In the Middle Ages all books were hand-written original works
of art. These “illuminated” manuscripts were so called
because of their frequent incorporation of gold or sometimes silver
leaf onto the page. Illumination comes from the Latin word illuminare,
meaning “light up,” and when one sees one of these
brilliant manuscripts in person, the term makes sense.
surviving illuminated manuscripts date from the 5th century, though
it was not until about 1100 that the production of manuscripts
began to flourish in earnest. This “golden age” of
manuscript illumination lasted until the arrival of Gutenberg’s
printing press in 1450-55, signaling the beginning of the end
of hand-made illuminated manuscripts.
the early Middle Ages most books were used by priests and monks
for liturgical purposes. New books appeared most often when a
new monastery was founded. Books began to be produced for individuals
as well as religious institutions as early as the 12th century.
The movement of books into the secular world encouraged the increase
of lay workshops run by professional scribes.
were humble craftsmen who set up shop. Some were independent,
itinerant artists who traveled from place to place looking for
commissions. The best held the rank of court artists at the exclusive
service of a wealthy patron.
usually belonged either to the painter’s guild or another
guild involved in the book trade. Most illuminators remained anonymous
until the late Middle Ages. With the gradual rise in status from
artisan to artist, more illuminators in the late Middle Ages began
to sign their work, and often also included a small pictorial
representation of themselves somewhere in the work.
process of book illumination was very time-consuming and costly,
thus the illuminated manuscript was a luxury item for wealthy
customers. With the advent of book printing, the sumptuous illuminated
codices went out of fashion. Although the early printed books
were often made to resemble illuminated manuscripts, by way of
hand coloring, the art of book illumination gradually disappeared
in the course of the sixteenth century.