the artside of the moon

Illuminated Manuscripts

The Book of Kells

Not so long ago, I was priveleged to have been able to see the original Book of Kells (800 AD), a Celtic Illumination. I have never seen such beautiful artwork before. It was awe inspiring and prompted me to include this page. The image on the left is from the Book of Kells but this picture does not do it justice. If you ever get a chance to see this book, or any other books of Illumination, please do, you will not be disappointed.
There are many manuscripts on show, although mostly Biblical manuscripts, the artwork is a pleasure to see just the same.

Illuminated Manuscripts, calligraphic codices, or hand-drawn scrolls and books, enhanced by artists with decorations and paintings. Manuscript illumination is the use of embellishment and illustration to enhance the pages of a medieval manuscript. Illuminations are also called miniatures, a term derived from the Latin term minium (red lead), the pigment once used to mark the opening words of the text, and does not refer to diminutive size.

Materials and Techniques

Paints for illumination were made from pigments of earth substances, such as red, brown, or yellow ochers; or were derived from natural deposits of metals (for orange, red, and brown) or from stones, such as lapis lazuli for blue. Azurite for blue and malachite for green came from metallic ores, but blue was also extracted from the woad and indigo plants, for indigo blue. White came from lime, lead, or the ashes of burned bird bones; yellow came from orpiment, a sulfide of arsenic, or from saffron. Pigments were ground to a powder and fixed to the parchment with glair, beaten egg whites allowed to stand until liquefied enough to flow easily from a brush. In Europe, gold leaf was made by hammering gold sheets down to the thickness of a cobweb. The appearance of lumped solid gold was achieved by layers of chalk or gesso, covered by bole, a pinkish earth substance, which further enhanced the gold. Gold leaf was then fixed to the parchment with glair, (animal gelatin), honey, or sugar as a binder. The illuminator burnished the gold with an animal tooth and often tooled geometric or floral designs on it. Treatises on the manufacture of paints were written in medieval Europe and the Middle East.

During the Middle Ages, when manuscript painting was considered a high art, illuminators decorated their codices in several ways. The book frequently opened with a carpet page so called because its abstract designs resemble an Oriental carpet or an imaginary portrait of the book's author or its patron. Within the text, initial letters were enlarged and adorned, sometimes containing figures and scenes, and at times shaped into zoomorphic (animal-like) forms. In other manuscripts, columns of writing were surrounded by botanical ornamentation, or the margins were filled with playful birds, animals, and imaginary beings. Some biblical, historical, and literary manuscripts contained full-page illustrations, either with the text or grouped together at the beginning.

Irish and English Manuscripts

The centers for manuscript illumination from the 7th through the 9th century were monasteries in Ireland and England. Gospel books and missals (books of prayers) were based on model manuscripts from Italy and Coptic Egypt. The ornate, two-dimensional carpet pages of these Anglo-Celtic manuscripts resemble Islamic Korans and Hebrew Bibles from late 9th- and 10th-century Tiberias. The style of ornament, however, particularly the interlacing zoomorphic forms, came from pre-Christian Celtic metalwork. The manuscripts contained architecturally decorated canon tables, lists of the Gospels' parallel passages, and portraits of the four Evangelists with their symbols. In the Book of Kells (mid-8th century), the masterpiece of the age, the Madonna and Child and the temptation of Christ also appear. No attempt was made to give the illusion of space or portraiture; people, animals, and objects were rendered as flat patterns.


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