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Shedding Light on Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most beautiful and complex creations in the Medieval world. In the early Middle Ages, manuscripts were typically created by members of the clergy but by the later Middle Ages, a growing number of workshops dedicated to manuscript art existed. Training was usually accomplished through apprenticeships. The master was responsible for the more exacting steps in the process and the more mundane tasks were allocated to the apprentices according to their level of experience.

The pages of the Medieval manuscript were usually composed of sheets of parchment, prepared and cut into folded sets of leaves called gatherings by a parchmenter. Before writing began, each page was ruled by hand or with the use of a ruling frame.

The scribe sat at a sloping desk, the manuscript held open by weights. Ink was held in inkhorns. There existed several recipes for ink; the most widely used included gall nuts, produced when a gall wasp lays its eggs in a growing bud of the oak apple tree. Pens were typically made from wing feathers of the goose or swan. A right-handed scribe would typically use the feathers from the left wing of the bird for a comfortable fit in the hand.

As the scribe wrote, he would leave a blank space for an illustration, often leaving notes in the margin of the parchment about the topic and composition. The prescribed design was then carefully laid out in the empty space in graphite by the master of the workshop. Designs were often copied from pattern books. The parchment was then coated with a solution of animal glue in water in preparation for gold ornamentation, known as gilding.

In the most popular method of gilding, a sticky gesso was applied quickly and lightly to the surface using a pen and drawn out into the corners of the design. The gilder breathed heavily onto the page, lowered the gold leaf into place, and pressed down firmly on it with a piece of silk. A burnishing tool, usually a dog’s tooth mounted on a handle, was then rubbed over the gold, allowing the edges that overlapped the gesso to fall away.

The next stage in manuscript production was the painting itself. Pigments were derived from of various minerals and plant extracts to produce a rather wide range of colors. Red could be obtained from mercuric sulphide, brazilwood or the root of the madder plant. Malachite was used for green, saffron for yellow, and white lead for white. The most prized color was ultramarine, the blue made from lapis lazuli. The most widely used binding medium for paint was glair, obtained from the juice of beaten egg whites, but other choices were egg yolk, sugar, and even ear wax. The paint was applied on a flat working surface with very small brushes using tiny brushstrokes in numerous layers.

Binding was the last stage in producing a manuscript. The gatherings were stitched together by hand, sometimes with the use of a sewing frame. The covers of medieval manuscripts were usually made of wood but occasionally they were leather or even fabric. Clasps were often used to hold the book shut.

As you can see, the creation of a book in the Medieval world was a combination of the work of several different artisans and craftspeople, each lending their particular skill and knowledge to the long and laborious process which resulted in a sublime work of art.

For a truly excellent link on Medieval manuscripts, look here.

The Book of Kells poster from

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at