Making of Illuminated Manuscripts
Design and Manufacture of Medieval Gospel Books.

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The Eagle Symbol of St. John,
from The Book of Dimma
7th/8th Century. An exquisite
example of medieval Christian art.

For the best illuminations
and Gospel illustrations,
see: Biblical Art (from 150).

Making of Illuminated Gospel Manuscripts


Page Materials
Gathering The Manuscript
Pens and Inks
Manuscript Decorations and Illuminations
Manuscript Binding

Medieval Book Painting Series
(1) Medieval Manuscript Illumination (c.1000-1500)
(2) Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1000-1150)
(3) Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts (c.1150-1350)
(4) International Gothic Book Paintings (c.1375-1450)

History of Illuminated Manuscripts
Cathach of St Columba
Book of Durrow
Echternach Gospels
Lichfield Gospels
Book of Kells

For details of the cultural
recovery, under Charlemagne
and the Ottonian Emperors,
see: Carolingian Art (750-900)
Ottonian Art (900-1050)

For information about early
ecclesiastical artifacts made
for the early Christian church
in Ireland, see these resources:
Celtic-Style Christian Art

For painting & sculpture in
Munster, Leinster, Connacht and
Ulster, see: History of Irish Art.


Illuminated manuscripts are some of the finest examples of early Christian religious art. The traditional folded and sewn manuscript book is called a 'codex' (from the Latin caudex meaning 'tree trunk' or 'bark'). The medieval codex in the West typically had three discrete ornamental elements - the initial letter, both large and small, the border decoration, and the miniature.

Elaborately embellished initial letters were in use from the seventh century, when Irish and British illuminated Gospel books contained a richly calligraphic ornamentation of interlaced ribbons, foliage, and stylized birds and animals, heavily influenced by motifs from Celtic art. (See, for example, the incredible Chi Rho Monogram Page in the Book of Kells.) The arrangement of capital letters gradually extended into the borders of the text until the borders became features in their own right. The figures drawn inside the initial letters developed, too, and gradually became small scenes - stories, hence the term 'historiated initial'. These little pictures were often of high distinction. The word 'miniature' comes from the Latin word meaning 'to colour in red'; red was one of the earliest colours to be used in codices and gradually the term came to signify all the pictures which accompany the text in manuscript books.

Searching for secondhand texts,
studies on painting, illustration,
architecture or sculpture,

For the history & development of
of Celtic Designs, in particular
the iconography, zoomorphs
and decorative art motifs
employed by the ancient Celts,
in metalwork, ceramics and other
artworks please see:
Celtic Interlace Designs
Celtic Knots Designs
Celtic Crosses Designs
Celtic Spirals Designs

Page Materials

In ancient times, texts were written on papyrus (the origin of the word "paper"), a cheap reed material used by the Greeks and the Egyptians. This was a good material for scrolls, but not for a bound book, as the material was too fragile to withstand the constant turning of pages or the sewing of the gatherings on to the binding.

So all illustrated manuscripts from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries were written on vellum, which is the same thing as parchment. It is made from animal skin, most usually the skin of a sheep or cow. Goatskin was used too - see, for instance, the celebrated Garima Gospels (390-660) - and also deer or pigskin - in fact, whatever animal was commonly to hand. In the seventh and eighth centuries, monasteries would have used parchment from their own animals, collecting skins over a period in order to have enough, though they probably had to buy extra skins if they were undertaking a really big book. The size of the animal governed the ultimate size of the sheet of vellum and so the ultimate size of the book being produced. One sheepskin was folded twice to make four pages of an early Gospel book; so a book with 100 pages represented twenty-five animals.

Note: on the Indian subcontinent, the Gujarat school of illuminated manuscripts as well as the Pali school produced illuminated religious manuscripts on palm leaves. See: Post-Classical Indian Painting (14th-16th Century).


Occasionally locally-produced vellum was not up to scratch and in some books (for example, a Bible made for the monastery of St Alban's in 1135) we can see that illustrations have been made on separate pieces of parchment and dropped in. Professional parchmenters, highly skilled experts at their trade, are documented from at least 822, when Abbot Adelard of Corbie in France is recorded as having a parchment-maker on the payroll of the monastery. (See also Medieval Artists.)

A skilled parchmenter, a man in a profession which expanded greatly over the next 500 years, would be able to take a skin and transform it into a soft, supple, white material for writing on. The process, both time-consuming and complicated, scarcely changed over 800 or 900 years. First, the parchmenter would select good skins, paying close attention to colour and quality. The next step was to soak the skins in a lime solution for several days and then scrape off all the hair. Once the skin was cleaned, it was fixed with pegs on to a frame to dry. Then the parchmenter would take a crescent-shaped knife called a lunellum and scrape vigorously at both surfaces of the skin. With the round blade of this special knife the parchmenter would run less risk of cutting or tearing the skin, now stretched taut on its frame and of course shrinking as it dried. (If the skin did tear, the cut could be stitched; but there are manuscripts in which the parchment contains a hole, and the scribe has carefully written round it.) The scraping and stretching continued until the parchment was at the right thickness (the little Bibles being made in fourteenth-century Paris used parchment which was almost tissue thin). The dry sheets of vellum were then either rolled or cut to shape and stored for use. The grain side, where the hair used to be, is usually darker in colour and more velvety.

Good parchment was extremely costly, and on several medieval manuscripts it can be seen that the parchment has been re-used - religious and secular works alike could be erased by soaking the parchment in milk and then scraping to remove the ink and pigment. It is sometimes possible to recover the lost writing by the use of chemicals or ultraviolet light, especially as it was sometimes not thoroughly erased. These re-used leaves are called palimpsests.

Note: although biblical manuscripts were written on vellum, it is almost certain that the artist-scribes used wax tablets for planning and sketching their designs. There are several contemporary references to such wax tablets, but few if any have been found. However, a number of bone and wood styli used for engraving on the wax have been located. The wax tablets would also have been given to novices to enable them to practice their writing before being allowed to work on valuable vellum.

Paper Manuscripts: 1400 Onwards

Paper was invented by the Chinese in about the second century, and although there were paper mills in France by about the middle of the fourteenth century, it was not until the end of the fifteenth century that paper manufacture became common in England. By the fifteenth century, plenty of books were being written on paper, though most people thought paper would not last as long as parchment. Actually, although parchment is extremely durable and strong, so is good-quality linen rag paper. The invention of the printing press changed everything; and although luxury handmade books and some legal documents continued to be produced on parchment, cheap books printed on paper became the norm everywhere.

Paper was produced from linen rags in the Middle Ages, with Italy being the main exporter of paper to other European countries. The rags were chopped, then soaked for a few days until they became a pulp; then a thin layer would be scooped up into a wire frame like a sieve and allowed to drip dry. This sheet would be tipped out on to a layer of felt, another layer of felt placed on top, another of paper, another of felt, and so on. The stack would then be weighted and left to dry. Each sheet of paper would then be 'sized' with animal glue, probably made from boiled bones or skin or both, to make it smoother and less absorbent. By the fourteenth century paper-makers in Europe had also discovered that a little pattern twisted into the wire of the frame would transfer to the paper as it dried, and they came to use these 'watermarks' as the distinguishing marks of the paper produced at their own workshops. All kinds of engaging designs were used, from animals and flowers to astrological symbols, from religious emblems to scissors and spectacles.


Gathering The Manuscript

The earliest manuscripts were simply several sheets laid one on top of the other, and folded down the middle. However, unless the book is very small this does not make a convenient article to hold, and very soon books came to be made in the same way as they are today. The book is assembled out of smaller gatherings sewn together. Each gathering, or signature (as it is still called today), was usually made up of eight leaves. This method of binding would also have meant that each signature could have been worked on by a different scribe or artist, which would of course have increased the speed at which the work could be undertaken.

Books were made under a variety of conditions. In the very earliest era of medieval art they were probably written by monks sitting outside, with the gatherings of leaves of vellum on their knees, but later, when more books were being produced there was probably a special room in a monastery called a scriptorium.

Each page/folio would then have to be prepared for writing by the ruling of guide lines, and the arranging of the page into the number of columns to be used. There was also a precise formula to be followed for working out the relationship between the margins and the text area. Until the twelfth century, rules would have been scored with a dry, pointed implement such as a stylus rather than drawn with ink. By the twelfth century, lines were being drawn using what looks like graphite but is probably metallic lead, and from the thirteenth century lines were ruled in ink, often coloured ink, and sometimes even a combination of colours. In order to keep the grid of lines the same from page to page, the scribe would take a stack of leaves, rule out the top one, and then, using a sharp spike such as an awl would prick right through all the leaves at the outer edge of the margins. All he had to do then was to join up the prickings with lines. Sometimes the multiple lines were drawn with several pens joined together to make an instrument called a rastrum (which means rake). Hebrew book production used a ruling frame, a wooden board with wire threaded across it. The blank sheet would have been placed on top and pressed down so that the wire impressed itself on to the sheet.


There were two principal types of script used by monastic scribes: uncial and half-uncial. Uncial was a more formal script which first emerged during the fourth century, and which employed only capital letters. This design had been fully developed in the Roman Empire during the fourth century, and was used for writing books. The religious manuscripts brought to England by Saint Augustine and his followers, as well as those acquired later by Benedict Biscop and Ceolfrith, provided Irish and English scribes with many fine exemplars for this uncial script.

Half-uncial or insular majuscule script was pioneered in early Christian Ireland and spread throughout Scotland, England and the Celtic abbeys and monasteries in mainland Europe. Half-uncial is used in many illuminated manuscripts, notably in the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Durrow. It was similar to the uncial capital script, but included a number of letter shapes which are similar to modern lower-case letters. It produces a well-balanced, easy-to-read script that is quicker to write than the older uncial style.

On top of this, Irish scribes developed a third variety of writing which was a cursive script (joined-up) and thus even faster to write. Developed at a later stage, it is commonly only seen in illuminated manuscripts in the form of the glosses (notes) written in the margins or between lines of text after the manuscripts were first written.

Finally, during the late-7th and early-8th century, Irish monastic scribes also developed a Gaelic script, although this too was reserved for marginal entries and sundry notes.

Pens and Inks

Manuscript scribes wrote with quill or reed pens, the best quills coming from a goose or swan. It would only have taken a medieval scribe a moment to prepare his quill - he would have had a great deal of practice, as the prepared point would not have lasted long before it needed recutting. There exist many contemporary pictures in medieval manuscripts of scribes at work at their desks. These show that writing was a two-handed operation - pen in one hand, knife in the other for sharpening the quill and perhaps for erasing mistakes. It would not have been difficult to scrape ink off a sheet of vellum before it had really dried. Corrections were sometimes made after the book was finished. A proof-reader would check the text and make amendments in the margin, or sometimes in the body of the text.

The scribe dipped his pen into inkwells, which were often let into the side of his desk - or he may have carried them separately if he was working out of doors. Black ink was made either from charcoal mixed with gum, or from a mixture of tannic acid with ferrous sulphate and gum added as a thickener. The most common second colour in medieval manuscripts is red, a colour which was employed from about 400 CE. It was used for headings and initials (indeed headings are called 'rubrics' precisely because they were written in red), as well as for lines of writing and sometimes rules as well. Its use in this way only died out with the spread of printing, when it was too complicated to print text in more than one colour.

The text which the scribe copied from (called the 'exemplar') was sometimes shown in pictures open on a table at his side, sometimes on a stand attached to his lectern. The exemplar was often held open with a weight, shown in many pictures as having a flat bottom which probably doubled as a place-marker. There must have been a considerable amount of travel to and fro with books to copy from, or scribes may have had to travel to where a book was kept in order to copy from it.

As the text was finished, perhaps several signatures or gatherings at once if more than one scribe were working on the same book, the signatures could be sent out for illustration. In order to make sure that they would later be bound in the correct order they were carefully marked on the last page of each signature with a 'catchword', that is the first word of the first page of the next signature. Sometimes the catchword was a beautiful piece of calligraphy in its own right, perhaps surrounded with flourishes and colour. With the growth of the demand for books by students of the new universities, more scribes and illuminators worked on a single book in the interests of speed, and in order to eliminate confusion new marks were introduced to indicate the number of pages within each signature. Sometimes the scribe signed his work.

Manuscript Decorations and Illuminations

The next major step in the book's journey to completion was its decoration. How this ornamentation was designed and executed depended upon the importance of the project. An important manuscript commission might be handled simultaneously by a group of monks, under the direction of a chief scribe. Novice scribes typically performed mundane tasks such as preparing the vellum, making goose quill pens and mixing colour pigments for the painters and illustrators. The more skilled of them might be allowed to paint basic designs, or to lay gold leaf. After years of such experience, he would be assigned the responsibility of designing a page on his own.

Whatever the precise circumstances, even before the first word was written in a book, the complete design for the book illustration would have been mapped out, from the overall hierarchy of design (Would there be gold throughout the manuscript? Would there be full borders on each page? Would there be a full-page miniature painting of an apostle, or only decorated initial letters?) to the design of each individual page. The rich, vibrant reds, blues and greens, the yellows and purples of the decoration were added after the text, and we can see from surviving unfinished manuscripts how spaces were roughed out in ink for the religious paintings, and decorated borders, or for the illuminated initials. These designs were usually copied from a pattern or from the exemplar, and could be adapted if necessary. They would have been sketched in, sometimes with guidance as to the colour to be used, before being painted. Sometimes the artist or colourist might be an itinerant professional. Experts have discerned similarities in work which indicate that in some cases artists worked as far apart as Canterbury, in northern England, and Hainault, east of London.

When gold or silver was used, they would be applied before any colours, because once the metal was on the page it had to be burnished, rubbed hard, and this brisk action might well damage any painting already completed. Early manuscripts have the gold applied flat to the page, gold leaf simply laid on glue and burnished when dry. In later manuscripts, gold is laid on in one of two ways. In one, powdered gold is mixed with gum arabic to make a kind of gold paint, and is applied with a brush. This kind of gold was used if an animal or bird were to be painted with gold brushstrokes. For larger areas such as backgrounds, halos, or shadings, gold leaf was laid on a slightly raised ground of gesso, which gives a wonderful three-dimensional effect, like a plump golden cushion.

Gesso is a mixture containing plaster of Paris, and was sometimes coloured; in Italy it was pink, in Germany brown; in Paris it was usually left white. The gesso was applied to the manuscript in a damp blob and left to dry. This work would have to have been carried out at a flat desk, unlike writing, which was often carried out at a sloping desk, because the gesso, applied wet, would have run down the page before it dried. When the gesso was completely dry, the gold leaf, cut roughly into shape, was lifted gently and smoothed into place with a scrap of silk. The gold was then rubbed with a burnishing tool, traditionally the tooth of a dog or some other carnivore attached to a handle, until it was completely smooth. The edges of the gold leaf would settle down on to the pad of gesso and the burnishing tool would nip off any surplus, which would be carefully gathered up to use again.

The remainder of the decoration could now be painted. The painting may quite often have been undertaken by a different hand from that of the designer, and it is possible to see on some early manuscripts where the colours have been designated by tiny initials: early painting by numbers. Some of the painting may have been done by pen rather than by brush, particularly the decoration on flourished initials.

Medieval manuscripts are illuminated with a very wide range of colours. Vermilion is the commonest. There are other shades of red, too: madder, a plum colour, comes from the madder plant; and the exotic dragonsblood, which we are told is the mixed blood of dragons and elephants, spilt in battle (though more prosaically it actually comes from the shrub pterocarpus draco). Blue pigments were made from azurite (a blue stone rich in copper), from the seeds of the plant turnsole, from cobalt, or, most luxuriously, from lapis lazuli, to make ultramarine. Lapis lazuli comes only from the region round Afghanistan, and Marco Polo speaks of visiting the mines there at the end of the thirteenth century; but it was used in the Lindisfarne Gospels Book six hundred years before that, and must have been very precious for having made such a long and arduous journey. Greens were made from malachite or verdigris, yellows came from saffron or arsenic trisulphide, white from white lead. Violet was made from the sunflower.

Both the white of egg and the yolk were used to make paints of these pigments, as was animal glue made by boiling down skin and bones. Probably the illuminator bought his ingredients from an apothecary and then made up his paints for his own use, skills which were highly prized. Finally the illuminator varnished his work with gum arabic or egg white, to protect it and to make it gleam.

Manuscript Binding

When all the illuminations were complete, the book was ready to be bound. The signatures were gathered carefully together in the correct order, checked over and any smudges cleaned off. Monks in the early Middle Ages would have bound their own books, probably gaining great expertise and experience over the years.

The most common way of binding a manuscript was to stack the signatures together and then to sew them to leather thongs placed across the spine. When they were all securely held together boards were placed on either side and the thongs threaded through holes in the edge and tied or nailed down. Medieval boards were generally made of wood; oak, beech, or pine, but.sometimes of leather only, or of a kind of composition board made from waste scraps glued and pressed together. Before about 1200 boards were cut flush with the edges of the pages, but later it was realized that if the edges projected slightly this would protect the pages. The edges of the pages were sometimes gilded and patterned, too, but as pages have been retrimmed over the centuries, this feature is often lost. Frequently the boards were covered with leather, sometimes dyed and stamped with patterns, but luxury books might be covered with ivory, gold or enamel, or jewels. The corners of the book were then protected with metal corner-pieces, and last of all there was usually a clasp, maybe also gold or jewelled, to keep the book closed and the pages flat.

Pictures frequently show books encased still further in a loose covering called a chemise, which wrapped right round the book when it was closed, and had weights in the corners so that it hung down when open in use. Books quite often had fabric covers of this kind, embroidered or perhaps of velvet. This kind of cover is now comparatively rare: textiles of course perish; and precious stones all too easily find new homes.

Areas of Germany at this time were famous for their craftsmen working in enamel and precious metals - several manuscripts produced here closely resemble metalwork (for example, the Siegburg Lectionary, made about 1140 at Siegburg Monastery near Cologne) in their use of tints and in the colours they chose, particularly greens and blues. By the end of the twelfth century the style was moving from the Romanesque to the Gothic, with gentler type of modelling of figures and finer more delicate brushwork.

• For information about the artistic achievements of Monastic Ireland, see: Irish Art Guide.
• For more on the history and manufacture of illuminated manuscripts, see: Homepage.

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