Saturday, May 20, 2017

European Illumination - Celtic Style
Works on Paper

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Illuminations are delicate works of art that feature intricate designs which are painted and embellished with gold on parchment and vellum. These manuscripts were handled daily by generations of owners - monks or priests, academics or courtiers. Often such illuminated manuscripts were taken on travels overseas or within landlocked countries and yet they remain as rich in color since the day they were created.

A detail taken from the Lindisfarne Gospels, ca. 698, showing a number of illuminated letters encased by little red dots known as rubrication.

There are medieval drawings and paintings, which show monks at work in cloisters, bowed over books pens in hand, busy transcribing or illuminating books for people to learn and pray with.

This Anglo-Saxon woodcut shows a group of monks with rolls of parchment ready for illumination.

The magical properties which illumination gave to medieval books, heightened the standing of their creators. For example, we know the name of the scribe and illuminator of the Lindisfarne Gospels - Eadfrith - who became Bishop of Lindisfarne in May of 698.

Matthew the Evangelist - Lindisfarne Gospel.

When book illustration became more widely desired by the richer merchant class at the beginning of the thirteen century, illumination moved out of the cloister and into the libraries of the merchants. This created the need for secular scribes and illuminators, who would travel to the new university towns and centers of learning to work. The famous Limbourg brothers, who gave life to Les Trés Riches Heures for Duc de Berry, moved from the Low Countries to take up work in Paris.

Les Grandes Heures of the Duc de Berry.

The materials used involved vellum, and parchment, ink, colored pigments, powdered gold and gold leaf. The vellum and parchment was derived either from calf or sheep skin. It was soaked in water and lime and then scraped and stretched. Once dried the vellum was folded into halves, quarters or eigths depending on the required size of the book. These pages would be trimmed and stitched together.

Ink was made from powdered carbon - soot or lamp-black or iron gall - which was kept in a cow's horn. Materials for colored pigments were sourced from a variety of animal, vegetable and mineral sources. Once the materials had been gathered and prepared, the paper marked, and the illuminator had indicated spaces needed for the decorated borders, initial letters and miniatures, the scribes would begin work.

A portrait of monk Edwin, "the prince of all scribes", from a Psalter and Gloss made in Canterbury (ca. 1150) clearly shows the method of working - with a pen in hand and curved knife in the other - the latter being used to sharpen the pen and scraping out mistakes. From this portrait we can also tell that the technique of illumination used today are similar to those used in medieval times.

Unknown artist: Eadwine, the scribe, at work on the Psalter (The Book of Psalms) Christ Church Canterbury England, ca.1160-70.

Religious texts, such as the gospels and psalters - were originally illuminated to honour God. There were also more practical reasons. For example, illuminations assisted clergy to quickly find their way around the bible, because each decoration was unique and moreover, each gave a visual clue to the content of the page. Moreover, throughout their history illuminated books were appreciated as works of art, and certainly in the Renaissance history were collected as such.

Celtic Illumination Style[1]
Celtic illumination is based on the Irish script, which is decorated sometimes with a flurry of interlaced spirals, sometimes with beasts lashed together in a stylized pattern or with animal-head finials, staring open-mouthed.

The capital letters of the Celtic Script are enlarge uncials. These letters went through many variations as the style was developed, and this if often revealed in the decorative, angular and round letter forms. The capitals of the Celtic script may be painted with a brush or written with two parallel strikes of a pen to form thicker stems.

Celtic Half-uncials.

The Lindisfarne Gospels were created in 698 on the island monastery on the Northumbrian coast to commemorate the removal of the remains of Cuthbert, former bishop of Lindisfarne to another resting place. The work is regarded with such awe that the monks who worked on it, who usually remain anonymous have found a place in history: Eadfrith, the scribe and illuminator, and Ethilwald, the binder.

Initial "M" from the Lindisfarne Gospels - late 7th Century.

Discovered in the twelth century in Ireland, The Book of Kells is thought to have been created in the north of England between 600 and 900 AD. The Book of Kells is also a much revered manuscript and at first glance, the drama of the action in this monograph "TU" might go unnoticed. Entwined in mortal combat is a cat and a bird (maybe a dove).

Initials "TU" from the Book of Kells - 7th to 9th Century. It now resides at Trinity College, Dublin.

The most unusual page of Celtic art (given below) shows abstracted letters as pure decorations, with one small line of text. A wide range of patterns are used, from complex spirals and geometric knot work panels to human and animal forms.

Chi-Rho Monogram from St. Matthew's Gospel, Book of Kells - 8th Century.

The letter "Q" below is highly ornamental with animals interlaced and spirals. Everywhere are the rubricated dots typical of Celtic illumination, surrounding letters and forming patterns of their own.

Detail from the initial pager of St. Luke's Gospel, Lindisfarne Gospels.

The decoration given below has been simplified and the colors altered, but the essential Celtic character has been retained.

Initial "M" Courtesy of Helen White, 20th Century.

The adaption given below is of an initial "Q". It shows how geometric infilling may be adapted and colored. The dots around the letter give it an extra vitality and appear to lift the character off the page.

Initial "Q" Courtesy of Helen White, 20th Century.

The initial "N" in the figure below dominates this page of illumination. The decoration incorporates geometric and interlaced animal designs which are echoed in the border. A panel of ornamental square-form letters is encased by the border and was a feature of these decorative pages.

Initial page of the "Breves Causae" of St. Matthew - Book of Kells - 8th Century.

Color Your Own Illumination
The current fad is coloring-in books. They give a mico-meditative relief for so many people.

Dear Reader this blogspot realizes you need meditative relief, since you are time-poor, pressured and have been multi-tasking since birth! Below is a uncoloured illumination which reads - Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy, be still a man - David Hume. Clearly this was written before women took over the world! The "e" in the "Be" is purposely difficult to locate in order to exercise "your little grey cells" (as Poirot would say - Agatha Christie).

A coloring-in and micro-meditative exercise for your "little grey cells".

Below is the left most portion of a colored version (not mine!)

Color illumination - old style.

Make yourself a promise that your next Christmas e-card will contain a least one of your illuminations (and to think it is only May!) Below is the letter "M" (Merry or March) from the Vatican Barkarini manuscript.

Letter M.

[1] The Illuminated Alphabet, T. Nad (Calligraphy) and P. Seligman (Text), Simon & Schuster (1994) Sydney.

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