Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts

Discover the art of bookmaking.

Idea One: What is an illuminated manuscript?

Leaf from a Book of Hours (recto and verso), late 15th century
Possibly The School of the Master of Mary of Burgundyexpand_more
Ink, gouache, and gold leaf on vellum


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.

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

Crucifixion with a Crowd of Supplicants, c. 1425-1464
Attributed to Bertolino de’ Grossi
Brown and red ink, gouache, and gilding, and leadpoint ruling on vellum

The miniature depicting Christ’s Crucifixion is also a decorated letter C.

This close-up of the border allows us to see where gold leaf was applied.

Idea Two: Who made illuminated manuscripts?

A closer look at the signature.
In early medieval times, monks were the sole makers of illuminated manuscripts. Before universities existed, monasteries were the central places for learning. Monks copied books mainly for use in worship. However, rulers and high-ranking churchmen commissioned books from monastaries, including historical records and Greek and Roman literature.

To make a new manuscript, a monk had to obtain a book to copy. He might travel quite a distance to borrow one from another monastery, and even stay there to do his copying. Scribes worked in a writing room called a scriptorium. Sometimes the same person was both scribe and illustrator, but not necessarily. One monk might do the writing and another the illuminating.

After the twelfth century, monks were no longer the only scribes. The rise of universities and the middle class created a demand for books, and book production became a way to make money. Making illuminated manuscripts became a business conducted in cities. A person who wanted a book would order it through a bookseller, who hired scribes and illuminators to do the work.

The artist for this manuscript, Bonaventura a Montepulciano, signed and dated this work at the lower frame of the miniature

This painting shows a cardinal writing in his study.

Idea Three: How was an illuminated manuscript made?

A close look at this manuscript reveals the ruled lines that were a guide for the scribe.
Manuscripts were written on either vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep or goat skin). The skins were cleaned, stretched, scraped, and whitened with chalk to provide bright, strong, and smooth pages for writing.

Before starting to copy a text, the scribe marked the margins of the page and ruled lines to write on. Then he began, writing in ink with a quill pen made from a goose or swan feather. The lines of text were fairly short, usually no more than four to nine words each. Most scribes knew several writing styles, and a person commissioning a book could select the lettering style.

When the scribe finished the writing, the illuminator went to work painting the illustrations and decorations. First, gold or silver was put on, a process called gilding. The illuminator applied small, delicate sheets of gold or silver leaf with a wet glue and then polished with a smooth stone or even a hound’s tooth. Next the pictures, border decorations, and ornamented letters were painted, in colors made from natural pigments.

Finally, all of the pages were folded, sewn together, and bound between covers of wood or leather. Often metal clasps or leather ties would hold the book shut.

This antiphonary page is made of vellum.

Here we see a scribe preparing a quill for writing. The feathers have been removed and the tip is being cut into a point.

This picture shows how a book was sewn together.

Idea Four: What kinds of books were illuminated?

A close look at this manuscript reveals the ruled lines that were a guide for the scribe.
During the Middle Ages, Christianity played a dominant role in European life. For monks, whose daily schedule was divided between working and praying, the reading and making of manuscripts were acts of devotion. Most of the books they copied were religious: the Bible, the Gospel books, books used in church services, and prayer books meant for private worship. These texts were in Latin, the official language of the Church.

However, not all illuminated manuscripts were religious. As universities grew, students needed books on a variety of subjects. In addition to the Bible, they studied literature, history, arithmetic, astronomy, and botany. And not all books were in Latin. As more people learned to read, the demand for books–and for books in common spoken languages–increased. By the fourteenth century, cookbooks, stories and legends, travel books, and histories were all popular illuminated texts, produced by professional scribes and illuminators.

This illuminated page is from an antiphonary, a choral book. Its large size allowed several choir members to use it at once.

This illumination is from a missal-a service book used during Mass.

A text portion of a missal. Not every page was lavishly decorated.

Idea Five: What is a Book of Hours?


A Book of Hours is a small, brilliantly decorated prayer book for private devotions. Unlike other religious books, which were meant strictly for clergymen, a Book of Hours was for anyone who could read. These books became immensely popular because of their beautiful illuminations. They were also status symbols, signifying the owner’s wealth. Families who had never before owned a book went out and bought a Book of Hours. For over 250 years these books were best-sellers.

A Book of Hours consisted of prayers, psalms, a list of saints days, and short readings for certain hours of the day. Many were very small, sometimes only a few inches tall, making them easy to carry around and use throughout the day.

Even the simplest Book of Hours has wonderful decorations. The beautiful illuminations serve as bookmarks of a kind, helping the reader find the beginning of each new section. Aristocrats who ordered their Book of Hours directly from the artist often said how they wanted them decorated. Sometimes, the owner’s face even appeared in a picture.

This miniature was cut from a Book of Hours. The Virgin Mary is offering a pink carnation, a symbol of love, to the Christ Child.

In this painting, also in the museum’s collection, the Virgin Mary holds a Book of Hours.

This close-up gives a better look at the text.

Related Activities

Illuminated Letters

The first letter of the beginning chapter of an illuminated page was usually large and decorated. Use the first letter of your names to make a decorated letter. Color it different colors, add glitter, or use other materials to make it “illuminated.” You could also include a picture within the letter, like the example in Key Idea 1.

Anatomy of an Illuminated Manuscript

What are the different parts of an illuminated manuscript? Enlarge and print off one of the examples of an illuminated manuscript from this feature. Where do you see gold gilding? Decorated chapter letters? A detailed border? Ruled lines? A miniature? Anything else? Paste the picture on a larger sheet of paper and label the different parts.

Illuminated Stories

Many times the scribe and the illuminator were two different people. Write a short story or a poem that you would like illuminated. Rule out lines on a piece of paper and then carefully write out the text. Then, pass on the page to a classmate to illuminate it with pictures, decorated letters, and detailed borders.

A Contemporary Illumination

Visit the St. John’s Bible website to explore a contemporary illumination produced in the traditional method.