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The Saint John's Bible at ACU

What is an illuminated manuscript?

An illuminated manuscript is a written work containing illuminations – images painted or drawn to accompany the text, often embellished with gold leaf or other special materials.

Until the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, most books were hand-written by scribes. Producing Bibles and other religious works was a common task for monks, who both enscribed and illuminated the text. Monasteries and abbeys usually contained a scriptorium – a room devoted to the copying and illustration of books.

Illumination was a popular means of indicating a book's special significance and was also common in the Muslim world, particularly the Iberian Peninsula. One of the most famous Western illuminated manuscripts is the Book of Kells, a 8th-9th century book created by Irish monks which contains the four gospels in Latin and various accompanying texts.

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells - Folio 291v, Portrait of John. Held at Trinity College, Dublin.

The earliest illuminated manuscripts were mostly religious, but from around 1100 AD, monks began to collaborate with secular scribes and illuminated secular works became more common. Many universities contained a secular scriptorium where significant works were copied and illuminated.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, illuminations were sometimes added to printed books. The production of illuminated manuscripts peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries, then declined and became a rare occurence from the mid 16th century.

Types of illumination include:

(a) miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text or occupying the whole page or part of the border;

(b) initial letters either containing scenes (historiated initials) or with elaborate decoration;

(c) borders, which may consist of miniatures but more often are composed of decorative motifs.



"Illuminated manuscripts." In The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. 4th ed. Edited by Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 2009. Oxford Reference Online. Accessed September 2 2013.

Sutton, Kay. "Illuminated manuscripts." In The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Edited by Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Accessed September 2, 2013.

Manuscript terminology

Rubrication: The use of different colours (particularly red) to emphasise areas of text such as initial letters and section headings.

Historiated initial: An enlarged initial letter of text which includes scenes directly illustrating the subject matter of the text.

Inhabited initial: An enlarged initial letter of text which includes figures but may be purely decorative or only loosely related to the subject of the text.

Gilding: The application of a thin layer of gold to the surface of a manuscript or object for decoration.

Parchment: Writing material made from animal skins. Vellum (from calf skin) was often used for illuminated manuscripts.


The Oxford Dictionary of Art. 3rd ed. Edited by Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Reference Online. Accessed September 2, 2013.

Illuminated manuscripts online

Online images of illuminated manuscripts: