Manuscript Decoration

Manuscripts are handwritten and hand illustrated books that were decorated to be both appealing and aid in the reader in their exploration of the text. The manuscript consists of pages made of parchment or vellum called folia (singluar folio, also called a leaf). When discussing a manuscript folio, experts use the terms recto and verso to distinguish one side of the leaf from the other. Imagine an open book, the page on the right is called the recto, meaning "right" in Latin. The reverse of that folio is called the verso, again from the Latin. Manuscripts are often adored for the illustrations depicting legendary and historic figures, but equally compelling is the elaboration bestowed to the text. Not all manuscripts were decorated. In fact, many were left undecorated or with minimal decoration because decorations drove up the price of the manuscript. The heavily decorated manuscripts are therefore a sign of the wealth and power of the patrons who commissioned them.

 Book of Hours

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 160

Date: 1400-1415

Language: Latin

Location: England

Book of Hours

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 161

Date: 1400-1425

Language: Latin

Location: Low Countries (?)

Illuminations (Miniatures)

The terms illustration, illumination, and miniature are used to describe the painted scenes on the manuscript leaf. The term miniature does not refer to the size of the illustrations, which can in fact be very small, but instead the term derives from the Latin word minium—a pigment from red lead used for the paint. The illuminations may take up the entire page (a full-page illumination) or be contained within a border surrounded by the text, see for instance the example from the Roman de la Rose below (FM 156). Manuscript production was labor intensive and involved more than one person. A scribe would rule the page (add thin lines to guide the text) and block out areas for illumination. Another artist would then paint the scenes in the fields left open by the scribe. Some manuscripts provide evidence for this process as they were left unfinished.[1] A general rule in manuscript decoration is the more illuminations in a manuscript, the more expensive.

Fragmenta Manuscripta 160 contains a full-page illumination that once formed part of a book of hours. The illumination features Margaret of Antioch, an early Christian martyr. She was a young woman who caught the eye of an evil king. When she refused to marry him, the king had her thrown into prison. She is visited there by a demon that takes the shape of a dragon. Different versions of this story exist. According to one account, St. Margaret makes the sign of the cross and the demon disappears. In another, more graphic and more popular telling of the account, the dragon nearly swallows Margaret whole, but before it does, she makes the sign of the cross and the dragon explodes while Margaret emerges unscathed.[2]

The illumination in the collection is worn and cropped at the top, but we can still pick out the image. Margaret is the central figure; she wears a crown and clasps her hands in prayer around a staff surmounted by a cross. She looks up to a red aureole enveloping a figure of a man whose hand is extended in a gesture of blessing. Below, a dazed, cross-eyed dragon extends four legs on the grassy terrain, its head also looks up towards the figure of God as if aware of the cause of its demise. The scene is embellished with gold that was hammered into thin sheets resembling foil known as gold leaf (see more examples of bold text below). The scene is also contained within an elaborate decorated border with gold leaf that likely extended to the top, though that part is now missing. Surrounding this rectilinear border is another decorative border containing floral decorations and further areas picked out in gold.

 Iconography refers to the subject and meaning of a work of art. Simply, we can say the subject of this scene is a young woman and a dragon. But since we know the meaning, we can identify the iconography- this young woman is St. Margaret and the dragon represents evil, possibly even Satan. The iconography was represented over and over again in the medieval period, its repetition helped the viewer understand the meaning of the image.[3]

 Another familiar iconography is the so-called author portrait. The author is typically depicted seated at a desk holding a writing implement over an open manuscript. This iconography was used to depict poets, gospel writers, and is featured in FM 161 with Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), who wrote commentaries on the bible, homilies, and moral works. The illumination shows Gregory seated at a desk as he writes in a large manuscript. Gregory has a halo that is decorated in gold leaf. While Gregory is busy writing, a small dove above his left shoulder whispers in his ear. In Christian iconography, the dove is a common symbol for the holy spirit. Gregory is therefore shown receiving the word directly from God as he writes it down to spread the good word. The marble tiled floor and the red background decorated with gold leaf add to the luxury of the scene. Gregory is contained within a decorated border that is painted and given gold leaf floral details in the four corners. A trail of gold flowers also surrounds the border on three sides. Three sided borders were common in England after the late thirteenth century, but it is also likely that the border was on all four sides and later cropping removed the decoration on the right.[4] 

Another familiar iconography is the so-called author portrait. The author is typically depicted seated at a desk holding a writing implement over an open manuscript.  This iconography was used to depict poets, gospel writers, and is featured in Fragmenta Manuscripta with Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), who wrote commentaries on the bible, homilies, and moral works. The illumination shows Gregory seated at a desk as he writes in a large manuscript. Gregory has a halo that is decorated in gold leaf. While Gregory is busy writing, a small dove above his left shoulder whispers in his ear. In Christian iconography, the dove is a common symbol for the holy spirit. Gregory is therefore shown receiving the word directly from God as he dutifully writes it down to spread the good word. The marble tiled floor and the red background decorated with gold leaf add to the luxury of the scene. Gregory is contained within a decorated border that is painted and given gold leaf floral details in the four corners. A trail of gold flowers also surrounds the border on three sides. Three-sided borders were common in England after the late thirteenth century, but it is also likely that the border was on all four sides and later cropping removed the decoration on the right.[5]

Bible, glossed

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 055

Date: 1250-1275

Contents: Bible, glossed

Language: Latin

Location: England

Bible, glossed

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 055

Date: 1250-1275

Contents: Bible, glossed

Language: Latin

Location: England

Decorating and Organizing the Text

The miniatures were not the only means by which a manuscript was decorated. The text also received decoration—which could be as eye-catching as the illuminations. The decoration broke up monotonous text with color signifying the beginning of a new chapter, a new book of the bible, or even simply indicating a new paragraph. The hierarchy of the decoration offered a sign to the reader about the importance of the text that followed. There was not a standard hierarchy of initials adapted by scribes and illuminators everywhere. Rather, this meaning is assigned in relation to the other ornament within the same manuscript.[6] This section will explore the types of manuscript decoration through a careful look at one manuscript leaf in the collection, FM 055.

One of the easiest ways to find your place in a book is to look for the heading. Beginning around the middle of the thirteenth century, chapter and book headings were helpfully included at the top of the recto (right) and verso (reverse/ left) of many manuscripts. At the top of FM 055, are alternating letters of blue and red spelling out the word ACTUS for the Acts of the Apostles. The folio was later cropped by the collectors, so the chapter heading on the verso is difficult to make out.

The lowest order of decoration on this leaf is the paragraph markers in alternating colors of blue and red. You can see four paragraph markers on the verso of FM 055. Next in the hierarchy are decorated initials that could be embellished in a number of different ways. Initials that are larger than others are called Litterae notabiliories, and they help signify the start of a new paragraph or chapter. These decorated initials are featured on FM 055 with the blue decorated initial L on the recto and S on the verso, both with red linear penwork that extends the length of the already enlarged letters. These types of decorated initials are further known as Litterae Florissae.

Missal

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 158

Date: 1400-1499

Contents: Missal

Language: Latin

Location: England?

Decoration: Recto- decorated initial, rubrics, and outline of letter D, Verso- musical notation, rubrics, and decoration surrounding the letter H of the rubric

Bible, glossed

Identifier: Fragmenta Manuscripta 055

Date: 1250-1275

Contents: Bible, glossed

Language: Latin

Location: England

Another example from the collection shows the steps in manuscript production. As with the process of illumination discussed above, the decoration of text was done in steps by different people. The text would be written out by a scribe. Fields were left open for rubricators who wrote text in red ink called rubrics and rubrication. Other fields were left open for the decorators and illuminators. Fragmenta Manuscripta 158 has text and rubrics and outlines of two letters that were never filled in by the decorator. On the recto, the letter D is outlined in red with red penwork and on the verso, red penwork surrounds the letter h in the rubric. Perhaps these two outlines were meant to be filled in later with blue ink.

Continuing our exploration of the decoration and organization of the text through the example of the glossed bible, FM 055, the initial F on the recto announces the prologue for Genesis 2:10: “fluvius egrediebatur de loco voluptatis ad irrigandam paradisum…[7] This is a zoomorphic initial that is emphasized even more than the other decorated initials by the inclusion of animals. In the center of the initial are two dragons whose necks wrap around each other as their long tails unfurl in opposite directions forming two interlacing spirals. The initial is also emphasized by the elaborate decoration of the stem and the addition of gold leaf.

At the very top of the decorative hierarchy are the historiated initials. Historiated initials, like decorated initials, are larger than the other letters in the word. Unlike decorated initials, however, historiated initials are filled with figures. These inhabited initials tell a story and—oftentimes—relate directly to the text they preface.

FM055 contains an excellent example of an historiated initial that announces the Act of the Apostles. The text begins “Primum quidem sermonem feci de omnibus.”[8] The initial P is larger than the other initials and is decorated with gold leaf, pink, white, and blue paints, flourishes at the top and bottom, and a confused looking dragon clings to the stem. The Acts tells us about Christ’s ascension into heaven and contained within the first initial of the chapter is an illustration of that moment. In order to show the motion of the moment, the artist decided to only show Christ’s feet! The feet appear to dangle from inside the top of the letter while Mary and the Apostles look up, giving us the sense that they are watching Christ disappear right before their eyes. This iconography was dubbed by art historians “the disappearing Christ,” and it developed during the eleventh century and became a standard of English iconography, spreading to the continent during the thirteenth century.[9] 

This leaf likely came from a manuscript that was used by a student seeking a masters of theology.[10] The chapter headings would help the student quickly find the text they were looking for. Paragraph markers and decorated initials helped break up the black of the text and could further help students find their place in the book. The historiated initial announces the beginning of a new book- but more importantly- the illustration also helps remind the student what that book of the bible was all about.

NOTES
[1] Check out the Book of Hours for Dominican Use, Rare Vault BX2080 .A2 1450, MU Special Collections, https://exhibits.lib.missouri.edu/items/show/845; See also Archives, Special Collections, & Digital Services, March 28, 2017, https://twitter.com/muspeccoll/status/846725071871848448.

[2] Sherry C.M. Lindquest and Asa Simon Mittman, Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders (New York: The Morgan Library and Museum, 2018), 46-48; “Fol. 20v, Prayer Book of Anne de Bretagne,” The Morgan Library & Museum, last accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.themorgan.org/collection/prayer-book-of-anne-de-bretagne/18#overlay-context=collection/prayer-book-of-anne-de-bretagne/18.

[3] For more depictions of St. Margaret and the dragon see “Enter the Dragon: Happy St. Margaret’s Day,” British Library, Medieval Manuscripts Blog, July 20, 2014, https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2014/07/enter-the-dragon-happy-st-margarets-day.html.

[4] “Decoration and Illumination,” Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham, last accessed September 28, 2020, https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/manuscriptsandspecialcollections/researchguidance/medievalbooks/decorationandillumination.aspx

[5] “Decoration and Illumination,” Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham.

[6] Christopher De Hamel, The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Technique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 20; 24-25.

[7] BibleGateway, “Genesis 2:10,” last modified December 15, 2014, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2%3A10&version=VULGATE

[8] BibleGateway, “Genesis 2:10.”

[9] Meyer Schapiro, “The Image of the Disappearing Christ in the Ascension in English Art Around the Year 1000,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 23, 1944.

[10] Doctors of theology were called masters of the sacred page; William J. Courtenay, “The Bible in Medieval Universities,” 556; 559; Chrsitopher De Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts 2nd edition (Phaidon Press, 1997), 118.