History of illumination

From papyrus to patrons : all the history of illumination


From papyrus to parchment

The sheet of papyrus is made by superimposing several layers of a special Egyptian reed, Cyperus Papyrus. The sheets are dried and made absolutely flat in order to have a clean surface to work on. As this reed was mainly grown in the Nile marshlands, the western world was faced with the problem of an Egyptian monopoly and another writing support had to be found. This was to be the invention of Parchment.

Parchment is made from either cow, sheep or goat hide which was tanned then polished with a stone and bleached with lime. Though it was expensive, parchment presented the immense advantage that it could be produced anywhere! The widespread distribution and general acceptance during the Middle Ages brought about a revolutionary modification in layout as well as the development of a new decorative art form : Illumination.

From scroll to manuscript

Numerous processes have been invented to conceive texts throughout the history of writing : clay tablets were numbered so as to understand the written order, wooden plaques were bound with string and papyrus sheets were assembled with glue to produce scrolls, the most widespread technique for many centuries.

Originally marginal, parchment, created its own monopoly from the 5th century ad. onwards.

In its beginnings parchment was also rolled. Thinner, more supple and resistant than papyrus, it provoked the appearance of a new form : the codex, ancestor of the modern book.

At this point, sheets could be folded and assembled in folios and so at last, writing became possible on both sides of the page, twice as much text than on a papyrus scrolls. Handling was also simpler and so, the codex could have hundreds of pages, naturally difficult in scroll form.

Parchment also had an advantage in its quality to accept several layers of paint and gold leaf allowing the development of illumination. Decoration adorned all types of medieval books, themselves becoming more and more varied and numerous.

A selection of books

The Middle Age was a period of devotion and we find that most books of the period were of liturgical inspiration. There was also a parallel development of profane literature and studies : tales of chivalry, copies of antique texts and study books. The aristocracy and universities commissioned these works.

The Bible : one of the most voluminous works by its number of pages and sheer physical size was often read aloud in monasteries.

Psalm-books : liturgical books grouping together psalms for the celebration of religious services. We often find a calendar for various activities over the twelve months of the year, astrological signs and a list of the saints. They often were used for reading instruction : King Louis IX of France learnt to read with the psalm-book of his father, Saint-Louis.

Book of Hours : a book of prayers to be said at the eight canonical hours intended for a lay person's private devotion. Works of small size easily carried and luxuriously illustrated by the most famous artists of the time. These books were so precious that only privileged princes and noblemen could acquire them.

The apocalypse : the book of revelation recounting the visions of Saint-Jean.

Graduals and antiphonies : these are songbooks used during religious services, often-large volumes for choirs.

Life stories of saints : a presentation of miracles and martyrs. The saints represented with their symbolic attributes were the objects of profane veneration.

Chronicles : noblemen aspired to relate their line of descendants to heroic events, real and imaginary history marvelously intertwined.

Classic texts : the classics were copied and illustrated a fashion being at its zenith in the Renaissance. Ovide, Horace, Virgile were read equally by laymen and ecclesiastics.

Bestiaries : containing descriptions and tales of animals or fabulous creatures : the satyr, unicorn and dragon are frequent and represent good and evil in Christianity.

Herbals : scientific or medical books. The later works presented advice on the cultivation and harvest of medicinal plants, making them the first ethno-botanical works.

Literature : the reading aloud of stories like "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table" gave huge pleasure. A rich iconography permitted one to follow the story and intrigue for those who were unable to read. Profane texts were the most popular at that time.

Textbooks : little decorated and in small format, they treated theology, grammar, astronomy…and were for the use of students. Their development is related to the expansion of universities in the 12th century.

Patrons and famous artists

Most medieval books were copies of antique or religious texts, conceived in monasteries where copyists wrote from dictation.

With the development of princely patronage, a veritable corporation of valued illumination artists appeared. Secular workshops multiplied from the 12th century onwards to respond to the flourishing demand. Books became richer and more ornamental with historiated initials; miniatures, page feet (bas de page) and Byzantine influence brought about the use of floral frames abundantly enhanced with gold and silver.

In reality an artist seldom had liberty of expression and would have to resign himself to :
- a pre arranged layout, he was reserved a precise space in which to work,
- the requirements and demands of the sponsor,
- to representational conventions, saints represented with their symbolic attributes and decorative concern for style…etc. His remuneration varied in accordance to the importance and complexity of the illuminations, and could earn a premium on borders and historiated initials. The transcription of a 400-page book required six months work for a rapid copyist, the illumination artist's embellishment would follow. Therefore the completion of a manuscript would be achieved over several years.

Books, at this period were rare and expensive. They represented precious objects and a sign of power. Several important patrons have marked their passage in time : Charles V of Spain, Jean de Berry, The Dukes of Burgundy, The Medici Family, Visconti, Sforza, have through history, allowed the achievement of manuscripts of an extreme opulence.

About illumination

Illumination had several uses :
- A religious connotation. From the very beginning, illumination was made for the glory of god, gold reflecting to it's advantage this idea.
- A visual landmark allowing a rapid comprehension of the content of a book, especially when one does not read.
- A sign of wealth, an illuminated book is appreciated as a work of art.

The decorative elements are variable :
- The miniature was in reality the largest decorative element, often inset, within the body of text, given a full page or at the beginning of the text.
- A historiated initial when encompassing familiar narration, embellished when meant to be purely decorative and zoomorphic when illustrating an animal or fantastic beast.
- Due to Byzantine influence, the use of gold was extensive until the second half of the 14th century, later the graphic style became more realistic and colors took over in importance.


Antiphonies : a devotional songbook used during mass and comprising of compositions sung responsively as part of a liturgy, i.e. sounds echo or answer another.

Bestiary : a moralized natural history containing a collection of illustrations of known and also fabulous animals, usually with moral texts attached.

Codex : from Latin, caudex, meaning writing tablet. A book made up of separate leaves, as opposed to a scroll. The earliest being comprised of wooden tablets, this was then followed by the use of parchment, where the pages where folded and assembled in folios.

Illumination : from Latin, illuminare, painted and gilded decoration found on medieval parchment manuscripts : initials and miniatures. Developed concurrently with the overall acceptance of parchment and under the Byzantine influence.

Herbal : a book of science and medicine used by practitioners indicating the medicinal virtues of plants, later works also dealt with cultivation and gave various advice concerning cooking and general daily life.

Book of Hours : book of prayers, which were to be said at the eight canonical hours in religious services, intended for lay person's private devotion. These often comprised of calendars and psalms.

Papyrus : Cyperus Papyrus, a reed found in abundance throughout the Nile valley in Egypt. The leaves are moistened, beaten to glue to one another, then dried and finally polished creating a clean writing surface. The papyrus being crafted in scroll form, was fragile and made reading difficult. Egypt had the commercial monopoly in its production.

Parchment : from the Greek, pergamêné, meaning animal hide prepared at Pergamum, now part of modern Turkey. Revolutionizing the architecture of writing, it's suppleness allowed an organization of pages. Folios were to be assembled and bound together to form a volume.

Scroll : a long roll of papyrus or parchment with written text and drawings used as a book in ancient times.