What is an illuminated manuscript?

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Before the invention of the printing press in Europe around 1455, all books were handwritten and decorated. The word manuscript is derived from the Latin words manus (hand) and scriptus, from scribere (to write). illuminate definition, from the Latin illuminare (to light up), denotes the glow created by the radiant colors of the illustrations, as well as by real gold and silver. Illuminations took the form of decorated letters, borders, and independent figurative scenes, also called miniatures.

The Getty Trust acquired its first set of 144 manuscripts and leaves (single pages) in 1983 from collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig. Today the J. Paul Getty Museum owns more than 200 books, leaves, and cuttings, spanning the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

One magnificent manuscript in the Getty’s collection is the Gualenghi-d’Este Hours, seen above. Though sumptuously decorated with incredible detail, the book is only about four-inches tall. Illuminated largely by Italian artist Taddeo Crivelli, these two pages in particular demonstrate superb examples of miniature and border illumination, complete with a historiated initial (a letter containing identifiable narrative scenes or figures). The miniature on the left-hand page shows the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary surrounded by naturalistic elements. Flowers, peacocks, and trees crowd the border, interspersed with Renaissance heraldic symbols and the personal mottoes of the book’s owner. Facing this page, the Virgin and Child embrace within a historiated initial D, flanked by the first prayers of the day, in Latin. Taken from Psalm 50, the text reads: Domine labia mea aperies et os meus an utiabit laudem tuam (Lord, you will open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise).

Who made manuscripts?

Until about the 12th century, the most elaborate and beautiful illuminations were devoted to religious works, and most manuscripts were produced in monasteries. In a monastery, the scriptorium was the center for both scholarly activity and the copying of texts.

During the rise of universities in cities in the 12th and 13th centuries, scribes and illuminators were increasingly laymen who made their living by supplying fine manuscripts to noblemen, the new middle class, and students and professors of emerging universities. During the Renaissance, several important painters also worked within the pages of illuminated manuscripts, such as Gerard David, Simon Bening, and Antonio Pisano, called Pisanello, as seen in the cutting at the left.

How were manuscripts made?

By the high Middle Ages, the making of a manuscript was often divided among four distinct craftsman: the parchment maker, the scribe, the illuminator, and the bookbinder. Typically, each belonged to a guild with specific guidelines and standards.

The construction of an illuminated manuscript began with the parchment maker, who prepared the animal skins used to make the leaves of a manuscript. Although paper was present in Europe as early as the 14th century, manuscripts were most often written on the specially prepared skin of calves, sheep, or goats, though sometimes parchment makers used smaller animals including rabbits and even squirrels. Though expensive, parchment provided a surface that was beautifully textured, translucent, and durable.

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