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The Art of Illumination

by Julie Richer, Cyberkids founder


During the Middle Ages (the period of European history beginning with the downfall of Rome in 476 A.D. and lasting until about 1450), books were copied and illustrated by hand. These handmade books were often called manuscripts. Illumination was the art of illustrating the books with designs and pictures, using gold and colored inks. Some of these illuminated manuscripts can still be seen today, providing stunning examples of the artistry of the era.

How Books Were Made

Creating a book required a great deal of time and skill. Europeans did not use paper until the late 1300s. Instead, they used animal skins to create vellum (made from a calf's skin) and parchment (made from a sheep's skin). Fortunately, vellum and parchment are able to last a long time, so that works written on them still exist. There are very few examples of illuminated documents created before this era, because earlier books were written on papyrus, which fell apart more easily.

First the vellum or parchment had to be soaked in water with a powder called lime, then scraped and stretched. Once the vellum or parchment had dried, it was folded into halves, quarters or eighths, depending on the size of the book. Then the pages were trimmed and stitched together. The people who copied the text of the books were called scribes. Scribes made the dark ink used to write the text from powdered carbon, which they usually kept in a cow-horn. Pigments from various animal, mineral and vegetable sources were mixed with liquid to make colored inks for the pictures.

If making an exact copy of another text, the scribe would mark guidelines on the top sheet, then use a sharp tool to poke a hole through several sheets at once. When he started a new page, he used the position of the holes to know where to create the guidelines. Before the scribe began copying the text, the illuminator (the artist who painted the pictures and decorations) would mark off the space needed for decorations such as initial caps (the large capital letter at the beginning of a section), miniature paintings, decorative borders, and so on. The scribe would then begin work, pen in one hand to write the words, and knife in the other to sharpen the pen and scrape out mistakes.

The illuminator used methods that are still followed today. First he outlined the drawing. Then he applied a sticky fluid to areas that were to be covered with gold leaf (paper-thin sheets of gold metal). Next he applied the gold, a process called gilding, and burnished the gold by gently pressing it to make sure it would stick to the page then polishing it. During the gilding process, the gold was cut to match the shape drawn in the outline and excess gold was brushed away. Sometimes several layers of gold would be applied for a raised effect that would glitter in the light. After gilding, the illuminator would paint the illustration with colored inks and outline or re-outline his original drawing. Often, parts of the design were then highlighted with white pigment.


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