Lose Yourself in Illuminated Manuscripts

Dig into the archives with these beautifully illustrated tomes

By Google Arts & Culture

The City of God (De civitate Dei) (1347) by Aurelius AugustinusNational and University Library of Slovenia

Throughout the medieval era, and into the renaissance, scribes adorned their carefully-crafted manuscripts with ornaments and illustrations.

These scribes drew on a long history of illustration, also known as illumination, that connected the Carolingian Empire of Charlemagne to Constantinople, capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire, and led back to the early Christian church of antiquity.

The two witnesses and the apocalyptic beast. Sample of the Bamberg Apocalypse (11th century) by Monastery of ReichenauUNESCO Memory of the World

This manuscript of the biblical Book of Revelations was made in 11th-century Germany. We can see how the artist has used gold leaf, and only a handful of colours, to create an engaging scene of two holy men witnessing the appearance of an apocalyptic beast.

The beast seems to break through the schematic, comic book-style panels as it monsters the men.

The ascent of the blessed towards Christ. Sample of the Commentary on Canticles (11th century) by Monastery of ReichenauUNESCO Memory of the World

Dating to the same period is this image of men and women rising up to heaven, where they are baptised, before meeting Christ on the crucifix. The image makes up for a lack of depth and realism with its spiral sweep of the heavenly procession and their animated gestures.

Even if you were unable to read the book, as many were, you would still be able to understand the images shown to you.

Manuscript Leaf with the Last Supper and the Washing of the Apostles’ Feet Leaf, from a Royal Psalter (ca. 1250–70)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images weren't just made to illustrate the texts, they were also intended showed off the wealth and style of the books' patrons. Even a single illuminated page took a lot of time, labour, and material to make.

Besides the vellum that made the manuscript itself, paints had to be prepared from precious stones, gold hammered to leaf, and trained artists hired to actually design the images.

Manuscript leaf from a Book of Hours, in Dutch, produced in The Netherlands (1450) by AnonymousOriginal Source: University of Reading Special Collections: European Manuscript Collection

Later manuscripts incorporated text and decoration. Extravagant initial letters showed where to begin reading, and floral borders contained the neat columns of text.

The scribe has put emphasis on certain words and letters by writing them in red - a technique known as a rubric.

An apothecary’s shop, in a surgeon’s manuscript (14th century)Original Source: Sloane MS 1977

Over time, illustrations began to be used in secular manuscripts. This 14th century surgeon's manual is one such example. The illustration depicts an apothecary - similar to a pharmacist - working in his shop.

The apothecary, identified by his doctor's hat, is passing a decorated jar to a customer. On the shelves are more jars, and above them hangs a mixing bowl, used to creating medicines.

Manuscript showing Hulwan public library in BaghdadOriginal Source: Maqamat Al-Hariri

Manuscript illumination wasn't limited to the Christian kingdoms of northern Europe. Illuminated manuscripts were also created in Ethiopia, and in the Muslim lands controlled by the Abbasid dynasty. This 13th-century manuscript of Maqamat al-Hariri is just one example.

This scene shows the Hulwan public library of Baghdad - the oldest public library in the world. It's a particularly intriguing image - we can imagine the men shown here leafing through the books and coming across an image much like this.

Manuscript of Automata (700 AH) by Badi' al Zaman ibn al Razzaz al JazariThe al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait

Of all illuminated Arabic manuscripts, few are better known than the The Book of the Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Badi' al Zaman ibn al Razzaz al Jazari. This documents 50 mechanical devices, some designed by the author, each accompanied by an illustration.

In this work, decoration and diagram come together with text to create a cohesive image.

Manuscript Illumination with Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1515–25) by Master of James IV of Scotland (probably Gerard Horenbout)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In Europe, the tradition of manuscript illumination continued into the 1600s, but the practice ended rapidly following the invention of the moveable type printing press. The mass production of texts meant that books lost a lot of their status value.

The days of the solitary scribe slaving away over a single illuminated page were over. In their place came woodcuts and artists such as Albrecht Dürer. This exquisite page, made for James IV Scotland around 1515, represents the last flourish of the medium.

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