Major Styles of Manuscript Illumination: An Art Historical Survey

This is adapted from a handout from a class I taught at a Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences day in late April. The full handout is available in the Files section of this blog.

This is a broad overview of major styles in manuscript production in Western Europe. It is NOT a comprehensive list of every type of book art practiced in our time period, although I would love to put that together someday 🙂 This is intended as a guide for scribes, especially charter painters, to begin to recognize distinct styles and make their artwork fit more closely within a target style.

 Insular

  • ~600 to 850 AD, British Isles (England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland)
  • Characterized by:
    • Interlacing / knotwork / twisty beasts
    • Carpet pages and borders
    • Decorated initials
    • Abstract patterns or zoomorphic forms
    • Religious images / iconography
  • Examples:

Carolingian

Romanesque

Gothic

  • 13th and 14th centuries, western Europe, with different regional styles developing
  • This developed into / overlaps with International Gothic
  • Characteristics:
    • Vinework, geometric, and architectural borders
    • Vibrant primary colors, use of gold leaf
    • Marginalia, scenes of everyday life
    • Complex religious scenes
    • Books for students/scholars with relatively little decoration (simple borders, colorful initials)
    • First books of hours
  • Examples:

International Gothic — later

  • 15th century, most of of western Europe, again with regional styles developing
  • Characteristics
    • Similar to Gothic
    • Lavish books produced by professionals for wealthy patrons
    • Books of hours
    • Realistic daily life and religious scenes
  • Examples

The styles that follow aren’t as commonly seen in SCA artwork (like charters) so they each have a little less detail than the above, however they were important developments in illumination and so I have included them for those interested.

Humanist

  • 15th century (mostly), Italy
  • Characteristics
    • Classical influences, decorated text, foliated initials / acanthus borders
  • Examples

Professionally produced books — French school

  • Mid 15th through mid 16th centuries, France
  • This happens to be the type of book that I have spent the most time studying, which is why I’m separating it out as a distinct style
  • Vinework frames around text pages, decorated initials
  • Ornate gilded frames around religious scenes
  • France had a huge thriving book production industry. A typical manuscript is the processional from Poissy held at Reed College.
  • Another example.

Ultra-realism / trompe l’oeil

  • Roughly mid 15th through mid 16th centuries, mostly France, Burgundy, Flanders, Netherlands
  • Some examples here
  • Elaborate borders with flowers, gems, bugs, etc.
  • Tension between realistic artwork and the medium of a book

Printed books

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Author: eulalia

I'm a foodie, medievalist, crafter, and gardener living in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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