Illuminated Manuscripts: Remnants of Christian Faith, Art, and Society
The European Medieval Age has its vast share of religious and artistic feats. We can find some of these in illuminated manuscripts: quiet and tucked away between pages—but still as ornate and ostentatious as cathedral frescoes. Meticulously written and painted by hand, these books are gilded with gold, silver, or other precious metals, and are often made for high-ranking people in society.
The production of these books required a great deal of dedication and skill. They were reserved for society’s elite few, such as religious officials, royals, and nobles. They contained prayers and liturgical ceremonies, Christian scriptures and stories, and sometimes even depictions of nobles’ lives.
And yet, lodged in the margins of these pensive-sounding pages, we discover vestiges of someone’s life now and then—the scribe, in flashes of offhand comments, complains about the toil of writing. “Now I’ve written the whole thing,” one had written. “For Christ’s sake, give me a drink!”
Illuminated manuscripts are so full of spirit—of God, of traditions, of their owners, and of their poor, fatigued authors—that they contain far beyond art for art’s sake. Instead, they offer something quite magical: a colorful, resonant glimpse of faith and Christian life during the Dark Ages, which—as it appears—weren’t characterized by such dreariness after all.
Books of Enlightenment
There’s a lot to be learned from every unique illuminated manuscript, from its function and purpose to its art and text—both during its time and as an artifact of history. Illuminate comes from the Latin word ‘lumen,’ meaning “light.” Manuscript comes from the words ‘manu’ meaning “hand,” and ‘scribere’ meaning “to write.”
So why were they called as such? On one hand, “illuminated” is meant to be taken in a literal sense—the books are lined with gleaming precious metals. They “lit” up already intricate illustrations and words, giving the book an even more ethereal quality.
But we can also view it in a more metaphorical sense: to illuminate also means to educate. These books indeed shine a light on medieval faith and life, and preserve and carry traditions that have been practiced for centuries.
The Making of Illuminated Manuscripts: A Meticulous Process
Illuminated manuscripts were closely tied to codexes, which were found as early as the 300 C.E. But the centuries that followed brought about a rise to Christianity, which resulted in monastic communities being built all around medieval Europe.
These monasteries often had little libraries, as reading was a vital skill and activity for monks. They kept collections of illuminated manuscripts, which tackled Christian stories, scriptures, and prayers.
But the monks not only read these books—they made them, too. Some monasteries also had ‘scriptoriums,’ small rooms in which manuscripts were slowly and painstakingly manufactured. To assemble them, the scribes cut up pieces of vellum, parchments made out of calfskin. For the text and paintings, they used inks of all kinds and colors.
They would spend waking hours writing and writing—no matter the weather, no matter their conditions. They made their weariness known, often in hilarious ways. “Oh, my hand,” a note in the margin reads. And another: “St. Patrick of Armagh, deliver me from writing.”
Some notable illuminated manuscripts in medieval history
Lindisfarne Gospels (ca. 700s)
Dating back to the Anglo-Saxons, this illuminated manuscript was produced in Lindisfarne, an island monastery in northeastern England. Also called “Holy Land,” this area has its rich share of Christian and English history. It was the place where St. Cuthbert, an influential bishop in the late 600s, established the pious life that would come to be associated with his sainthood.
Just decades following his passing, the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and produced in his honor. The book is generally associated with the efforts of Saint Eadfrith, a follower of Cuthbert and the bishop of the monastery after Cuthbert’s death.
As the known oldest surviving English translation of the Gospels, this manuscript contained incredible artistic efforts. It featured zoomorphism and other religious iconographies: birds and snakes adorn the edges of each page, and winged calves make an appearance in biblical scenes.
The manuscript has survived many historical events (such as the infamous Viking raids in 793), seemingly against all odds. In the 900s, it reached the possession of the priest Aldred, who credited Eadfrith for the book’s production by dedicating an inscription on the last page. Aldred also wrote that the book was “bedecked with gold and with gems and also with gilded silver-pure wealth.”
The Book of Kells (ca. 800s)
Another Gospel book (this time in Latin), The Book of Kells is considered a “cultural treasure” and has been described as “the work of an angel.” Its construction and designs were grand, complex, and ostentatious. This illuminated manuscript is considered a quintessential work of Insular or Hiberno-Saxon art—a distinctive style of abstract, ornamental patterns with underlying symbolism.
While there are some contentions on the book’s origins, it is generally believed that it was produced in Iona, or at least its neighboring countries like Ireland, Scotland, and England. Like the Lindisfarne Gospels, The Book of Kells had miraculously survived the Viking raids—and was brought to different hands and guardianships since.
People were fascinated by the paintings and the range of pigments they featured, from yellow ochre to deep indigo. Some of these hues were sourced from rare materials imported from other parts of the world.
In the 12th century, archdeacon and historian Gerard of Wales expressed his admiration for this illuminated manuscript: “You will make out intricacies, so delicate and so subtle, so full of knots and links, with colors so fresh and vivid, that you might say that all this were the work of an angel, and not of a man.”
The original Book of Kells is housed in Trinity College Dublin, but it was recently digitized and published online for free. While it may not make up for the firsthand experience of seeing the material, it’s still certainly a spectacle worth viewing.
The Morgan Crusader Bible (ca. 1200s)
Containing around 300 paintings by six artists, the Morgan Crusader Bible is not only known for being a remnant of Christian illumination—it is also a vivid reflection of 13th century France and its political conditions. King Louis IX of France—monarch, leader of the Seventh Crusade, and a venerated Christian saint—reportedly commissioned it to Parisian manuscript illuminators before his expedition to Egypt.
It did not feature all the books of the Bible but it told stories about the kings, judges, and Promised Land from the Old Testament. Of course, with the context of the Crusades in mind, the manuscript highlighted depictions of war and violence. It was initially an exclusively visual manuscript, only filled with pictures and artworks. Over time, it began to be owned and passed around other royals, who added text and inscriptions accordingly.
The manuscript itself is considered a French “Gothic jewel,” not just for its content but also for its construction. Adorned with expensive burnished gold, the Morgan Crusader Bible is reflective of the royal hands that have owned and modified it throughout the course of history.
Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (ca. 1400s)
Often called “the most important illuminated manuscript in the 15th century,” Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (The Very Rich Hours of the Duke of Berry) is the result of the painstaking work of many skilled artists throughout different centuries. The credit, however, goes mostly to the Limbourg brothers, who created it for Jean de France, the Duke of Berry. The duke was a notable patron of arts and literature during his time.
The Très Riches Heures is a “book of hours,” a custom-made prayer book that lists and observes liturgical ceremonies for nobles who were not members of the clergy. During the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance, these books were made in abundance. They are the most common surviving forms of illuminated manuscripts today.
The 206-paged manuscript contains over a hundred miniature paintings, depicting not only prayers and biblical scenes but also the household’s daily life. Some of the images featured peasants toiling in the field and aristocrats in revelry, including the Duke of Berry himself.
Prayer Book of Claude de France (ca. 1500s)
Described as “tiny and jewel-like,” the Prayer Book of Claude de France is a marvel in many ways. This manuscript was custom-made for Claude of France herself, queen consort of Louis XII. And perhaps most fascinating of all: the book is only 4.9 x 6.9 cm—smaller than the palm of a hand.
Rather than a show of large sizes, smaller books had been in fashion at the time because it was more comparable to a jewel. The book consisted of 132 paintings within only 104 pages, meaning that each miniature drawing required an incredible amount of detail and thoroughness.
Roger Wieck, the curator at The Morgan Library and Museum, called it “the pinnacle of subtlety.” The work is credited to the Master of Claude de France, one of the greatest illuminators during the art’s heyday. He used pale and soft colors, which Wieck said helped create “atmospheric depth in the landscapes and cityscapes of the background.”
The jewel-like book is now under the care of The Morgan Library and Museum, where the Morgan Crusader Bible is also housed. But you can check out each miniature page here.
Glimpses of Religion, Art, and Life in Luminous Pages
The illuminated manuscript is admired not only as an illustrious art form, but also as a primary part of European medieval life. Each book was customized for a particular person in the past, and for a particular purpose. It belonged in households, was used in daily liturgical ceremonies, was given as gifts from nobles to other nobles.
And the art involved in these luminous books is such an ambitious feat in itself. Not only did it require technical skill; it also required an incredible amount of effort and perseverance. In one of the commentaries on the margins of a manuscript, an unnamed scribe had written: “This is sad! O little book! A day will come in truth when someone over your page will say, ‘The hand that wrote it is no more.’”
Perhaps it is true that the hand is no more. Even his name has been lost to the remnants of history. But the book retains something far more valuable: his words, his art, and—through them—his spirit.