Sunday, March 14, 2010

Illuminated Manuscripts

Paula Curran's Lecture
Creating Illuminated Manuscripts During the Middle Ages
Tuesday March 2, 2010
2:00 – 3:00 p.m.
Medbury Lounge
Drake University; Des Moines, Iowa, USA

Image Source:
Lindisfarme Gospels
British Library Online Gallery

Lecture Notes:

Paula began her presentation by saying that she takes a graphic design perspective rather than a historical approach in her study of Medieval Manuscripts. She outlined the history of the development of the materials used in manuscript writing, as well as the printing and illumination of texts using those materials.

Papyrus was made using reeds that were open and laid horizontally and vertically to make paper. One problem posed by the use of papyrus was the material was less durable. Parchment was made from the hide of calves and used for writing. There are several steps in the process of preparation of the parchment for writing. First, the hide needs to be washed and scraped to get rid of hair, then the hide is stretched and left to dry in a frame. Parchment is very durable. Parchment was cut in rectangles and then scored with a nail or sharp object to be lined. Quills were made of goose feathers from the left wing; feathers were specially treated for writing. Gold leaf was used in illumination. Silver was also used but it tarnished.

Before the 11th century, only members of religious orders did manuscript writing. During the 11th century, there were changes in the church writing policies, and secular scribes were allowed to write manuscripts. During the 13th century, paper was invented in China. Paper was not used at that time for manuscript writing in Europe. It took 1000 years for the invention of paper to make it to Europe.

In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing process with replaceable/moveable wooden or metal letters. At that time the printing press and manuscript writing worked side by side. The Gutenberg Bible was printed on paper made out of rugs. Initially, the printing press was seen as the "work of the devil." Paula mentioned the book "How the Irish saved civilization: the untold story of Ireland's heroic role from the fall of Rome to the rise of medieval Europe," by Thomas Cahill, as a good source of information about manuscript writing during the Middle Ages. Paula also showed pictures of pages from the “Book of Kells” to illustrate the high level of artistic content and execution in that manuscript.

During the 5th century Irish Celts were missionaries who also copied manuscripts. In the 9th century, manuscript copies of the "Book of John" were believed to bring protection, cure disease, and they were carried to battle.

In terms of type style, “uncials” were used and in Latin they mean letters of "one inch high" for majuscules (capitals). Then, ascenders and descenders were developed. For the binding of books, the most elaborate designs were called "Treasure Binding" and they include precious and semiprecious stones incrusted on the book covers for decoration.

Paula finished her presentation by mentioning the contemporary use of illumination techniques such as the ones seen in the production of the Saint John's Bible commissioned in 1998 by the Saint John's Abbey and University in Minnesota. A video about the illumination of the St. John's Bible is available from PBS, and pages of the St John's Bible can be seen in an exhibit next year in Des Moines, IA at Westminster Presbyterian Church April 1 - April 30, 2011

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