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Little History of Illumination

The terms illuminate, illumination, illuminator appear in the 13th century and come from the Latin word "illuminare" which means to illuminate, to illuminate therefore to bring to light.

The illumination includes all the hand-painted decorative elements of a manuscript : the miniature paintings inserted in the body of the text or on the full page, the initials (decorated, historiated initial, etc.) and the borders. The birth and evolution of this art is directly linked with  the evolution of the writing medium.


The book evolved a lot before acquiring its final form in the Middle Ages. The first writing supports were wooden boards coated with waxes, clay tablets, papyrus… But to produce long texts, clay tablets needed codification to understand their sequence. Links had to connect the wooden boards, and the papyrus sheets were assembled in a roll "volume" whose continuous reading and handling were not very easy. But another writing medium was invented and found its heyday in the Middle Ages : parchment.

Parchment is tanned goat, sheep or calf skin, scraped, sanded and whitened with chalk or whitewash. At the beginning, it is also presented in roll. Then it causes the emergence of an organization by sheets folded and assembled in notebooks bound between them : the Codex (ancestor of the current book). At first marginal, parchment found itself in a monopoly situation from the 5th century.

It is this revolutionary conception of the layout of the text which leads to the development of a new decorative art : illumination.

It is because it is in parchment that the sheet can receive several layers of paint and gold leaf, the rise of illumination is therefore inseparable from it.


Le Métier d'Enlumineur

The job of illuminator

Originally, the production of manuscripts was carried out by monks in the scriptorium of a monastery or an abbey. The copyist monks wrote the texts in calligraphy and then the illuminating monk or monks made the decorations with gold and colored pigments. Sometimes it was the same monk who did the whole thing. Religious texts are copied there (Bible, sacramentary, gospel, psalter, etc.) but also classic works, such as Horace and Cicero. Most of the time, it was for internal use that the production of manuscripts in the scriptoria served, but the monks also produced more or less luxurious works for wealthy sponsors outside the monastery.


From the 13th century with the creation of universities, lay workshops multiplied within cities, even within the walls of the university, and gradually replaced  the monastic scriptoria favoring the recognition of trades and soon their professional and legal organization as a corporation. The rigorous organization of these workshops made it possible to meet the growing demand for manuscripts and to ensure control over the quality of the texts. To ensure this very active production, these urban workshops had to proceed to a division of labor, alongside the scribes who work simultaneously on the same text, thus considerably reducing the execution time of a manuscript, we find the rubricator (in charge of the titles in red), the painters of initials and the illuminator.


The manuscripts produced are no longer exclusively religious or ancient texts written in Latin, science books (astronomy, grammar, theology, medicine, herbaria, etc.), bestiaries, stories and chronicles, novels (King Arthur, the fox novel, the rose novel…) as well as secular literature in the vernacular  are developing.


Some of these workshops were directed by masters who have remained famous such as Master Honoré, Jean Pucelle, Jean Colombe, the Master of Boucicault, the Limbourg brothers...and allowed the production of extremely rich manuscripts.


The appearance of the printing press in Europe around 1460, will gradually put an end to illumination. At the end of the Middle Ages, the first printed books were still decorated by hand. Then, faced with the need to increase production, book illustration became engravings and illumination, detached from the support of the text, lost its raison d'être.


The art of illumination will evolve over the 1000 years of its history, the design and techniques will become more and more complex  and each period will have its specificity.

During the High Middle Ages from the 5th to the 9th century, there are two types of illuminations:

·         The Insular illumination, developed in Ireland then exported and easily recognizable by its geometric designs, spirals, interlacing and its full carpet pages.

·        The Merovingian illumination, which is characterized by zoomorphic initials (in the shape of animals), very often brightly colored fish and birds. ​

From the 9th to the 10th century :

Carolingian illumination, during which we see the profuse use of precious metals  (gold, silver, etc.) and purple parchments.

From 11th to 12th century

Romanesque illumination, period of the golden age of the decorated, inhabited, historiated and vegetated initials.

From the 13th to the 15th century

The Gothic illumination, the great era of illumination or illuminated manuscripts become real luxury items. This style evolves during these 300 years of existence and each century is easily recognizable to end towards a naturalism, a depth, a relief comparable to a painting. We will also name these miniatures : Small paintings.

According to certain testimonies of the time, the professions of copyist and illuminator were very demanding professions where time was not a criterion of performance. The 21st century illuminator has access to new techniques that facilitate his work. However, the realization of an illumination in the historical respect always requires many long and meticulous stages which each require a traditional know-how and appropriate technical gestures and contrary to the Middle Ages where each stage was carried out by several hands, the illuminator of today is alone with his work.

Les Techniques

The techniques

At the Atelier, I favor working on parchment of calf, lamb or goat on which I carry out before any work, a sanding with a pumice silk composed of pumice stone, cuttlefish bone and sandarac gum, and this in order to properly eliminate all residues of skin, grease and allow better adhesion of the ink during calligraphy.

But I can also offer you illuminations on vegetal parchment or very good quality Fabriano type paper according to your convenience.


I most often use metal nibs (Brause) for longer calligraphy works, but I also enjoy calligraphy with bird feathers.


Laying gold is one of the most delicate operations in the art of illumination and sometimes very long when the decoration is in relief. To be able to stick gold leaf, you must first put a mordant on the support which is then heated with your breath. This can be of different nature. I prefer ammonia gum (tree resin) for applying solid gold and gesso (homemade from Meudon white wine and fish glue among others) for relief decorations.


I prepare my colors from pigments of natural origin (vegetable, mineral, animal) but also from pigment of chemical origin (minium, ultramarine ...), as well as a medieval tempera composed of egg white, honey and gum arabic, respecting ancient techniques and historical colours.

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