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Digital Collections : Illuminating the Manuscript Leaves

Illuminating the Manuscript Leaves:
Book of Hours, Italy, 15th century

  • A Book of Hours is a beautifully decorated prayer book particularly common in Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia. This illuminated manuscript is Italian and dated at around 1475. The book serves as an instructional prayer manual, giving prayers and readings for specific prayer times throughout the day. Books of Hours were modeled after the Breviary, which is a larger type of prayer book used mostly by clergy and people such as monks and nuns living in religious communities. These communities often had large libraries of religious books and other texts copied by the monks living there. Books of Hours, however, were usually owned by lay people. A Book of Hours often was one of the few books in a personal library, and might be the only book a person would ever own.
  • Illuminated manuscripts are books written by hand and then decorated with pigments and precious metals such as gold or silver. The word manuscript is derived from the Latin words manus or hand and scriptus which comes from the from the verb scribere or to write. Any handwritten text may be called a manuscript. The word illumination comes from the Latin verb illuminare or to light up. In illuminated manuscripts the rich colors and glowing gold and silver highlight the borders and decorated letters. Some illuminated manuscripts even include small paintings or miniatures.
  • Manuscripts were most often written on vellum or parchment. This is skins of animals, usually calves, sheep or goats, specially prepared as a writing surface. The skins were soaked in an alkaline bath of lime to remove hair and bristles, then stretched, scraped, and rubbed with pumice to make the skins thin and smooth. They might also be whitened with chalk before being cut into leaves for a book or document. Until paper was brought to Europe from Asia and the Middle East in the 14th century, all books were made from vellum or parchment. Even after paper became common after the 15th century, vellum often was used for important documents and treasured books such as Books of Hours.
  • Before the 12th century, most learning, and therefore most writing, occurred in monasteries where monks copied texts in a scriptorium or place devoted to the act of writing. Beginning in the 12th century, universities were established to make education possible outside religious communities. To supply books for university students and faculty, wealthy nobles and merchants, the professions of parchment makers, scribes or scriveners and illuminators developed. Instead of buying books from a shop, people commissioned books from these professionals, specifying the type of book wanted, as well as the extent and expense of decoration desired.

Additional Web Resources

"A Gothic manuscript page is broken down into its key elements." Interactive online exhibit in The Glory of the Gothic Page. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/glory/gothic_interactive.html (accessed August 21, 2007).

"Book of Hours." Medieval Manuscripts. Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 1997. http://centralpt.com/upload/417/10005_MedievalManuscriptsLessonssm.pdf (accessed January 25, 2012).

"Making Art: Medieval Manuscripts." Pharos: Making Art. Cambridge, England: The Fitzwilliam Museum, n.d. http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/sections/making_art/index_manuscript.html (accessed August 21, 2007).

book of hours
Book of Hours page
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