What is an Illuminated Manuscript?

Post by Kathleen Schwab

Before Gutenburg’s printing press revolutionized the world in 1440, the only way to produce a new book was to copy it out by hand. In medieval Europe, the church was the center of education and literacy, and also the main producer of books. Christianity was growing, and monks spent their working lives producing new copies of the old and new testaments, prayer books, histories of the church, and lives of the saints.

Artwork became an important part of these books. The illustrations were called illuminations, because they lit up the page. Scribes copied the text, but the artwork was done by a separate group of monks, known as illuminators. They brought the text to life with color, borders, visual symbols, and scenes.

Here is a page from an illuminated manuscript, including text, a decorative border, and a small scene of Saint George slaying the dragon: 

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickr  https://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickrhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Saint George’s victory over the dragon was viewed on the one hand as a historical event, and on the other hand as a metaphor for the triumph of Christian faith over evil. This important idea of Christianity, or even the individual Christian, overcoming the evil could be relevant to many religious texts, and so it was a popular scene for illuminated manuscripts. Since the symbolic meaning mattered much more than historical accuracy, medieval artists portrayed George as a European knight in full-plate armor, rather than the Middle-Eastern fourth century Roman soldier that he really was. Although we think of armored knights as quaint, the original audience would have seen these pictures of Saint George as very modern and high-tech. They took the timeless truths of the faith, and communicated them with images drawn from their own daily lives.

Here is the same scene in close up:

Medieval illuminators liked to embellish the first letter on the page by making it extra-large and fancy, and sometimes went a step further, and tucked little drawings into and around it. Inside the letter O a tiny Saint George might be slaying a dragon, and inside a G Mary could cradle baby Jesus.

Inside the letter C, knights storm a walled city, perhaps a metaphor of the Christian’s battle to live a holy life, as well as an allusion to the constant warfare of the time:

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Image from Walters Art Museum on Flickrhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/medmss/

Illuminators made borders of scrollwork, flowering vines, animals, cherubs with musical instruments, and anything else that might suit the text. They illustrated the books they copied with full scenes of important events like Jesus’ miracles, or the resurrection.


In the illuminated manuscript scene below, Jesus directs the disciples on where to let down their fishing nets for a big catch. Notice that while the overall scene is directly from the Gospel of John Chapter 21, the details show some artistic license. One of the fisherman is wearing a medieval hooded jerkin, the carvings on the boat are medieval European style, and Jesus is carrying a bound book, something that would not be developed for another few hundred years.

At a time in history when people could afford only minor decorations to their clothing and homes, illuminated manuscripts fairly exploded with color and life. Art of all kinds was centered in the church, from the illuminated manuscripts themselves to altar pieces and communion cups.

When I first began to think about putting my writing together into a devotional book, I realized I wanted it to be like the illuminated manuscripts: beautiful, information rich, and visually compelling. I wanted it to be beautiful to look at, as well as being beautiful to read. I wanted the art and the words to work together, and to synthesize into a unique whole. We experience God in many different ways in our everyday lives, and I wanted this book to include as many types of spiritual experience as possible. Messages from God includes visual art and written words, and it also includes discussion questions that can be shared with a group, bringing community into the experience.

Like the medieval illuminators, I wanted this book to be set in my own time in history. Therese and I used some of the illuminator’s techniques: the merging of visual art and text, embellished initial letters, and drop caps; but we brought contemporary sensibilities and preferences to the project. We used mandalas, a popular modern symbol, and the types of scenes and images that appeal to 21st century people.

Here is a sample of one of our pages.  You can see we’ve incorporated supporting images, illustrated drop caps and ornate borders to help enhance the meaning and experience of the text.


I hope Messages from God blesses you.