An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders (marginalia), and miniature illustrations. The earliest surviving substantive illuminated manuscripts are from the period AD 400 to 600, initially produced in Italy and the Eastern Roman Empire.
Had it not been for the monastic scribes of Late Antiquity, most literature of Greece and Rome would have perished in Europe; as it was, the patterns of textual survivals were shaped by the usefulness of the manuscripts to the severely constricted literate group of Christians.
The majority of surviving manuscripts are from the Middle Ages, although many illuminated manuscripts survive from the Renaissance, along with a very limited number from Late Antiquity. The majority of these manuscripts are of a religious nature. However, especially from the 13th century onward, an increasing number of secular texts were illuminated. Most medieval manuscripts, illuminated or not, were written on parchment, most commonly of calf, sheep, or goat skin. Most illuminated manuscripts were important enough to be written on the best quality of parchment, called vellum.
Art historians classify illuminated manuscripts into their historic periods and types, including, but not limited to, Late Antique, Insular, Carolingian manuscripts, Ottonian manuscripts, Romanesque manuscripts, Gothic manuscripts, and Renaissance manuscripts.
The types of books that were most often heavily and richly illuminated, sometimes known as a "display book," varied between periods. In the first millennium, Gospel Books were often illuminated. The Romanesque period saw the creation of many huge, illuminated, complete Bibles – one in Sweden requires three librarians to lift it. Many Psalters were also heavily illuminated in both the Romanesque and the Gothic periods. Single cards or posters of vellum, leather, or paper were in wider circulation. They documented short stories or legends about the lives of saints, chivalry knights or other mythological figures, even criminal, social or miraculous occurrences, and popular events more commonly used by storytellers and itinerant actors to support their plays. Finally, the Book of Hours, commonly the personal devotional book of a wealthy layperson, was often richly illuminated in the Gothic period (Figure 1). Other books, both liturgical and not, continued to be illuminated at all periods. The Byzantine world also continued to produce manuscripts in its own style, versions of which spread to other Orthodox and Eastern Christian areas.
Illuminations in the Muslim World
The Muslim world and, in particular, the Iberian Peninsula, with their traditions of literacy uninterrupted by the Middle Ages, were instrumental in delivering ancient classic works to the growing intellectual circles and universities of Western Europe in the 1100s. Books were produced in this region in large numbers and, for the first time in Europe, on paper. Among these books, illuminations were often found in full treatises on the sciences, especially astrology and medicine, where illuminations were used to provide profuse and accurate representations with the text.
Illuminations in the Gothic Period
The Gothic period, which generally saw an increase in the production of these beautiful artifacts, also saw illuminations in more secular works such as chronicles and works of literature. Wealthy people began to build up personal libraries. Philip the Bold arguably had the largest personal library of his time in the mid-15th century; his library is estimated to have housed about 600 illuminated manuscripts, while a number of his friends and relations only had several dozen.
The Commercialization of Illuminations
Prior to the 12th century, most manuscripts were produced in monasteries, either for use in their own libraries or in fulfillment of a commission from a wealthy patron. Larger monasteries often contained separate areas, known as scriptoriums, for the monks who specialized in the production of manuscripts.
By the 14th century, the cloisters of monks writing in the scriptorium had almost fully given way to commercial urban scriptoria, especially in Paris, Rome and the Netherlands. While the process of creating an illuminated manuscript did not change, the move from monasteries to commercial settings was a radical step. Demand for manuscripts grew to an extent that the Monastic libraries were unable to meet, leading to the employment of secular scribes and illuminators.
Beginning in the late Middle Ages, manuscripts began to be produced on paper. The introduction of printing rapidly led to the decline of illumination. Illuminated manuscripts continued to be produced in the early 16th century, but in much smaller quantities, mostly for the very wealthy.
Apocalypse manuscripts were a particular type of illuminated manuscript, the most famous of which were produced in England. These manuscripts generally covered the text of or commentary on the Book of Revelations, which describes the end of the world. These manuscripts were written in Latin, French and Anglo-Norman.