Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books were handwritten. Imagine…every time a copy of a text needed to be made, someone had to do it painstakingly by hand. In our world of quick reproductions and the ease of hitting “print”, this can be hard to believe!
The exhibition The Art of Devotion: Illuminated Manuscripts from Local Collections, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through June 16, 2019, aims to provide an introduction to these handwritten texts—called manuscripts—that were made in the middle ages and early Renaissance. A good number of those manuscripts are also illuminated, or decorated with gold, silver, and bright colors that make them literally look like they shine from within.
Ornamenting the Christian Bible and related texts reflected their holiness, as revealing the teachings of God. Monks and nuns would make the books in a scriptorium—or copying room—as a type of religious devotion. By the fourteenth century, commercial scriptoriums fulfilled the demand for books made by the aristocrats and nobles who commissioned them not only to use in private devotion but also to display their great wealth. As you can imagine, this leads to amazing and beautiful books!
In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at one of the objects in the show and see what it tells us about illuminated manuscripts.
Below is a leaf on view in the exhibition. A leaf is a sheet from a book. A page is one side of the leaf.
The support used for illuminated manuscripts is not paper, but parchment. Parchment is processed animal skins. The process is long, tedious, and messy, but not that difficult. You can see more in this video.
A careful look at the parchment reveals little black dots.
These are hair follicles! This means that we are looking at the hair side of the leaf, or the outside of the animal. The other side, which would be on the inside of the animal, is called the hide side.
Once the parchment is processed and cut, each page needs to be laid out. Ruling lines—either marked in ink or incised with a tool—show the scribe where to place the text. The ruling lines can be seen faintly in a faded red ink between the lines of text:
The text is written in Latin. The passage with the first decorated letter reads:
Deus qui corda fideliu sancti spiritus illustratione docuisti da nobis in eodem spiritu recta sapere et de eius semper sancta consolatione gaudere. Orison.
Hard to believe, isn’t it? Even if you know the Latin, it’s hard to read. This is because of the Gothic font, which is made with dramatically thin and thick strokes. These strokes are created by the tips of the quill pens made by the scribes, and is the basis for modern calligraphy.
While we’re looking at the Latin, let me ask—did you notice the little line over the “u” at the end of fideliu?
This is called a tilde. It denotes a shortened word. In this case, the “m” is left off of the word fidelium. Abbreviations like this were widely used to make the text shorter in order to save time and parchment.
And then there’s another abbreviation at the end of the second line in this paragraph.
This is the word et. Instead of being fully spelled out, et is often shown in manuscripts as only one character that combines the two letters. This kind of combination is called a ligature. One ligature for et eventually becomes the symbol we now call an ampersand, which still means “and”!
The section of text we’ve been looking at is a prayer to the Holy Spirit:
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolation.
The word in red at the end of the prayer is orison:
Orison is a variation of the Latin word oratio, or prayer. This tells us that this is a liturgical book, or a book for use in public worship. The text in black is what the officiant says when leading the ritual, and the text in red is the response made by the entire group. The full text of the response is not given, because it would be known by those performing the ritual.
Words in red in liturgical manuscripts are called rubics, after the Latin word rubrica, a type of red pigment. Today, we still use the word rubic to mean a set of instructions.
Our page has two lovely illuminated letters marking the beginning of two prayers. This one is for the D in Deus:
The artist has highlighted the D with what seems like an impossible amount of decoration: a background of blue and red paint; delicate patterns from white paint; plant forms nestled next to each other at the very center; shimmer and shine from gold leaf; and additional visual power provided by black outlining.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the letter practically explodes into the margin with quick and sketchy lines and dabs of paint that become flowers, vines, and leaves.
The illuminations are there to celebrate a holy text, but they can also help the reader find his place—visual clues in book layout is nothing new.
We’ve learned a lot by looking at just one of the objects from the exhibition. Make sure you stop by gallery S202 (in the European galleries on level 2) by June 16 to see the show and see even more examples of illuminated manuscripts!
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.