Arts & Culture

Archaic Culture: Illuminated Manuscripts

The art of an illuminated manuscript is a distinct aspect of the medieval era and, in a time when books were hand copied onto vellum, the beautiful art made each piece of writing unique and, to the modern viewer, inspirational. The characteristic gold leaf and colorful paint on the less-than-realistic depictions of humans and animals evoke many different emotions and thoughts from current viewers, but are unmistakably masterpieces of the era.

Essential to any illuminated manuscript, gold leaf is thin and flaky—even sticky. As seen in the photo, it will cling with vivacity to any hand that touches it and, as a side note, it adheres to phone cases also, allowing only time to remove it. To stick to paper, it requires something a little “extra.

Before starting in one’s own quest to recreate or create one’s own illumination, research into the style of the time or depictions of various subjects is critical. The Arberdeen Bestiary is a beautiful compilation of wonderful creatures in the often shocking style that transforms commonly known animals into fantastical beasts. The Book of Kells is also a stunning example of the medieval manuscript. When looking at creating one’s own illumination, it is a good idea to sketch out your plan and test out what you want to do. If it is a copy of an already created composition, this step can be ignored. Below is a link to a modern compilation of medieval bestiaries for reference and the Book of Kells itself.

To create a single illumination is work-intensive and time-consuming, particularly if one does it true to “the old ways.” One part that saves time, effort, and money is to use false vellum. Vellum is finely tanned calf-hide upon which monks would create their beautiful manuscripts. Purchasing pre-prepared vellum or paper that imitates the look of the hide is a quick and easy shortcut, though the latter is far cheaper. Tracing the outline of the illumination or sketching what you want to create is the next step and is quite self-explanatory.

Once the outline is complete, the adhesive for the gold leaf comes. The most time-honored way of doing this is to crush garlic cloves and brush the extract onto where you want the gold to be placed. While this sounds simple enough, this is the most labor-intensive part of the job. Each garlic clove excretes a surprisingly small amount of juice and collecting it takes a considerable amount of time. It also dries in a manner that renders it useless if it is gathered in more than one sitting. It must be crushed, then used as soon as possible. Upon brushing this substance onto the paper, it must dry for five minutes before more can be done.

Finally, one must breathe upon the dried garlic juice and press the gold leaf onto the surface. Fortunately, the garlic juice is stickier than one’s hand, so the paper will take the gold leaf from the skin. Sometimes, a second coat of garlic juice is necessary in some places that were missed, for the juice is clear.

Once all this is done, it is left to the artist to decide the medium with which they want to color the illumination. This is traditionally done with paint pigments mixed with water, but acrylics, oils, or watercolors would do perfectly well. Even colored pencil could work! Let your imagination run wild and have a great time.

One Comment

  1. Elizabeth Nelson