Graphic Design in the Middle Ages

Medieval artists and scribes were among the world’s first graphic designers. Explore the innovative ways these artists worked, and how their ideas carry over into modern design.

Scenes from the Creation (about 1410 - 1430) by Rohan MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Laying out a page

This unfinished leaf shows how artists carefully planned the layout of individual pages and whole books, designating spaces for images, decorated initials, and text. 

Scenes from the Creation (about 1410 - 1430) by Rohan MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

These designs depended on many factors, including the balance between word and image. All of the elements of the book work together to create a unique visual experience.

Manuscripts were completed in several steps, usually by many artists and scribes working together. 

Scenes from the Creation (about 1410 - 1430) by Rohan MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Here, text and gilding (gold leaf or paint) have been applied to the page, but the scenes remain unpainted. Rough outlines of the figures are visible, indicating what the finished page might have looked like.   

Initial D: Saint Matthew and Decorated Text Page (on long term loan from a Private Collection) (early 13th century) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Key design features

Many aspects of the visual design of medieval manuscripts were aimed at helping readers find their way through the book. These elements, such as miniatures (illustrations), frames, and large letters at the beginning of important passages, were central components of wayfinding.

Artists devised clever strategies for this purpose, leading to bold and varied designs. 

Elaborately embellished letters often depict identifiable scenes or figures. Known as “historiated initials,” this one shows St. Matthew sitting inside the letter D, wearing a bright red robe and holding a book.

Colored text, called rubrication, is a common feature in medieval manuscripts. These passages were intended to emphasize certain words or phrases, often to mark the beginnings and ends of text sections.

Although rubrication is most often red, it could also be other colors like green or blue.

Initial D: Saint Matthew and Decorated Text Page (on long term loan from a Private Collection) (early 13th century) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Straight lines, called ruling, were used to outline the page and create even spaces for the scribe to write. The style of writing in medieval manuscripts is often an important clue in determining where a book was made.

Initial D: Saint Matthew and Decorated Text Page (on long term loan from a Private Collection) (early 13th century) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this Psalm, the beginning of each sentence is indicated by a capital letter painted with gold.

Initial D: Saint Matthew and Decorated Text Page (on long term loan from a Private Collection) (early 13th century) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Often, words and images in the margins of a manuscript relate to the main content of the page. This line of musical notation, for example, includes the beginning of the Psalm written on the facing page, providing guidance for singing the written text. 

Astrological Chart (about 1405) by Virgil MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Medieval infographics

Medieval artists also incorporated diagrams to help readers grasp complex information.


Information can be organized in a variety of ways, offering a valuable window into how medieval people visualized knowledge. 

Astrological Chart (about 1405) by Virgil MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This roundel (circular disc), which would have been used to calculate the movements of celestial bodies, includes the name of each sign of the zodiac along the outer edge in alternating red and blue writing.

Astrological Chart (about 1405) by Virgil MasterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Earth is represented at the center of this diagram by the Latin word “terra.”

Table of Consanguinity (about 1170–1180) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This diagram, used to determine the legitimacy of inheritance and marriage, lays out the degree of relations between an individual and their relatives.

The hypothetical viewer is shown here as a small portrait bust at the center of the larger figure. 

Decorated Initial E (after 1205) by Master of the Ingeborg PsalterThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Ornamentation and abstraction across cultures

In particularly ornate books, the decoration can be more prominent than the text itself. Large decorated letters that contain humans and/or animals in a non-narrative scene are called “inhabited initials.”

In this example from a book of Psalms, a letter E is made up of delicately curling stems, leaves, and animals.

The design of a book often reflects the values and beliefs of the culture that produced it. Because figural imagery was generally deemed inappropriate for copies of the Qur’an, the central text of Islam, calligraphy became one of the most important art forms for medieval Muslims.

Bifolium from the Pink Qur’an, Unknown, 13th century, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Bifolium from the Pink Qur’an (13th century) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The beginning of a surah (chapter) is signaled here by words enclosed within intricately woven golden bands.

Gold, yellow, and blue marks appear throughout the text, indicating places where vowels were not included. These marks would help with pronunciation when reading the text out loud.

Decorated Incipit Page (1637–1638) by Malnazar and Aghap'irThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Medieval artists adopted various approaches to ornamentation that enhanced and complicated the work, leading readers to closely engage with both text and images.

In this Armenian Bible, gracefully curving, brightly colored birds, called zoomorphic letters, make up the beginning of a new section of the text.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Genesis, from Rothschild Pentateuch, Unknown, 1296, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Lavishly illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, like the Rothschild Pentateuch, often utilized illuminated word panels to mark the beginning of important sections. Because Hebrew does not distinguish between upper and lowercase letters, these panels feature whole words rather than individual letters.

Decorated Text Page, Book of Genesis, from Rothschild Pentateuch (1296) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The lower margin of the page is decorated with delicate lines of minute Hebrew text in the form of a pair of shapes. These images made up of lettering are called micrography, and appear in many medieval Hebrew manuscripts. 

Tughra of Suleiman the Magnificent (1520/1566)British Museum

Words could also be striking symbols of power. This intricate and ornate tughra (monogram, signature, or seal) belonged to Suleiman the Magnificent (1494–1566), Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. 

When affixed to official court documents, it served as a unique representation of his authority. 

From Medieval to Modern Design

Decorated Incipit Page, Unknown, about 1030–1040, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Guide for Constructing the Letter D, Joris Hoefnagel, about 1591–1596, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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William Morris, Initial D, a design for a woodcut, 1834/1896, From the collection of: British Museum
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Many elements of medieval book design appear in modern publications. Consider these three images that show depictions of the letter D in books created over a long span of time, ranging from the 11th to the 19th century. 

Decorated Incipit Page (about 1030–1040) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

On this page made in Germany, a large decorated initial D made up of interlacing, knotted gold bands and bright, contrasting colors, introduces the first line of the blessing: D[eu]s qui hodierna die (God who on this day). 

Guide for Constructing the Letter D (about 1591–1596) by Joris HoefnagelThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The advent of movable type in 15th-century Europe brought about an increased interest in the classical Roman alphabet. This manuscript contains a visual how-to for constructing each letter.

Guide for Constructing the Letter D (about 1591–1596) by Joris HoefnagelThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The examples, carefully outlined on a gridded background, are accompanied by a Bible verse beginning with the relevant letter. 

William Morris, Initial D, a design for a woodcut (1834/1896)British Museum

This preliminary sketch for a woodcut print was created in England in the late 19th century, during a time of renewed interest in the visual culture of the Middle Ages. 

William Morris, Initial D, a design for a woodcut (1834/1896)British Museum

The letter, with its intricately winding stems and leaves, demonstrates artist William Morris’s desire to capture the aesthetics of medieval books. 

The News, South Australia: First blind cricket interstate (1926-04-07) by The News (South Australia). National Library of AustraliaBradman Museum & International Cricket Hall of Fame

From medieval to modern design

Many of the visual elements that guided medieval book design are still pervasive in modern life. In this newspaper, printed in Adelaide, Australia in 1926, different types and sizes of fonts easily guide readers from one headline to the next across the busy page. 

Advertisement:Lego Advertisement from Family Circle Magazine (1978)The Strong National Museum of Play

Modern advertisements, like this LEGO ad from 1978, similarly use large, eye-catching headlines combined with compelling images to grab readers’ attention as they flip through a magazine. Here columns of text frame the boy, drawing your focus to his colorful LEGO truck.

LIFE Photo Collection

Unlike the advertisement, this magazine cover from 2002 relies on bold, bright lettering to frame its subject while different colors of text direct the viewers’ eyes.

As these examples have shown, there are many ways words and images work together on the page, to communicate ideas, challenge, and delight readers. 

Credits: Story

© 2023 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles
 
For more resources:
Video: Making Manuscripts

Video: The Structure of a Medieval Manuscript

Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, Revised Edition 

Adorning the Qur'an 

Ilana Tahan. Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image. London: The British Library, 2007. 


To cite this exhibition, please use: "Graphic Design" published online in 2023 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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