illumination

Illumination in Early Christendom

Most illuminations of the early Christian period, whose style was based on Hellenistic prototypes, are preserved only in medieval copies made in monasteries. Sumptuous Byzantine codices of the 6th and 7th cent., such as the Vienna Genesis, also show the adaptation of antique models to biblical subject matter.

In the 7th and 8th cent. the work of the Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, and Lombards displayed rich decorative geometric designs with intricate human and animal interlacing, largely concentrated in initials and title pages. Among the masterpieces of Hiberno-Saxon illumination are the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells (both: Trinity College Library, Dublin), and the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Mus.).

The chief works of the Carolingian period date from the beginning of the 9th cent. and were created for the court of Charlemagne, whose aim was to revive the art of antiquity. The existence of several local monastic schools led to a variety of styles; prominent were the Ada group, characterized by splendid coloring and figures full of movement and expression, e.g., The Gospel Book of Ada (Municipal Library, Trier), and the Reims school, known for vibrant pen drawings with little color, e.g., the Utrecht Psalter (9th cent.; University Library, Utrecht).

Works of the Reims school greatly influenced the English school of Winchester in the 10th and 11th cent. The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold (c.980) typifies this style, with sketchy drawings of elongated figures in fluttering drapery, enriched by foliated borders. Contemporary with the flowering of the Winchester school was the Ottonian renascence in Germany. Germanic illuminators used thick, luxurious colors with vigorous outlines and dynamic movement. Reichenau, Hildesheim, and Fulda were prominent centers of Ottonian art.

In Byzantine miniatures a more classical mode continued into the 13th cent. in such works as the Joshua Roll (10th cent.; Vatican), along with images of a hieratic austerity. Italy was important for the diffusion of the Byzantine style; the most original works are the Exultet rolls (Pisa), containing joyous hymns. Byzantine work declined after the capture of Constantinople in 1204.

In Spain, where there was a mixture of Christian and Arabic elements, a highly inventive work was the Commentary of Beatus on the Apocalypse (a 10th-century copy is in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York City). The illumination of large books, Bibles and psalters, was fashionable in the Romanesque era. Richly decorated initials graced these books and, in the early 12th cent., stylized figures enhanced by complex garments and gestures were plentiful. Characteristic of mid-12th-century work is the Winchester Bible.

Before the 14th cent. illuminated manuscripts in the West were nearly always made of vellum. Both ink outline and full-color drawings were common. The color medium was usually tempera, and the gilt was burnished to a high luster. Lavish illumination was most commonly applied to religious books, including early gospels, fashioned for rich patrons, then psalters and books of hours. A few other sorts of manuscripts, such as the bestiary, were, by tradition, profusely illustrated.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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