Item Focus: Illuminated Manuscripts & Vellum Pages

The world manuscript derives from the Latin, manu scriptus, meaning handwritten. Before the invention of printing all books were written by hand. This was a time-consuming and labour-intensive process, and could take months or years. The use of paper as a medium started to become widespread in Europe from the late Middle Ages. Before the Medieval period, the usual support for writing was parchment, also known as vellum, made from stretched, treated animal skins. The term vellum is derived from the Latin word vitulinum meaning made from calf. A large manuscript might require one whole cow’s or sheep’s skin to make a folded sheet of two to four pages, and a thick book could require the hides of entire herds. Medieval books were therefore expensive items. During the Middle Ages, most books were produced in monasteries. However, commercial scriptoria grew in large cities, especially Paris, and in Italy and the Netherlands. Medieval manuscripts can be considered true works of art in miniature: their value lies not only in the content but also in the fine decorations displayed on their pages.

Illuminated manuscripts

The practice of illumination was a technique aimed to enrich and beautify the pages of a manuscript. The term comes from the Latin verb ‘illuminare’, meaning to light up or to enlighten, and refers to the use of bright colours and gold to embellish initial letters or to portray entire scenes. Various coloured inks were mixed with a binding agent, like egg whites. The most affordable, and therefore common, coloured ink used was an orange hue called minium, made by grinding the burnt-orange crust, that resulted from roasting a pigment called white lead.

jean coene atelier renaissance manuscript

Illumination was a complex and costly process. It was therefore usually reserved for special books, such as an altar Bible or a personal Book of Hours. The oldest-known example of an illuminated manuscript, dating back to 560 AD, is an Irish Book of Psalms called An Cathach.

The Book of Hours

Medieval Book of Hours illuminated leaf

The most popular type of illuminated manuscript was the Book of Hours. Thousands of Books of Hours, made between 1250 and 1700, survive today in libraries and museums, testament to their popularity in their heyday, especially in northern Europe. From the fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth century, more Books of Hours were made than any other type of book.

The Book of Hours was composed of Christian prayers, divided in eight sections, meant to be said at regular intervals throughout the twenty-four-hour day. Some of these manuscripts displays the most impressive works of art of their periods, elaborately decorated with intricate illustrations and lavishly illumined. More of these books have survived than any other because the demand for them was greater and so more were produced on commission.

The practice of illumination continued unabated worldwide until the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, which slowed and then effectively stopped most instances of the labour-intensive process.

Ancient Manuscripts

At Ancient & Oriental, we stock a wide range of artefacts from most ancient cultures and time periods. If you’re looking to buy Ancient Manuscripts from the UK’s leading dealer, with our own certification and authenticity guaranteed, please look around our online shop or call +44 (0)20 8364 4565 if you’d like us to source a specific item.

By Francesca,

  Filed under: Decorative Techniques, Middle Ages   Tags: , , , ,
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