Photo by Mark Rasmuson on Unsplash

This post will be covering three topics regarding the fascinating tradition and art form of the illuminated manuscript. First, what is an illuminated manuscript? Second, if and how are they being made today, and lastly, suggestions on making your own.

Illuminating manuscripts is a practice that has been around for centuries, with some of the oldest coming from the early medieval period. Most remaining copies, however, are from the medieval or early modern periods. These manuscripts were usually religious, though other forms exist. They consist of texts in book form, illustrated with various stylized pictures, including saints, biblical scenes, and natural motifs, and gilded with precious metals, most often gold- hence “illuminated”.

They range from relatively simple works with little imagery to masterpieces such as the Grandes Heures of Anne of Britanny or the Tres Riches Heures, made for the Duke of Berry- both of which deserve a look. They come in the form of books of hours, psalters, alchemical texts and more, and sometimes curious paintings in the margins of the text. Books of hours, appearing at first in the 13th century and continued to be produced into the 16th, contained a number of devotional texts, often with illustrations, and were designed for laymen- non-clergy. Source: Books of Hours at the Ransom Center

In more recent years, illuminated manuscripts as an art form have dwindled in practice. Though some artists do practice single works, whole books are rare. One exception to this is the Saint John’s Bible, a major illuminated work completed in 2011 and directed by calligrapher Donald Jackson, displaying a thoroughly modernized style of illustration.

Quite a few tutorials have been written on how to make the traditional sort of manuscript. The general procedure is to take your preferred kind of paper, like vellum, trace out the images and block out where the text will go, and begin filling it in. This can be done in a variety of mediums, even watercolor, though this doesn’t produce the vivid images found in the originals. Gold foil or paint is also used for the illuminations, and a calligraphy pen and ink provide the lettering.

Now, here are some personal recommendations on how to make this art form a little easier and more modern. For example, if gold foil is too finicky, unwieldy, or daunting for the beginner, but a quality gold effect is still desired, try a gold powdered pigment, like PearlEx’s Brilliant Gold. It can provide a more realistic gilded and luminous effect than most metallic paints can create, especially when care is taken to apply smooth coats. Otherwise, you could try a set like the Finetec Gold Palette- while it’s a watercolor palette, it does seem to give a realistic gold effect and would also be easier to work with than gold foil for a beginner.

Second, if you haven’t already, consider gouache for the images. It’s water soluble and can be mixed with watercolor and some other mediums, but provides a much better opacity and vividness of color than watercolor and is excellent for the small details that the work demands.

As for modernizing the art form, consider stripping the idea down to its bare roots- imagery, gilding, and calligraphy- and take it into a new direction, removing any rules or preconceived notions. Try a different or more modern font, remove the borders demarcating image and text, or integrate the two together on the page. I wouldn’t be afraid to drop any religious or historical connotations- try using it to illustrate poetry, literature, or stories instead.

If you have any suggestions for making this art form work, or know of any artists doing something similar, please leave a comment down below!

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