The Jeweled Covers of Illuminated Manuscripts

Post by Kathleen Schwab

Therese and I drew from the artistic legacy of medieval illuminated manuscripts to design the inside of Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional, but what about the cover?  

At first a mandala seemed like the obvious choice. We had a few mandala covers made up, but they seemed a bit flat. A book’s cover is very important, and ours needed to communicate the value of the material inside. Looking through Therese’s gallery again, I found the perfect image. It was a close up picture of leaves and raindrops lit up by sunlight, a moment when some simple natural objects seemed transformed into burnished gold and gems.

I realized something: we had a treasure cover here!

Treasure covers, or jewel covers, adorned only the most valuable medieval manuscripts. The books themselves cost so much that most were finished with a simple leather cover. But a royal patron, or a person who simply had enough money to spend, could order a special cover. The first level would be a luxury material such as velvet, embellished with needlework. Only noblewomen had the time, materials, and skill for embroidery, and so this type of cover might be simply textiles, but it was still unique and valuable.

Next were book covers made with materials usually reserved for jewelry or art objects: ivory, pearls, gemstones, and precious metals. Like everything else associated with illuminated manuscripts, treasure covers were rich in symbolism. Inlaid panels of ivory depicted Christian symbols, carved scenes from the bible, or figures from Church history. Events from the gospels could be cast in metal plates, and attached to covers. Then the rest of the space could hold richly colored stones like lapis lazuli, or glittering gemstones.

W alters Art Museum

Walters Art Museum

Our cover is a printed image, not actual precious metals or precious stones, but to me it is a treasure cover. When I look at the image I don’t see an everyday scene of wet leaves: I see gold and jewels. A window opens to heaven’s golden streets and foundations of jasper and amethyst. Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional begins with everyday life, and moves towards a vision of our home in heaven, and this cover gave us the perfect introduction to the journey.

Where do you see your heavenly home in the world around you?