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What is an Illuminated Manuscript?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An illuminated manuscript is a manuscript which includes ornamental borders, capitals, and illustrations. As a general rule, these manuscripts are hand-written, and all of the illuminations are done by hand as well. With the advent of the printing press, the art of creating illuminated manuscripts largely disappeared, since these ornate and beautiful volumes were expensive and time consuming to produce when compared with printed material.

The earliest extant examples of illuminated manuscripts date to around the fifth century CE, when numerous Christian texts such as the Bible were produced in the form for distribution. Such manuscripts would have been extremely expensive, accessible only to people with immense amounts of money and to the Church. Monasteries and churches with such a manuscript would have made the document available for study, for the edification of those who could not afford such luxuries.

Illuminated manuscripts also flourished in the Middle East, especially after the rise of Islam. Some of the finest examples of surviving manuscripts of this kind are religious in nature: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim texts were all lavishly reproduced by patient, painstaking scribes. During the Medieval Era, illumination reached its height, and for a time customized prayer books known as Books of Hours were very popular among the European elite. These manuscripts continued to be produced on a smaller scale through the Renaissance, at which point they began to die out.

Traditionally, illuminated manuscripts were produced either in monasteries, by monks who had especially good aesthetic senses, or in professional scriptoria, which were essentially medieval copy centers. These manuscripts were produced by first replicating the text, typically using black ink, and then adding illuminations by hand. In addition to religious texts, monks also replicated works of philosophy and other texts, thereby preserving works from Ancient Greece and Rome.

By definition, an illuminated manuscript includes gold and silver leaf, along with a very rich, vivid palette of colors like rich blues and deep reds. At a minimum, the manuscript merely has ornamental capitals, but many include heavily decorated borders along with miniature paintings which depict scenes from the book; some members of the nobility even had their portraits inserted into such miniatures. The Book of Kells is a notable illuminated manuscript which is famous for the intricacy of its decorations.

An illuminated manuscript could take months or years to produce, from the moment monks scraped the vellum to make the pages to the day the finishing touches were put on the often heavily jeweled and inlaid binding of the book. Each manuscript is a priceless and individual work of art; museums all over the world vie to collect particularly fine specimens, and a few fortunate private collectors even have manuscripts of their own.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By anon313081 — On Jan 10, 2013

This has helped me with my art project for school. Thank you. I had never heard of them until now and I think they are O.K., to be honest.

By Proxy414 — On Nov 22, 2010


Let me clarify what I meant: Although, yes, our society has come to be fairly well-educated, we nevertheless neglect the core values which made us this way and we take learning for granted.

Also, I would strongly disagree with your comments concerning "the greatness of mankind." Look at the 20th century. At its beginning, things were looking up and people rejoiced in the greatness of mankind as you do. Many were becoming well educated. And yet due to various wars and bloodshed led by the best educated of various societies, we saw the bloodiest century in the history of mankind.

We may need to re-evaluate the decline of a love for the simple building blocks of a good society and where we have strayed.

By BostonIrish — On Nov 22, 2010


I think that your analysis of the decline of Illuminated writing draws many hasty conclusions and is very cynical. Education today has increased to its pinnacle and learning is available to more people than ever. How can you say that the "building block of a good society is being neglected"?

We are at a point today that we have never seen before and mankind is quickly making fast progress! It is cynical people like you that hold us back.

By Proxy414 — On Nov 22, 2010

It is unfortunate that today many books have fallen in value and earnest learning of literature has fallen into disuse. The Illuminated manuscript illustrates how seriously the people of the Medieval ages took the rare privilege of learning. Before then, stories would be passed down orally and memorized. This goes to show how, over time, the importance of a true education has decreased and memorization skills are all but thrown out the window.

The building block of a good society is being neglected.

By panda2006 — On Nov 07, 2010

I love illuminated manuscripts; images, fonts, the colours used. Theyare truly beautiful works of art. I find it unfortunate that there is not more done in art these days to make modern illuminated manuscripts which mimic this ancient and painstaking style.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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