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Addela Hoop Johnson

In today’s world, anything can be considered art. Impressionistic paintings by Monet are art. Blown glass chandeliers are art. Photographs of slaughtered animals are art. Art is something that moves its viewer in some way. Be it admiration or disgust or awe, as long as it creates a reaction, it can be regarded as art. Some of the numerous works deemed as art are medieval manuscripts and their painted illuminations. These manuscripts are of many subjects, such as Bibles and Books of Hours. It is a French Book of Hours, retained by Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which is the focus of this paper. This book will hereafter be referred to as the Lipscomb Manuscript, after its previous owner, Dr. Herbert Lipscomb, who donated the book to the college.

First, it is important to explain what a Book of Hours is. “A Book of Hours is a compendium of devotional texts that takes its name from its one essential text, the Hours of the Virgin,… it is subdivided into eight parts, one for each of the ‘hours’ of the liturgical day- Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, & Compline.”[1] Or, to put it more succinctly, a Book of Hours is a collection of the prayers spoken for each hour of every day.  A page contains one prayer apiece, to be spoken at a particular hour. The pages are decorated with intertwining designs in vibrant colors. These books were never mass produced, but rather strictly on request. The usual owners of these books were from the higher social orders, meaning either royalty, nobility or clergy, as only members of those classes would be able to afford such handsome manuscripts.

Part of the magnificence of medieval manuscripts is their mystery. So many questions spring to mind when studying an illuminated manuscript. How were those amazing designs painted so precisely? How did they make those paints so durable that even today, centuries later, they have still not faded? How where those books even made? To answer the last question, all books made before 1455 were created entirely by hand, as the printing press was not invented in Europe until that year.[2] The production of an illuminated manuscript was a long and drawn out process, involving several different artisans. First, a craftsman would prepare the pages, turning a calf, sheep, or goat’s skin into vellum. Next, a scribe would rule the pages and copy down the words of an earlier text onto the lines.  After that, an illuminator would paint around the text, building on what was already written there.  Finally, a binder would put the pages together into a book.[3]

The paints used in manuscripts were all hand-prepared by the illuminators themselves.[4] According to De Arte Illuminandi, (meaning ‘the Art of Illuminating’), a treatise written in Latin in the 14th century, there are eight colors necessary for illuminating a script: black, white, red, yellow, blue, violet, rose, and green.[5] These were based on the three supposedly-primary colors of physics: black, white, and red.[6] A recipe for each of these eight colors is provided in details in the Latin text, explaining not only how to make these colors, either from artificial or natural ingredients, but also where to find the ingredients. The primary ingredient for all the colors is the mineral lead, which is partially responsible for sustaining the colors throughout the ages. The illuminator would decide on a design and mix the paints he wanted to use. The colors were laid down, then gold and silver leaf was added to the paints to accent the design.[7]  Gold leaf was often used to highlight vines and petals, as well as lettering and figures, should there be any.

Once the illuminations were painted to satisfaction of the artist, they were coated with a solution made from “the glair of hen’s eggs, and their yolks, gum arabic, and gum tragacanth dissolved in pure spring water.”[8] Gum arabic is a sugary sap used to seal wounds in the bark of certain trees.[9] It is found in many of today’s soft drinks, as it acts as a natural stabilizer of proteins, oils and flavors. Gum tragacanth is another mending sap, which is often found in salad dressings, confectionary products, and cosmetics.[10] These solutions acted as a sealant, keeping the lead-laden paint from peeling. The treatise also calls for “solutions of honey or sugar or sugar candy … required for sweetening them now and then.”[11] This need for sweetness is never explained, yet it may be assumed that at some point the paint was tested by taste.

The Lipscomb Manuscript uses five of the eight main colors: black, blue, green, yellow, and red. The designs are principally floral, focusing on intertwining vines and opening blossoms. The vines are black highlighted with gold, and curl around the text, filling most of the outer page. Some of the flowers are red roses on writhing green creepers. Others are golden lilies that bend on blue stems. The pages of each week of prayers are filled with varying levels of detail. On some pages, generally the pages beginning a week of prayers, the space surrounding the script is filled with illuminations. Others are adorned only slightly, emphasizing the first letter of a particular prayer. The letters which are illuminated are blown up to five times the size of the rest of the text and made into block text. Those on the heavily decorated pages are embellished with blue and surrounded by gold squares, matching the theme of the outer illumination. Those which are singled out with their embellishment, usually on the prayer pages themselves, are filled in with gold paint and surrounded by a blue square. If these letters contain an empty space, they are decorated with a spiral in either blue or red paint. The blue square may refer to the blue mandorla, a bubble which surrounded Jesus to imply his holiness and was often seen on church paintings of the time.

This floral motif used in the Lipscomb Manuscript is very common among Books of Hours. In fact, it is usually the base design of most illuminations. The majority of ornamented pages have the blooming buds and twisting vines of the Lipscomb Manuscript, identical in color and gold highlights. In the manuscript from Brown University, which dates from the 15th century, matching flowers coil around the words while the same spirals fill the highlighted gothic letters.[12]  In more expensive books, this design has animals and fruits added to it. This is largely because medieval thoughts were primarily occupied with finding parallels, analogies, and symbols between the words and images of the illuminated manuscripts.[13] For example, the weasel eating fruit of the vine at the bottom of the Crawford manuscript may represent Lucifer nibbling at pure souls (Figure 7). In the largest, most opulently illuminated books, such as the Crawford manuscript, the text portion of the page was given over completely to scenes from the Bible, enclosed by the vines and floral device. It features a scene from the New Testament, surrounded by the red and gold flowers.[14] A peacock perches on a branch while below sits a small tree of hanging fruit while a duck and a weasel sit under the potted tree at the foot of the page. The Crawford manuscript is owned by the John Rylands Library, attached to the University of Manchester, and is dated from around 1430. The amount of paint and detail generally correlates with the social level of the patron, with clergy at the top of the list, followed by upper nobility and lower nobility.[15] The lack of this level of adornment in the Lipscomb Manuscript indicates that this book was probably a more inexpensive copy, possibly made for a member of the lower nobility.

Because these illuminations are contained within a book, it can be argued that they are a part of the literature of their time, as opposed to just being artwork in their own right. While this is a valid observation, it is only partially correct. These painted illustrations would have been considered both educational tools and religious iconography in the medieval period, but they also would have been thought of as artistic designs. “[All illuminated manuscripts] were esteemed for their aesthetic qualities, as well as for their hallowed roles in the rites of the church.”[16] Their artistic purpose was simply different back then, rather than the role art plays in today’s society. Today art is generally displayed for public viewing, so that it may move as many viewers as possible. In the medieval period, these books were not for public use, but for private devotional usage. The illuminations acted as a visual reminder to the reader, repeating the lessons learned in the books and reiterating the importance of the stories told. The more opulently decorated Bibles were often stored in churches, in jeweled boxes created for that very purpose. They were taken out for sermons and special events. The smaller Books of Hours, such as the Lipscomb Manuscript, were personal devotionals, used only by their aristocratic owners. Both texts were for private viewing or small audiences only. They moved these limited viewers, however, just as the artwork of today moves modern audiences.

Art comes in many forms and from many sources. It is accepted, however, that medieval illuminations, with their vibrant colors and vivid depictions, are art. Much labor went into the painting of these decorations, from the gathering of ingredients and mixing of the paints, to the actual painting of the design and sealing it to the vellum. The chosen designs of the manuscripts vary according to the class of the paying patron, ranging from the simple vines and flowers motif of the Lipscomb Manuscript to the full page Biblical scenes of ecclesiastical versions. The Lipscomb Manuscript is fine example of a less-decorated Book of Hours and a wonderful addition to the world of medieval manuscripts.

[1] Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. p 9

[2] Mark-Walker, Diane; Vihos, Lisa. Boucicaut Master. School Arts. March 2000, v99, i7, p31

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thompson Jr, Daniel Varney & Hamilton, George Heard. An Anonymous 14th Century Treatise. p 1

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thompson Jr, Daniel Varney & Hamilton, George Heard. An Anonymous 14th Century Treatise. pp 10-11

[8] Thompson Jr, Daniel Varney & Hamilton, George Heard. An Anonymous 14th Century Treatise. p 2

[9] http://www.sbu.ac.uk/water/hyarabic.html

[10] http://www.willy-benecke.com/trag_e.htm

[11] Thompson Jr, Daniel Varney & Hamilton, George Heard. An Anonymous 14th Century Treatise. p 2

[12] http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Medieval_Studies/hours25.html

[13] Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. pp 7-8

[14] http://rylibweb.man.ac.uk/data1/dg/text/dg007.html

[15] Rorimer, James J. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry, Prince of France. p 1

[16] Plummer, John. The Hours of Catherine of Cleves. p 7


These pages are the work of the students enrolled in Art 238, "Art and Medieval Mentalities," taught by Professor Christine Hamza during the Spring Semester, 2003.

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