ight reflecting from the gold leaf pages on handwritten books established the name of illuminated manuscripts. The production of manuscripts was a costly and time-consuming project as the substrate could take hours to prepare. Inks and colours were created from various materials, such soot, chalk, oak apples, minerals, animal and vegetable matter, etc. Gold and silver could be ground into powder or hammered into a fine sheet. Decorative patterns were created by manipulating the leather, important manuscripts were embossed with jewels, designs, and carvings.

The Classic Style

In Classical antiquity, Greeks and Romans designed and illustrated manuscripts that had various, small illustrations created with a simple technique, which is similar to our today’s comic book. Early Christian Manuscript pages were created by dyeing parchment in an expensive deep purple colour with the text in silver and gold. There was an evolution of letter styles due to the search and need for simpler and faster construction of letterforms, which would aid in writing. Unicals, a rounded, freely drawn majuscule was preferred for quick writing. 

Celtic Book Design 

Celtic design is quite abstract and complex as it consists of geometric patterns that intertwine to create visual texture and the use of bright colours adds an element of contrast. There were three ways ornament could have been used: ornamental borders, ornate initials for beginning pages of gospel passages, or carpet pages, which were full pages of decorative design. There was also the progressive innovation of creating space between letters to help define words quicker.


Meggs 4-4 Book of Durrow 

The Caroline Graphic Renewal

Caroline minuscule was created by combining writing script from the late antique period and Celtic innovation with the use of four guidelines, ascenders and descenders. This is the predecessor of our contemporary lowercase alphabet. Caroline minuscule is practical, easy to write, characters were set apart and this alphabet restored legibility. It became the standard in Europe at this time, however, regional characteristics were adopted, such as Roman capitals for headings and initials. 


Meggs 4-10 Caroline Minuscules from Alcuin Bible 

Spanish Pictorial Expressionism 

Islamic design influenced Spanish Christian manuscripts. Vibrant, flat shapes and motifs such as stars, rosettes, polygons, and garlands were used, which were heavily outlined. The use of totemic animals also came into play in this manuscript, as well as the fascination for intricate geometric designs and intense colour.

Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts

During the 12th century, monasticism had reached its peak, and feudalism and religion were more common than before. Romanesque and Gothic manuscripts were being produced as the common designs for manuscripts were beginning to evolve. The inclination in distorted figures combined with design became popular amongst the more elaborate manuscripts. The representation of blank space started to become less significant and was exchanged with décor textures from leaves and textural patterns. An example of this would be The Pauline Epistles. The winding of the initial letter evokes the complexity of the Celtic manuscript design and is an example of the French Gothic style as well. Sacramental books from this era were more commonly found with exquisite designs and intricate frames that are filled with decorative patterns within the marginalia. These were used as visual cues to the parables of the stories being told. The Gothic manuscripts can be identified by illustrations with extended figures, often clothed in robes or elegant fashion. Also, we start to see the increased emergence of naturalism found with these books. The lettering within these manuscripts was very condensed as to save room on the paper. 


Meggs 4-17. The Pauline Epistles

Judaic Manuscripts 

Many of the Jewish manuscripts are religious literature which includes historical stories and proverbs. Jewish religious literature such as the Mainz Haggadah is an example of this. This manuscript’s pages feature both calligraphy and typography layouts. Through spacing and symbols throughout this book, we can see the typographic arrangement indicates a pattern and flow. The technique used to create such intricate illustrations was to use a pen and coloured ink and carefully design the images. At present time, there are not many Judaic illuminated manuscripts found, but they are evidence of some of the most intricate illustrations and calligraphy. 

 Islamic Manuscripts 

Islamic manuscript decoration became progressively intricate over the centuries. Ornamentation with intricate geometric and arabesque designs became increasingly intricate and became a transcendental expression for the sacred readings of the Quran. These organic designs range from abstract arabesque to plant forms. The figurative illustrations are not used because the Islamic society opposes the representation of living creatures. Muslims from Mongol established a school for illustrated Islamic manuscripts where birds, animals, plants, and architecture were incorporated into the manuscripts. Calligraphists would often use gold to fill the spaces within the word forms. The text and illustrations are framed with a multitude of lines and surrounded by a complicated ornamental border, usually in a repetitive floral or geometric pattern. Because of the complexity of Islamic calligraphy, Islamic manuscript designs may have many different aesthetic approaches. 


Meggs 4-22 Islamic Illuminated manuscript

Late Medieval illuminated manuscripts 

The Limbourg brothers “Les tres Riches Heuers du Duc de Berry” is an example of elaborate illuminations from the dark ages. Being this is a pictorial book; the first 24 pages are double-page spreads with graphic astronomical charts representing constellations and the segments of the moon. It is evident that within some illustrations of the late medieval times, the highlights and cast shadows were created from a single light source. Ink in vibrant colors such as red and blue were used for lettering and for designing images. These pages were often filled with angels, animals, or flowers where the margins were generous. To preserve the image, they would mix water and Arabic gum to adhere to the pigment onto the vellum. The production of illuminated manuscripts continued throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, using the woodblock printing technology that came from Europe.  


Meggs 4-26Les très riches heures du duc de Berry, 1413-16.


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