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Illuminated Manuscripts – History of Graphic Art Research Paper

In spite of the fact illustrations in modern books can be observed frequently, today it is almost impossible to find a book with such a kind of illustrations which can be discussed as illuminated. However, those people who can be even not interested in art easily imagine illuminated manuscripts because the elements of this art tradition are still used in decorating the books for children and some of the historical works, and real illuminated manuscripts are also presented in museums as the part of the cultural heritage.

These elements provided in the modern books have few similarities with the traditional illuminated scripts, but it is important to examine the origins of the movement which had the great impact on the development of art and design during several centuries, from the Antiquity till the Renaissance era.

The origins of the movement, and its place in the political, social, and historical context

Illuminated manuscripts are the literary works in which gold and silver are used in order to create the effect of illumination. The tradition to decorate the handwritten works with illuminated scripts began to develop during the Antiquity, and it was also influenced by the first Egyptian works in illustrating which the elements of illumination were used. The expansion of the tradition was affected by the usage of parchments as the source of creating literary works.

There were a lot of manuscripts decorated with the help of illuminated visual elements created in Greece and the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, today it is possible to examine only few examples of the artworks which belong to that period because many of the illuminated manuscripts were lost as a result of the fire in the Greek library at Alexandria1.

This movement was developed in the context of Eastern and Western traditions, and illuminated scripts were predominantly used for decorating the sacred writings which became the significant part of the service at cathedrals. Moreover, illuminated works were often ordered and sponsored by the authorities because the process of creating illuminated manuscripts was not only time-consuming but also expensive.

Illuminated manuscripts were prepared in monasteries. There were monastic scriptoriums where the writing of a manuscript was divided into several stages. The creation of illuminated scripts was a specific stage, and it was developed by an illuminator after the whole text of the work was written. Thus, illuminated manuscripts also played the role in political and social life because the monarchs, wealthy people, and the heads of the church were inclined to have the illuminated works.

The art of illuminated manuscripts developed during many centuries and in different regions. It is possible to examine the history of the countries and their cultures with references to the elements of their illuminated scripts till the Renaissance period. The popularity of the illuminated manuscripts declined with the appearance of the printed texts.

The definition of the movement and its differences from the other traditions in art and design

Illuminated manuscripts are characterized by the usage of dazzling elements and illustrations in embellishing the pages of the written text with references to decorating the initials and border paintings. The illuminated illustrations are created with the help of definite ornaments and scripts. However, the main characteristic feature of this movement is the usage of gold and silver for creating the effects of reflecting the light which influence the name of the art movement and its reference to the phenomenon of ‘illumination’.

Illuminated manuscripts begin to appear before the period of Ancient times, and their further expansion is associated with the active usage of parchments instead of papyruses. The illustrators paid attention to the effects of metal and began to use them for decorating the sacred writings in order to make them luxurious and accentuate their significance. These texts could be used only by the wealth representatives in the society and in rich churches.

The movement developed and it was possible to distinguish between the Classical tradition which was typical for the works of the Antiquity and influenced the Western tradition and between the Eastern (Islamic tradition) of decorating manuscripts with illuminated elements.

The Classical tradition is presented by the example of the Vatican Vergil where bright colors with the domination of red and purple are used for decorating the pages. The Islamic manuscripts are often discussed in one group with the Judaic manuscripts in which pen-and-colored-ink technique was used for creating the necessary effects in decorating the first pages of the books2.

In its turn, the tradition of Antique manuscripts developed, and now it is also possible to determine such types of illuminated manuscripts as Carolingian manuscripts, Gothic manuscripts, and Renaissance manuscripts in which the different techniques to decorating the text were used with focusing not only on using gold and silver but also on using bright colors, flower ornaments, and figurative imagery.

The main idea of using illuminating elements was in creating the additional decorative effects to attract the readers’ attention and accentuate the significance of the text. The tradition of emphasizing the first pages in the books and focusing on initial letters was used till the 16th century, and it had the great effect on the development of the art of decorating written texts.

The characteristic features of illuminated manuscripts and the artists

Illustrators of the first written texts presented on parchments who followed the discussed movement participated in the final stage of creating the book, and they were known as ‘illuminators’. Thus, they added the necessary ornaments, decorated the initial letters, and combined the text with miniatures which could be placed at the borders of the page. Many illustrators used different approaches to decorating the text according to the traditions they followed.

The Antique tradition focused on using the red color and large initials illuminated with the gold powder or gold leafs. While the tradition to use the illuminative effects and the other decorations in manuscripts was developing, the initials became bigger, and illustrators used such techniques as ‘diminuendo’ with presenting the descending scale of letters to make their decorations more vivid and significant3.

It was possible to use bright and decorated monograms with the sacred meaning in order to accentuate the character of the book. However, the main principle of decorating was the aesthetic effect and harmony of the page. All the elements such as ornaments, illumination, imagery, and calligraphy were significant. The first illuminators were the representatives of the monastic scriptorium, and their names are not known today.

Nevertheless, the main idea of their work was to present the perfect decoration for the sacred text in order to emphasize its significance. People have the opportunity to learn the names of the illuminators of the 15th century who were the Limbourg brothers.

They worked for the duke of Berry, and the main idea of their work was in presenting luxurious illustrations with the pictorial details to amaze the duke and the other authorities4. Thus, the artists were only the part of the movement. Realism and pictorial elements were presented in the illuminated works of the later period, and they differed from the Antique texts.

It is necessary to accentuate the significance of illuminated manuscripts not only for the art and design as the whole movement with its peculiarities and canons which developed during several centuries but also for the history because illuminated manuscripts were predominantly sacred texts or important historical documents.


Jones, Susan. “”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

Meggs, Philip B. and Alston W. Purvis. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.


  1. Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (USA: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
  2. Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design.
  3. Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis, Meggs’ History of Graphic Design.
  4. Susan Jones, “”, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Illuminated Manuscripts - History of Graphic Art'. 21 April.

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