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Lighting up the Winter Season: Illuminated Manuscripts

Manuscripts from the Middle Ages light up the display cases

Posted 11.18.14 by Kelly Swickard

Manuscript image

Illuminated manuscripts are decorated handwritten books. "Manuscript" comes from the Latin "written by hand," and illumination indicates the heavily painted and decorated initials, margins, and full pages of the manuscript, which make the pages look like they are suffused with light. Manuscripts are made of vellum pages; vellum being animal skins, usually calf or sheep. The pages are sewn on to wood boards that are often covered in leather or gold leaf and decorated with jewels, precious gems and stones. The earliest decorated scrolls and codices (a leaved book format) have been documented from places like Ancient China, Japan, India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

The term "illuminated manuscript" mainly refers to Western European codices from the medieval period (900 - 1500 A.D.). During this time, monasteries housed monks and nuns who specialized in creating manuscripts and worked in rooms called scriptorium (Latin: "room for writing.") Later scriptoria were also staffed with lay (nonreligious) scribes and clerks.

The early manuscripts had religious content exclusively, including the Torah or Pentateuch, the Gospels, the Psalms, and music, with imagery to reflect the theme. Manuscripts also included elaborately decorated pages known as "carpet" pages, in reference to rugs found in the Middle and Near East. The intricate decoration was often a prayer dedicated to the glory of God; Islamic art and decoration especially includes calligraphy illustrating prayers to Allah. Hebrew and Islamic texts in early incarnations would also have human figures, but later this stopped as both religions forbid human images. Later manuscripts had more secular content.

Early manuscripts were created in monasteries for their residents, as well for abbots and abbesses to show off their monastery's wealth. Later, wealthy patrons commissioned manuscripts as symbols of their fortune and religious devotion. Some of the smaller books were easily portable, and people wore them on chains off their belts or garments.

This exhibition centers on the diversity of manuscript illumination alongside the approaching winter season. Illuminated manuscripts served not only as religious texts, but also as calendars. On these calendars, times of the day were divided into the eight canonical hours of prayer (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) and labor or work. Illustrated labors showed what to do at a certain month and were often moralistic descriptions: prepare for winter, hunt, provide, and pray. Some manuscripts were for the Benedictine Religious Orders, and illustrated the divine office.

Many manuscripts helped communities celebrate a common history, demonstrated by illustrations of feast days and holidays. As like today, holidays were extremely important to the motion of everyday life and the changing seasons. Many early celebrations are based on these tasks. Religious holidays were also celebrated in manuscripts. In the Christian calendar, Christmas is based on the story of the nativity, or Christ's birth, and the adoration of the shepherds and magi. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (Chanukah), also called "The Festival of Lights," commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and lasts for 8 days. The pages displayed for this exhibit center around holidays including Christmas and illustrations of Jewish festivals, Persian banquets, and ornate carpet pages that truly illuminate.

For More Infomation on Illuminated Manuscripts

Please visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit: Art of Illumination.
Please visit the Walters Art Museum for their digitized collection of manuscripts.
Please visit the British Library for their digitized collection of manuscripts.

November 18 - December 5, 2014
Curated by Kelly Swickard

Circulation Policy for Books on Exhibit

Circulating books on display in the museum cases are available for check out at any time. Please see a staff member at the circulation desk to request a book from the cases. Titles, when available, may be checked out at any time from the MRC. For books on display from the Special Collections (Cage), please see a reference librarian.

Image Information

Thumbnail: Beginning of the Gospel of St. John from The Book of Kells: reproductions from the manuscript in Trinity College, Dublin by Françoise Henry (ND 3139 .K5 H4 Reference)
This Page: "Anatomical Man" from Très riches heures du duc de Berry by Pol de Limbourg (ND 3363 .B5 L6 Cage)