I recently saw an interesting exhibit at Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit, entitled Kings, Queens and Courtiers showcased many Illuminated Manuscripts from the 15th Century, beautiful tapestries, sculptures and more. The illuminated manuscripts were of particular interest to me. I have been intrigued by the books and images I have seen on the internet of these manuscripts for a while, so I was anxious to see the “real thing.” I was blown away by their intricate detail and fine craftsmanship. The miniature books were my favorite. An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript in which the text is supplemented by the addition of decoration, such as decorated initials, borders and beautifully detailed miniature illustrations painted in vivid colors and often accompanied by gold, or sometimes silver, leaf accents. Hence the term, “illuminated”. The letters themselves were works of art. The books were all painted on vellum, a fine grade of goat, calf, or sheep skin and had decorated leather bindings and covers. Some had beautiful and intricate handmade cases that were designed to hang on the owner’s belts.
These remarkably well preserved books, most of which were known as “hours” were typically used as prayer books.
The pages or “leaves” are surprisingly abundant and have been actively pursued by collectors for centuries. Even today, the leaves are extremely popular for decorating. They remain lovely works of art and are one of the most affordable artifacts that collectors can find from the pre-Renaissance era.
The influence of these books carried on even after their production ceased. The works of the Pre-Raphaelites in the second half of the 1850’s are a direct result of inspiration from these books. When looking at the work of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one can see the influence that the vivid colors and medieval subjects of the manuscripts had on him. On a more complex level, he also copied their use of a crowded picture plane and spatial relationships along with the luminous colors found in the illustrations of the books.
William Morris is one of the most widely recognizable artists in the history of decorative arts and was himself a collector of Illuminated Manuscripts. His work was greatly influenced by the calligraphy and illustration contained in the books. So much so, that he created his own modern day versions. His work is still popular and his influences can be seen in many forms in the world of decorative arts from wallpaper and textiles to furniture and home accessories.
The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Renaissance are a wonderful example of the importance of art in the daily life of a renaissance aristocrat. Their beauty and influence lives on in the decorative art of the 21st century. They are a testament to the innate need and desire of human beings to decorate and beautify the world around us. When we look back at the rich history of all types of decorative painting, these amazing manuscripts are not to be missed.