How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

What place does the paper book have in our increas­ing­ly all-dig­i­tal present? While some util­i­tar­i­an argu­ments once mar­shaled in its favor (“You can read them in the bath­tub” and the like) have fall­en into dis­use, oth­er, more aes­thet­i­cal­ly focused argu­ments have arisen: that a work in print, for exam­ple, can achieve a state of beau­ty as an object in and of itself, the way a file on a lap­top, phone, or read­er nev­er can. In a sense, this case for the paper book in the 21st cen­tu­ry comes back around to the case for the paper book from the 12th cen­tu­ry and even ear­li­er, the age of the illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script.

Book­mak­ers back then had to con­cen­trate on pres­tige prod­ucts, giv­en that they could­n’t make books in any­thing like the num­bers even the hum­blest, most anti­quat­ed print­ing oper­a­tion can run off today.

In the video above, the Get­ty Muse­um reveals the painstak­ing phys­i­cal process behind the medieval illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script: the sourc­ing, soak­ing, and stretch­ing of ani­mal skin for the parch­ment; the con­ver­sion of feath­ers into the quills and nuts into the ink with which scribes would write the text; the appli­ca­tion of gold leaf and oth­er col­ors by the illu­mi­na­tor as they drew in their designs; and the sewing of the bind­ing before encas­ing the whole pack­age tight­ly between clasped leather cov­ers.

Some illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts also bear elab­o­rate cov­er designs sculpt­ed of pre­cious met­al, but even with­out those, these elab­o­rate books — what with all the art and craft that went into them, not to men­tion all those pricey mate­ri­als — came out even more valu­able, at the time, than even the most cov­et­ed lap­top, phone, read­er, or oth­er con­sumer elec­tron­ic device today. Most of us in the devel­oped world can now buy one of those, but the non-insti­tu­tion­al patrons will­ing and able to com­mis­sion the most splen­did illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts in the Mid­dle Ages and ear­ly Renais­sance includ­ed most­ly “soci­ety’s rulers: emper­ors, kings, dukes, car­di­nals, and bish­ops.”

To ful­ly under­stand the mak­ing of the devices we use to read elec­tron­i­cal­ly today would require years and years of study, and so there’s some­thing sat­is­fy­ing in the fact that we can grasp so much about the mak­ing of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts with rel­a­tive ease: see, for exam­ple, the two-minute Get­ty video just above, “The Struc­ture of a Medieval Man­u­script.” A fuller under­stand­ing of the nature of illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts, both in the sense of their con­struc­tion and their place in soci­ety, makes for a fuller under­stand­ing of how rare the chance was to own beau­ti­ful books of their kind in their own time — and how much rar­er the exact com­bi­na­tion of skills need­ed to cre­ate that beau­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Bril­liant Col­ors of Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made with Alche­my

Behold the Beau­ti­ful Pages from a Medieval Monk’s Sketch­book: A Win­dow Into How Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made (1494)

The Aberdeen Bes­tiary, One of the Great Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts, Now Dig­i­tized in High Res­o­lu­tion & Made Avail­able Online

1,600-Year-Old Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­script of the Aeneid Dig­i­tized & Put Online by The Vat­i­can

Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Illus­trat­ed in a Remark­able Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­script (c. 1450)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • EB says:

    Absolute­ly won­der­ful. I’ve always loved illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­scripts and had won­dered how they are made. Thanks for this!

  • winifred e harrison says:

    This is fan­tas­tic film. Most inter­est­ing, I hope more will become avail­able.

  • Irene Baron says:

    I have been work­ing on fdedigns for over 10- years for an illu­mi­nat­ed man­u­script type alpha­bet book. Always look­ing for infor­ma­tion. The art work takes for­ev­er.

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