What is an illuminated manuscript?

Before the invention of the printing press in Europe around 1455, all books were handwritten and decorated. The word manuscript is derived from the Latin words manus (hand) and scriptus, from scribere (to write). Illuminated, from the Latin illuminare (to light up), denotes the glow created by the radiant colors of the illustrations, as well as by real gold and silver. Illuminations took the form of decorated letters, borders, and independent figurative scenes, also called miniatures.
The Getty Trust acquired its first set of 144 manuscripts and leaves (single pages) in 1983 from collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig. Today the J. Paul Getty Museum owns more than 200 books, leaves, and cuttings, spanning the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The Annunciation to the Virgin, Gualenghi-d’Este Hours, Taddeo Crivelli, circa 1470, Ferrara  (The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 13,
fols. 3v-4). See more pages of the Gualenghi-d’Este Hours.
One magnificent manuscript in the Getty’s collection is the Gualenghi-d’Este Hours, seen above. Though sumptuously decorated with incredible detail, the book is only about four-inches tall. Illuminated largely by Italian artist Taddeo Crivelli, these two pages in particular demonstrate superb examples of miniature and border illumination, complete with a historiated initial (a letter containing identifiable narrative scenes or figures). The miniature on the left-hand page shows the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary surrounded by naturalistic elements. Flowers, peacocks, and trees crowd the border, interspersed with Renaissance heraldic symbols and the personal mottoes of the book’s owner. Facing this page, the Virgin and Child embrace within a historiated initial D, flanked by the first prayers of the day, in Latin. Taken from Psalm 50, the text reads: Domine labia mea aperies et os meus an[n]utiabit laudem tuam (Lord, you will open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise).

Who made manuscripts?

Until about the 12th century, the most elaborate and beautiful illuminations were devoted to religious works, and most manuscripts were produced in monasteries. In a monastery, the scriptorium was the center for both scholarly activity and the copying of texts.
Initial S: The Conversion of Saint Paul, about 1440–1450, attributed to Pisanello (illuminator), attributed to Master of the Antiphonal Q of San Giorgio Maggiore (illuminator), Italian, probably the Veneto, possibly Verona, tempera colors, gold leaf, gold paint, and silver leaf on parchment, 5 9/16 inches high x 3 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. 41, VERSO)
During the rise of universities in cities in the 12th and 13th centuries, scribes and illuminators were increasingly laymen who made their living by supplying fine manuscripts to noblemen, the new middle class, and students and professors of emerging universities. During the Renaissance, several important painters also worked within the pages of illuminated manuscripts, such as Gerard David, Simon Bening, and Antonio Pisano, called Pisanello, as seen in the cutting at the left.

How were manuscripts made?

By the high Middle Ages, the making of a manuscript was often divided among four distinct craftsman: the parchment maker, the scribe, the illuminator, and the bookbinder. Typically, each belonged to a guild with specific guidelines and standards.
The construction of an illuminated manuscript began with the parchment maker, who prepared the animal skins used to make the leaves of a manuscript. Although paper was present in Europe as early as the 14th century, manuscripts were most often written on the specially prepared skin of calves, sheep, or goats, though sometimes parchment makers used smaller animals including rabbits and even squirrels. Though expensive, parchment provided a surface that was beautifully textured, translucent, and durable.
St. Mark, about 1120–1140, unknown, German, Helmarshausen, tempera colors, gold, silver, and ink on parchment, 9 inches high x 6 1/2 inches wide (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG II 3, FOL. 51V). Use our zoom feature to take a closer look at St. Mark’s quill and knife.
Once the skins were prepared and cut, the scribe wrote the manuscript’s text by hand. A scribe usually made his own quills and ink. In the manuscript page at the left, St. Mark is portrayed as a scribe dipping his quill into a pot of ink as he sits before a lectern. Mark holds a knife in his left hand, used not only to sharpen his quill, but also to “erase” any mistakes on the manuscript by scratching away the top layer of the parchment along with the mistake.
After the text was written, the illuminator added gilded details, if any, and then provided the manuscript’s painted decoration. The miniatures were painted with a variety of precious colors made from a wide range of sources, from vegetable and animal extracts to ground minerals from the earth.
The number and variety of illuminations in a single luxury manuscript often required the collaboration of several craftsmen. For example, the Getty’s Spinola Hour s involved at least five main illuminators and numerous workshop assistants. (See three pages from this book below.) Together, the scribes and artists created a manuscript with eighty-three large illuminations filled with startling illusions and intricate details, including architectural renderings and illustrations of flowers and fauna.
Left to right: Working in a Vineyard/Zodiacal Sign of Pisces, Workshop of Master of James IV of Scotland, FOL. 2; Christ before Caiaphas, Master of the Dresden Prayer Book, FOL. 120; St. Stephen, Workshop of the Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian, FOL. 253V. The Spinola Hours, about 1510–1520, Flemish, Ghent or Mechelen, tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
See more pages from the Spinola Hours.
A luxury manuscript was not considered complete without an equally fine binding to protect the manuscript, hold the leaves together, and keep them from absorbing moisture and therefore curling. The bookbinder affixed metal clasps or ties of leather or fabric to keep the manuscript tightly closed. Bindings were sometimes embellished with paint, enamel, or with designs stamped into leather with metal tools. The most precious bindings were adorned with metalwork and jewels, particularly in the early Middle Ages.
Cover of a Sacramentary, 1100s and later, unknown, Belgian, hammered, engraved, and gilt silver, brass, and niello (The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS. LUDWIG V 2, COVER)
The cover from this sacramentary at the left depicts a three-dimensional sculpted figure of Christ in Majesty. He sits on a throne, blessing with his right hand while holding a book.
The cover transforms the book of parchment leaves into a jeweled relic by using the same kinds of materials generally reserved for liturgical objects and reliquaries.