primarily for monastic use, as part of the daily spiritual routine in the monasteries. Copying earlier manuscripts was an activity in which the scribe and illuminator traditionally followed the earlier manuscript's style and composition, and the act of copying had a special purpose. Experimentation and variation were not allowed in large amounts. These manuscripts were commanded to be made by abbots or bishops in high-ranking positions in the monastery, often with the intention of sending them elsewhere as gifts. This was not an activity done for profit. As monks were forbidden to do much traveling, regional styles and idiosyncrasies developed during this time which were greater than in later productions.

The practice of manuscript illumination was a skill that was passed in a system of apprenticeship, and there are surviving examples showing that in the creation of a manuscript all the processes of making books was done by the monks themselves. The parchment they used was made from animal skin, usually calves, though from the early middle ages on this parchment was prepared commercially and could be bought in different sizes and styles. As in later years, techniques in the preparation of paint and use was passed on verbally and in practice. It was also very common for illuminators, whether monks, lay people, or both, to collaborate on manuscripts. Throughout the history of manuscript illumination it was always a collaborative effort, with workshops, both monastic and secular, working to train new apprentices and create a sort of assembly-line in the production of manuscripts.

Manuscripts were illuminated according to the patron's wishes, whether they were an abbot requesting a Bible for a monastery or later a lay person, usually a member of the nobility or higher class, commissioning a Psalter for their daily, private, individual use. They decided how many miniatures, decorated letters, and other decorations would be included in the manuscript. Some hired intermediaries who worked with the illuminator in their behalf to make the agreement, oversee the work, fix the prices and pay the workers. Some manuscripts cite in their pages what each miniature costs. Often instructions or small sketches are found on the margins of the pages concerning what to draw and how - and sometimes these instructions are ignored and the illuminator paints something different. Rather than drawing from real life, pattern books and motif books were used and copied to form compositions.

From the 11th century onward there was an increase in lay illuminators working professionally for a stipend. There was a significant shift in the later middle ages as the majority of illustration was increasingly done by lay, paid, professional artisans rather than monks. These people begin to show up in tax and university records as illuminators, and were members of guilds and confraternities dedicated to scribes or painters. By the mid 15th century there was an organized book trade involving large numbers of people.

The 12th and 13th centuries was a time of transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles - and also the transition period when the work of professional lay people began to be predominate over monastic craftsmen. Furthermore, the pictorial manner in which the illuminations were made begin to be enriched in this period. There was a large variety in pictures, often combining monastic traditionalism and the experimental style of the new lay people breaking into the field. Another thing to consider is the impact of the Byzantine style of art, which spread around Europe in Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine pattern books of that time. Changes in education at the time resulted in both an increase in the literacy of the population and thus increased the demand for books. Large numbers of people involved in the book trade would conglomerate together in a city, creating a developing class of illuminators, and the diffusion of ideas resulting in a kind of uniformity of style. Now, when illuminators would make a copy of an earlier manuscript, it was considered acceptable to make the copy in a completely different style, as well as to even change the subject matter of the images if they wished to.

The thirteenth century was a time of experimentation and expansion, as the concept of monks as illuminators died out to be completely replaced by lay professionals working for money. Illumination expanded out of the sphere of religious texts into secular manuscripts as well. Pattern books were still being used, with the same image or form sometimes being repeated in different ways in one manuscript. However, there were plenty of opportunities for illuminators to evade or even to challenge preexisting traditions.

The fourteenth century saw the development and spread of panel painting, which influenced and was influenced by medieval illustration. This influence increased from the 14th century onwards - there are examples of nearly exact reproductions of monumental paintings, such as Giotto's in the Arena Chapel, found in manuscripts of the same period. Illuminators and painters were often in the same guilds, and as the status of painters increased, as did perhaps the status of illuminators - who had already found an upwards shift in their prestige since becoming professionals. The pattern books of old were still used as such, but now they contained not just motifs for copying, but as examples of their work and their skills. They were also used for teaching new apprentices. Illuminators at this time were increasingly mobile, and both they and their manuscripts circulated widely, resulting in increased diffusion of ideas. The influence of monumental paintings could also be attributed to the increase of woodcuts of their compositions circulating the continent as well.

The development of the 14th and 15th centuries saw changes in patronage, attitude towards religious imagery, and guild regulations meant to control the imports and exports of the market. Illuminators began to be named personally. In the 15th century, artists increasingly added their own observations of the world into their imagery - a practice that was always extant, but now amplified, resulting in experimentation and the creation of new images that at times shifted, away from simply illustrating the text, into a new direction. At the end of the 15th century illuminations looked more like miniature panel paintings than like miniatures.

Book of Hours of Marguerite d'Orléans, western France, around 1430, Manuscripts Department, Western Section, Lat. 1156B, Parchment


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