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Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts



What is an illuminated manuscript?
This illuminated manuscript is decorated with an elaborate border and a miniature painting.
zoom This illuminated manuscript is decorated with an elaborate border and a miniature painting.

 

The word "manuscript" from the Latin words manus (hand) and scriptus (writing) literally means "written by hand." Before the invention of printing, copies of books had to be handwritten. A scribe would obtain a book to copy and painstakingly write out every word, in ink with a quill pen.

The word "illuminated," from the Latin illuminare, means "lighted up." For a book to truly be illuminated, it had to be decorated with gold. Gold was usually applied to the pages in extremely thin sheets called gold leaf.

Medieval manuscript decoration included small painted scenes (called miniatures), intricate borders, ornate chapter letters, and even elaborate full-page paintings. Such decorations illustrated the text and helped guide people through it. The pictures were especially important because during medieval times, many people, even those who owned manuscripts, could not read.

The making of illuminated manuscripts continued strong until the 1450s, when a German man named Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and the printing press, making mass production of books possible.


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1. The miniature depicting Christ's Crucifixion is also a decorated letter C.
2. This close-up of the border allows us to see where gold leaf was applied.

 

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April 2005