Going for the Gold: The Origins of Illuminated Manuscripts
Going for the Gold: The Origins of Illuminated Manuscripts

Going for the Gold: The Origins of Illuminated Manuscripts

Author: Administrator Account/Wednesday, February 01, 2017/Categories: New Books, Coloring Books for Adults

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You’ve all seen them: the illuminated manuscripts that come to us from the middle ages, their colors still amazingly vivid after all these centuries, the gold still glowing bright. And you probably picture monks at their individual sloping worktables, painstakingly doing the lettering by the light of a single candle.

That image isn’t so far off from the truth.

The term “manuscript” comes from the Latin for “handwritten.” Before the invention of printing, books had to be written out by hand, a costly and labor-intensive process performed initially by religious orders (to transmit Scripture, prayer books, and other holy literature); new books were generally produced when a new church or monastery was founded. Eventually manuscripts found their way into the secular world, where they were first produced by the elite of the nobility (the leisure class that had the time and saw manuscript illustration as an artistic endeavor suitable for princes). Time was the most important commodity, because a single book could take years to copy. Eventually itinerant lay illuminators began producing manuscripts for those who could afford to pay them.

Paper became available in Europe in the 12th century, but there was no actual paper mill in England until the 15th century, so its use wasn’t widespread. What did people use instead? They wrote on something called parchment or vellum, which today we associate with paper, but which was actually made by stretching and treating animal skins. So time wasn’t the only important commodity to book production: an entire cow was used to make three or four pages, so you can imagine how many it took to create a book—a singularly expensive endeavor!

 https://trello-attachments.s3.amazonaws.com/586ec35f67745cbc8ae10087/586ec772de1371aa441daf07/2d7b1b8ed32a4f04b474806dea4a9fcc/BOOK_OF_KELLS.gif https://trello-attachments.s3.amazonaws.com/586ec35f67745cbc8ae10087/586ec772de1371aa441daf07/c7b8bc4cfdb6419ed0a7bbfb7320b616/BOOK_OF_KELLS.jpg https://trello-attachments.s3.amazonaws.com/586ec35f67745cbc8ae10087/586ec772de1371aa441daf07/fe3a14689f1e907fd92a61b47f857a99/LINDISFARNE.jpg

Caption: Illuminated Manuscript Samples left to right: Book of Kells, Book of Kells, Lindisfarne.

If that wasn’t enough, some manuscripts became even more valuable through illumination. This term comes from the Latin, again, and means “enlightened” or “lit up,” and it refers to the use of gold or silver (which reflected light) to embellish initial letters, to provide marginalia, or to even illustrate scenes from the book’s contents. Bright colors usually accompanied the gold.

Not everyone could illuminate. Members of the Cistercian Order, for example, were allowed to ornament their manuscripts with colors, but weren’t permitted to illuminate them—gold was too frivolous and inappropriate to an austere way of life!

The printing press revolutionized book production and by the end of the 16th century the art of illumination had all but disappeared.


You can experience the vivid colors of the early manuscript illuminators through our new book, Scripture Illuminated: A Coloring Book for Prayer and Meditation, which captures the intricate work of some of these anonymous medieval copyists and illustrators. Learn about this beautiful art form honoring the Scriptures and make it your own as you prayerfully color these Bible verses!

Ready to try your hand at coloring? Get a free page to color and 20% off Scripture Illuminated, our new Catholic adult coloring book here.

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1 comments on article "Going for the Gold: The Origins of Illuminated Manuscripts"

Deirdre Lewis

2/4/2017 12:06 PM

I was eager to start colouring again, having loved it as a child...my only attempt at art! Little did I realize how out of practice I was!!! I am improving slowly. So far, your books are not available in South Africa but I keep hoping that our Catholic book store will deem it worthwhile to import colouring books! What a lovely idea, to share finished pages with your mother. I'm sure she loves it!

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