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Illuminated manuscripts

A selection from the Library's collections

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most beautiful written works ever produced. The term ‘manuscript’ comes from the Latin for ‘handwritten’ as all books had to be written out by hand before the development of printing.

Illuminated manuscripts were produced from the early middle ages, mainly biblical texts produced in the monasteries across England and Europe .  

The term 'illumination' comes from the Latin word for ‘lit up’ or ‘enlightened’ and refers to the use of bright colours and gold to embellish  letters or embellish miniature paintings and decorative borders. Most surviving illuminated manuscripts date from the medieval era, before the rise of the printing press in the 16th century.  

Book of Hours, Bourges, ca. 1480

The most common illuminated manuscripts are religious and devotional texts, including books of hours and antiphonals. The majority were produced in scriptoriums – dedicated workshops within monasteries which specialised in producing handwritten and decorated texts. These works form part of the written history of the Western religious tradition; a tradition which was brought to Australia with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. 

Although paper was available in southern Europe from the twelfth century, its use did not become widespread until the late Middle Ages. The pages of illuminated manuscripts are generally made of fine vellum (treated animal hide-a fine parchment made from calfskin, lambskin or kidskin). 

The illuminated initials and miniatures are decorated with coloured mineral pigments and gold leaf. The manuscripts were often commissioned by wealthy individuals for private use, as well as some which were produced for use in the church or monastery itself. Bindings on illuminated manuscripts vary, depending on their use and ownership.

The illuminated manuscripts in the State Library’s collections feature a variety of bindings, including oak boards, tooled leather and plain vellum. Some also feature metal clasps to help keep the book’s pages flat when not in use.

The Rimini Antiphonal, 1328

Produced in 1328 in Northern Italy, this bound vellum manuscript features miniatures by Neri da Rimini – one of the most significant of the 14th century Italian miniaturists. The manuscript is an antiphonal which is a devotional piece of music sung by a choir split into two parts.

The volume, measuring 525 x 365 mm,  consists of 155 vellum folios bound in oak boards. Created at a time when making books required hours of painstaking labour by artists and scribes, the volume features 21 decorated letters and eight illustrated (‘historiated’) letters, brilliantly coloured and decorated with gold leaf. the music is written in black square notation on a stave of four red lines, which was typical of european liturgical manuscripts of the period.

The music are chants for the ‘Common of the Saints’, were probably originally written by Franciscan friar, Bonfantino da Bologna, but over many years the notes have been scraped back and rewritten in the 16th century. These later rewrites indicate that the manuscript was well used over a period of at least 250 years.

The antiphonal is part of the Nelson Moore Richardson Collection of Bibles and Early printed works. This collection of rare and valuable printed books and manuscripts was donated to the Library in 1926 by Nelson Moore Richardson of Weymouth, England, in appreciation of the sacrifices made for England by Australian soldiers in the First World War.

Folio 105v

Bourges Book of hours, Northern France, late fifteenth century

During the last half of the thirteenth century the Book of Hours became popular as a personal prayer book for men and women who led secular lives. It was based on the liturgy of the clergy and contained a selection of prayers, psalms, hymns and lessons. Although each book was unique they all contained the Hours of the Virgin Mary, a series of devotions to be made during the eight canonical hours of the day, and from this came the name ‘Books of Hours’. These works often also included religious calendars showing the saints’ days. The more important religious dates were commonly written in red ink, giving us the saying 'red letter day'.

Initial letter 'D' from Book of Hours, Ghent(?), ca. 1490

Many were also illuminated with miniatures, decorated initials and floral borders. By the fifteenth century, Books of Hours were being produced in large numbers in the workshops or ateliers of major European cities. Often they resulted from the contributions of a team of scribes and artists under the supervision of the chef d’atelier. Paper was rare and most Books of Hours were composed of parchment sheets made from the skins of animals, usually sheep or goats. The art of illumination as displayed in Books of Hours reached its zenith in the first half of the fifteenth century. Thereafter, with the introduction of printing, it gradually declined and Books of Hours began to be mass-produced on presses, with woodcuts replacing the illuminations. 

The pages of this French medieval manuscript are gloriously decorated throughout with varied and delicately decorated borders. Gold and green feathery foliage, red berries, blue crimson and white flowers and fruits are lavishly depicted. 1

This book of hours was produced in the late 15th century in the workshop of Jean Colombe of Bourges. The text is Latin, with a calendar in French  calendar; gospel sequences; O intemerata; Hours of the Virgin; seasonal variations; Hours of the Cross; Hours of the Holy Ghost; penitential psalms; litany; Vigils of the Dead; commemorations of saints; Stabat Mater. The illuminated decoration includes historiated initials (large decorated initial letters with small images inside them), miniature paintings and decorative borders of acanthus leaves, flowers and berries.


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