Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Historiated initials


If you’ve ever seen a copy of a medieval illuminated manuscript, you’ve probably noticed  that paragraphs and other sections of text begin with large, colorful letters. The most elaborate and beautiful of these contain paintings inside them that may comment on the text. These initials and illuminations in general (see tomorrow’s post) form an important genre of medieval art.




Initials that feature a portrait of an individual, like this P with St. Peter, are technically called inhabited initials, whereas those with pictures that tell a story, like the initial H with the Nativity scene at the beginning of this post, are known as historiated initials. Historiated seems to be applied more generally to all of them, though. Because of the elaborate style of the art in these letters, it’s sometimes hard to tell what letters they represent, though presumably the users of these manuscripts would have known, either from the picture or from the context.


Here are some more of these beautiful letters for you to enjoy.

A D with the Nativity
An S featuring a bishop
An O with the Crucifixion


  1. Oh I love these - as a child they were part of what made me Fall. In. Love. With. Books. :) And NOW I know the differences in the types. And yes, these are all just exquisitely lovely.....especially loves the gloves on the Bishop.

  2. Such amazing art, great post for H

  3. I used to notice the beautiful "O" in "Once Upon A Time..." in my fairy tales as a child. Would this be similiar? Thank you for today's lesson!~Denise Ferri

  4. Hi Elaine, I loved your A-Z last year and am back following this year. When I was a child my Grandmother had a copy of the book of Kells. I loved sitting on her knee, tracing the complex celtic knots and letters with my finger. Great post, thanks.

  5. The intricacy of these letters both intrigues me and defeats me.

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