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A Chronicle of Book Arts

Glorious but labor-intensive illuminated manuscripts provide information invaluable to historians of art, society, culture, and religion
Stephen N. Fliegel, Curator of Medieval Art
July 26, 2016
Initial D[eus in loco] with a Prophet Excised from a Gradual, 1409–10. Lorenzo Monaco (Italian, c. 1370–1425). 1949.536

Illuminated manuscripts form one of the chief categories of the material culture of the Middle Ages. They were produced over a period of a thousand years, from the 5th century through the 15th, and many people today consider handwritten, richly embellished illuminated manuscripts, or books, to be the quintessential form of medieval artistic expression. Their appeal is both intimate and timeless. The exhibition The Glory of the Painted Page presents a rich selection of manuscripts and leaves (pages) drawn from the museum’s important holdings of this material, with objects carefully chosen to illustrate the collection’s breadth and artistic range.

The history of manuscript illumination corresponds almost exactly with the epoch known as the Middle Ages. Yet some of the finest manuscripts were created during the Renaissance, and production in some places continued well into the 16th century. The texts of illuminated manuscripts were written on vellum, a very durable support made from animal skin. The initial letters of opening words were enlivened with colorful inks, pigments, and gold, and the addition of miniatures and decorations in the margins provided a look of great luxury. Texts were copied by hand, a time-consuming and expensive process, and decorating a book involved even more time and resources. Toward the end of the 15th century, these glorious but labor-intensive books succumbed to the perfection and cost-effectiveness of printing technology, making books affordable and accessible to a larger number of people.

Numerous manuscripts have survived in museums and libraries around the world—their vellum pages and gold and silver illuminations as brilliant and fascinating to us as they were to medieval men and women. Many manuscripts are visual masterpieces as well as works of great historical importance, for they impart invaluable information about the art, society, culture, and religion of the era. Most, however, were intended for the private edification and use of one person at one moment in time.

Title Page of St. Gregory’s Moralia
Title Page of St. Gregory’s Moralia, about 1143–78. Switzerland, Monastery of Engelberg (probably by Abbot Frowin). Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 27 x 18 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1955.74. This leaf was the title page of a four-volume “Moralia” (commentary on the Book of Job) by Pope Gregory the Great. 

Medieval books cover a broad range of subjects. First and foremost, they are liturgical and devotional, providing for the needs of spiritual practice and, more important, affording the means to transmit spiritual ideas. Other subject matter is as diverse as canon and civil law, the writings of the Church Fathers, the lives of the saints, and the classical texts of Aristotle, Plato, Livy, and other Greek and Roman authors. There are medieval books on the natural sciences known as bestiaries and herbals, and there are works on history, both ancient and contemporary, among many other topics. Illuminated manuscripts were made in every country of Europe, and they preserve the major portion of medieval painting and all the arts of calligraphy, bookbinding, and publishing of the era. They were often elaborately painted in a multitude of styles and formats, and used in ecclesiastic, monastic, devotional, courtly, legal, and academic contexts.

Concerned not only with copying texts accurately, scribes also wanted readers to be able to locate particular texts within a book’s pages easily. Since medieval books were not paginated, pictures or decorated letters enabled readers to navigate a text—the original function of decoration. Copying sacred texts and making books has always been essential to the practice of the Christian faith. Without books no services could be conducted, no laws codified and promulgated, and no doctrine espoused. From the earliest days of the Church, the copying of books went on everywhere, all of the time, in scriptoria scattered throughout Christendom.

Until the development of universities, the intellectual life of Europe and the transmission of learning were based in monasteries, which were also important production centers for much-needed books. In the larger monasteries, up to a dozen copyists could be at work. The fundamental text required by every medieval monastery was the Latin Bible. Monastic bibles of the 11th and 12th centuries were usually large, cumbersome books (commonly in two or three volumes) designed more to be recited from a lectern than used for private study. With the rise of cathedral schools and, eventually, universities in the early 13th century, the monastic monopoly of learning came to an end.

Books of hours are the most abundant category of medieval manuscripts, but they were made exclusively for the laity, not for priests or monks. Used for private or family devotions, these books contain core texts to be recited at each of the eight canonical hours of the liturgical day: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. The workmanship involved in the production of books of hours was so fine that they were valued as precious works of art and family heirlooms. Books used for private devotion increased in popularity during the 15th century, largely as a result of greater literacy in Europe and the rise of a wealthy mercantile class able to afford such books. Deluxe books of hours illuminated by the finest artists with the best available materials were, of course, exclusive to royalty and the higher aristocracy.

Leaf from an Antiphonary
Leaf from an Antiphonary, about 1439–47. Olivetan Master (Italian). Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 59.3 x 46.2 cm. The Jeanne Miles Blackburn Collection 1999.131. The massive initial “P” depicts Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest biblical judges. This leaf appears to belong to a set of choral books presented to the Olivetan monastery in Milan by one of the Visconti.

Various choral books were used throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The two main types were the Gradual (the musical parts of the Mass) and the Antiphonary (the music for the Daily Office). Graduals and Antiphonaries contained some of the largest and most spectacular of all illuminations, especially in books made in Italy. Choral books were generally large and used on a lectern so choir members could see them. Every church, chapel, and religious community needed choral books, for without them the elaborate services could not properly take place. Because of this large demand, copying and “noting” (supplying the music notation) of manuscripts went on continuously throughout Europe, even beyond the invention of printing. An arduous task requiring great care and precision, noting service books is an expense often found in medieval accounts. Wealthy ecclesiastical foundations could afford to embellish their choral books with sumptuous illuminations of tempera and gold leaf, often attracting the most talented illuminators for this purpose.

For the final three hundred years of the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts were made mostly by lay professionals whose workshops were centered in the cities, or by others in the private employ of illustrious patrons such as Jean de Berry, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, Anne de Bretagne, or Pope Leo X. The Glory of the Painted Page presents a selection of liturgical, academic, and biblical leaves from this important chapter in the history of medieval art. 

Title Page of Abbot Berno’s “Tonarius”: Initial d[OMINO]
Title Page of Abbot Berno’s “Tonarius”: Initial d[OMINO], about 1030. Germany, Abbey of Reichenau. Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum; 21.5 x 15.3 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 1952.88. This leaf was the dedication page of a “Tonarius” (music manual) written by Reichenau’s Abbot Berno (1008–1048). 

Cleveland Art, September/October 2010