Art of Illuminated Books

by Lady Alianore de Essewell

Many different arts were represented in the making of an illuminated book. The first was the scribe, whose duty it was to carefully copy the script. Then came the painter or illuminator, who not only had to be a draughtsman and good with pencil and brush but he also had to know how to lay gold leaf and burnish it afterwards with the agate stone or ‘dogges tooth’. After the illuminator it was the turn of the binder, who collected all the pages and bound them together under leather and gold mounts.

Illumination began as the colouring of a single letter, primarily the first letter of a passage to highlight the importance of that passage. For this letter, red was the selected colour. The red pigment was known as ‘minium’, the artist who applied the colour was called a ‘miniator’ and from this the term ‘miniature’ was derived. Later this term was used to describe the pictures, painted on the pages of manuscripts, which allowed the reader to find his way around the text.

The working of a manuscript or book was conducted in what was called a scriptorium. These large halls were divided into smaller ‘cells’ or carrels. In each of these, there was room for the writer, his desk and a little shelf for his colours and inks. In colder weather a small brazier would also be introduced. Monks and nuns of various monasteries throughout England and Europe were firstly responsible for the making and copying of illuminated books. The work of each Scriptorium was devoted firstly to the completion of the monastery library and then to other houses, or to such patrons who were rich enough to have the books transcribed, for their own use.

The library of a monastery was just as important as the scriptorium itself, the books kept in cupboards with doors.

In the customs of the Augustine Priory of Barwell, these directions are given:

“The press in which the books are to be kept ought to be lined with wood, that the damp of the walls may not moisten or stain the books. The press should be divided both vertically and horizontally and by sundry partitions, on which the books may be ranged so as to be separate one from the other, for fear they be packed so close, as to injure one another.”

Manuscripts were written on parchment or vellum, which were the treated skins of calf, kid or lamb. The skins were meticulously prepared, involving various processes. Parchment is distinct from leather in that it is not tanned. It is a process of washing the skins, stretching and scraping before being dried. It is prepared under tension, creating a stiff white, yellowish or translucent skin. It can therefore react to humidity, sometimes causing a book to ‘leap’ from the library shelf due to a change in tension.

Illuminators used many different ingredients for their colours, most coming from plants, ground stone, shells and earth. Saffron provided artists with an imitation gold for manuscript illumination. The yellow juice of celandine combined with egg yolk and mercury produced another substitute for gold leaf, which was used for lesser books. Yellow was obtained from weld and blue from woad, green was found in the juices of iris flowers and honeysuckle berries. Other colours among an artists palette included lampblack, made from the soot of lamps, red from vermilion and ochre colours from earth. Ground stones were also used to create colours, such as azurite from lapis lazuli. All paints were used powered, usually mixed with a binder and water. Nearly all illuminators had their own recipes for making up their paints and most would guard them keenly.

The 13th and 14th Centuries might be considered as the golden age of miniature art in illumination in Europe, England and France where books were delicate and intricate works of art. These books were highly prized and sort after by both the nobility and the rich, small fortunes being parted with to obtain even a single book.

Another feature of the 13th century was the introduction of small grotesques in the borders, little creatures half human, half animal, which seemed to portray the artists keen sense of humor. These grotesques continued through to the renaissance, only they lacked the same sense of humor of the earlier works.

Each age seem to extol different styles but always capturing the personality of the artists and what they were trying to portray about the written word. Nature and human form always played an important part in the illuminating art and were not just present to decorate the page. In an age where literary learning was not common to all and books were few, those books that were owned needed to speak on different levels.

Illuminated books were firstly confined to holy scriptures and choral music owned by the church and Royalty. Later came other forms of literature to which illumination could be applied, as in the latter half of the middle ages the decline of more secular books had begun and a new division of writing and illumination had begun, with the introduction of the Book of Hours. These books contained the numerous daily devotions, which formed part of the ritual of the Roman Church and most noble families owned at least one. Book of Days was also another, which imparted knowledge of holy days, with illuminated pictures of each month, representing that months virtue.

The introduction of printing however spelled doom to the art of illumination, as what once took a year to complete could now be done in a day.



  • The Complete Calligrapher, Emma Callery
  • Arts and Crafts in the Middle Ages, Julia deWolf Addison
  • Sweet Herbs and Sundry Flowers, Tom Stobart


  • Monastery Library
    Early Medieval Art, Lawrence Nees
  • Scribe at work
    Arts and Crafts in the middle Ages, Julia deWolf Addison