Today’s post is sort of part 2 of yesterday’s post on historiated initials, because the initials are just a part of the art of manuscript illumination. This amazing and awe-inspiring art is one of my particular passions.
They were produced largely in the Middle Ages as aids to worship for the wealthy, royalty, and nobility. A variety of types of manuscripts were produced, among them Bibles, psalters or books of psalms, hymnals, and particularly Books of Hours, which were used for personal worship.
The images in the books are known as miniatures. The colors were made from materials as varied as minerals, plants, and insects (not very pleasant to think about). They were often commissioned by wealthy donors, and portraits of these donors were often included among the miniatures in the book; for example, the donor might be shown kneeling at the cross of Christ.
These mostly unknown artists of the Middle Ages mastered the precise rendering of details, incorporated both reverence and humor (usually in the marginalia, small images of animals, peasant scenes, and grotesques), and stunning use of color. Looking at them now, we can understand why these books were so important to worship during medieval times; contemplating these beautiful images can put you into a meditative state and bring your mind to the majesty of God.
Original illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages still exist and are in collections ranging from libraries to museums to private. Fortunately for those of us who love them, reproductions are available in book form and as prints. I have a few reproduced Books of Hours, as well as catalogues from museum exhibitions. If you want to splurge, single pages from original manuscripts are available for purchase from dealers; I was lucky to obtain one at a reasonable price at an antiquarian book show. There is also a good selection of books on manuscripts in general; here are a few.