Illuminated Manuscripts

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Illuminated Manuscripts

Before discussing elements of illuminated manuscripts, we presented a brief history of communicating the written word. See Symphony of the Word.

Scripts or Hands

Scripts varied with the tools available. There are many families of scripts.

We talked about these scripts in particular:

  • Uncial: It's often called an "early Christian" script because it was used during the 4th and 5th centuries for sacred writings.
  • Gothic: This script was developed in the 12th century and, for pratical reasons, the letters are very narrow.


Categories of initials

  • A foliate initial is decorated in leaf scroll.
  • An historiated initial contains a figure, a group of figures or a narrative scene.
  • An inhabited initial contains animals or human figures, there's no identifiable scene, and sometimes the letter itself is an animal. These initials date back to the Romanesque period (11th and 12th centuries), a period identified by an interest in the human figure, the humorous and grotesque, and zoomorphic designs.
  • A pen flourished initial is characterized by abstract patterns, usually drawn in red or blue ink. It is typical of the 12th and 13th centuries.
Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000).
One ornamented letter is enough to reveal what artistic creation could be in the Romanesque period. Let us not even speak of those that recount, for instance, an entire biblical or historical scene. A quite simple initial, in its essential, readable, recognizable form, is found taken up anew by every copyist, every illuminator, who made it his own and developed its inner possibilities, so to speak. It can be almost intoxicating; one becomes a veritable maze of foliage and interlacing, another gives birth to an animal that ends in a man's face, or a man becomes a monster or angel or demon; nevertheless, the letter has not been betrayed; it remains, but ceaselessly recreated. And this is without doubt what characterizes Romanesque art (and Gothic art as well, despite certain excesses that marked its end): respect for the essential function within a perpetual rediscovery of its inherent possibilities. (44)
The image, the knowledge we have of the Middle Ages through architecture, sculpture, stained-glass windows, frescoes, even tapestries--"open air" documentation--represents not even a hundredth part of what we might learn from the reproduction of manuscript miniatures, if this were systematically carried out with the means of color reproduction we have available today. It is quite surprising that in the audio-visual era nothing has yet been undertaken in this sense on the requisite scale. A profound gap will remain in our knowledge of the Middle Ages as long as the necessary effort has not been carried out in this domain. (151)


The word miniature comes from miniare, to color with red. (Early on, books were adorned in red.) A miniature is an illustration that is independent from the text, borders, and initials.

Apropos Videos


Ecclesial Art Project


  • Broad nib (our broadest was 2.0), ink cartridge, and pen
  • Foundational Worksheet
  • Foundational Guide Sheet
  • White scrap paper
  • Heavy calligraphy paper or parchment
  • Drawing pencil
  • Ruler
  • Materials for illumination, e.g., colored pencils, gouache, gold ink, brush pens


1) Learn how to hold the pen. Do practice strokes.
2) Learn the alphabet. Participants were required to write out the alphabet three times before proceeding to the next step.
3) Create an initial.
4) Make a draft on scrap paper.
5) Do a good copy.

Notes on Calligraphy

Lettering with pen and ink emerged in the 4th century. For more than a thousand years, beautiful writing was not only desired but required; it was a necessity for book production. The advent of the printing press reduced the need for professional scribes and gradually their skills fell into disuse. The revival of the art of beautiful writing at the turn of the 20th century is credited to Edward Johnston.

How is calligraphy different from ordinary handwriting? In calligraphy, letters are made up of multiple strokes and must be written slowly and deliberately, with great attention to form.


Foundational Guide Sheet

We explained the guidelines in this order:

  • Base line: The main body of each letter sits on this line.
  • Waist line: This is the upper limit for the main body of miniscule letters.
  • Cap line: This is the upper limit for maiuscule letters.
  • Ascender line
  • Descender line
  • Checkerboard pattern: It determines the x-height (the height of the main body). To create this pattern, draw a vertical line with a pencil; hold the nib at a 90 degree angle (it should be aligned with and sitting on the vertical line), make a short stroke with the nib, pulling away from the vertical line; turn the page 180 degrees (turn it upside down) and make another stroke, pulling away from the vertical line.
N.B. a bigger nib = a bigger checkerboard pattern = bigger letters

Scripts or Hands

At the third 2014 Event, we gave the boys one script option for their projects: the Foundational hand. (We should have done the same for the girls.) If they mastered this script, they could move on to others.

Developed in the 20th century, the Foundational hand is based on the script used by Roman stone cutters.

Foundational Majuscules Worksheet
Foundational Miniscules Worksheet