Book of Kells

Illuminated Bible Manuscripts

General Information

The large Irish Illuminated Manuscript of the four Gospels known as the Book of Kells is one of the most famous of all medieval books. Now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, it was probably begun by monks at the island monastery of Iona and completed at the Irish monastery of Kells sometime between the mid-8th and the early 9th century. The gospels are written on thick vellum and lavishly illuminated with the rich ornamentation characteristic of Celtic Art of this period. In addition to 31 full-page illustrations, fanciful figures and tightly interlaced bands, knots, and spirals of extraordinary intricacy and density occur throughout the book.

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Alton, E. H., and Meyer, Peter, The Book of Kells, 3 vols. (1950-51); Henry, Francoise, The Book of Kells (1974).

Book of Kells

Catholic Information

An Irish manuscript containing the Four Gospels, a fragment of Hebrew names, and the Eusebian canons, known also as the "Book of Columba", probably because it was written in the monastery of Iona to honour the saint. It is likely that it is to this book that the entry in the "Annals of Ulster" under the year 1006 refers, recording that in that year the "Gospel of Columba" was stolen.

According to tradition, the book is a relic from the time of Columba (d. 597) and even the work of his hands, but, on palæographic grounds and judging by the character of the ornamentation, this tradition cannot be sustained, and the date of the composition of the book can hardly be placed earlier than the end of the seventh or beginning of the eighth century. This must be the book which the Welshman, Geraldus Cambrensis, saw at Kildare in the last quarter of the twelfth century and which he describes in glowing terms (Topogr. Hibern., II, xxxviii). We next hear of it at the cathedral of Kells (Irish Cenannus) in Meath, a foundation of Columba's, where it remained for a long time, or until the year 1541. In the seventeenth century Archbishop Ussher presented it to Trinity College, Dublin, where it is the most precious manuscript (A. I. 6) in the college library and by far the choicest relic of Irish art that has been preserved. In it is to be found every variety of design typical of Irish art at its best.

Some small portions at the beginning and end of the manuscript have been lost, but otherwise it is in a very good state of preservation. It was apparently left unfinished, since some of the ornaments remain only in outline. It is written in part black, red, purple or yellow ink, and it has been thought that the hands of two scribes, neither of whom is known to us by name, are discernible in the writing and illumination of the manuscript. The most characteristic ornaments of the Book of Kells, as of other illuminated Irish manuscripts of the period, are the closely coiled spirals connected with each other by a number of curves and terminating in the so-called "trumpet pattern". Almost equally characteristic are the zoomorphic interlacements, coloured representations of fanciful beings, or of men, animals, birds, horses, dogs, and grotesque, gargoyle-like human figures, twisted and hooked together in intricate detail. Other frequently occurring designs are a system of geometrical weaving of ribbons plaited and knotted together, and a simpler ornamentation by means of red dotted lines. The versatility and inventive genius of the illustrator surpasses all belief. Lines diverge and converge in endless succession, and the most intricate figures, in lavish abundance and with astounding variety of ornament, are combined and woven into one harmonious design. In spite of the extent of the work and its thousands of exquisite initials and terminals, there is not a single pattern or combination that can be said to be a copy of another. The artist shows a wonderful technique in designing and combining various emblems, the cross, vine, dragon, fish, and serpent. The drawing is perfection itself. It has been examined under a powerful magnifying glass for hours at a time and found to be, even in the most minute and complicated figures, without a single false or irregular line. Some of the most accomplished of modern draughtsmen have attempted to copy its elaborate designs, but, such is the delicacy of the execution, that they had to abandon the task as hopeless. In a space of one inch square were counted no less than 158 interlacings of white ribbon with a black border on either side. On the other hand, the pictures of the personages delineated are feeble and primitive and show but a limited knowledge of the human figure and its relative proportions.

No words can describe the beauty and the extreme splendour of the richly coloured initial letters, which are more profuse in the "Book of Kells" than in any other manuscript. The only thing to which they can be compared is a bed of many coloured crocuses and tulips or the very finest stained glass window, which they equal in beauty of colouring and rival in delicacy of ornament and drawing. The artist possessed a wonderful knowledge of the proportion of colour and the distribution of his material -- sienna, purple, lilac, red, pink, green, yellow, the colours most often used -- and he managed the shading and tinting of the letters with consummate taste and skill. It is remarkable that there is no trace of the use of silver or gold on the vellum. Sometimes the colours are laid on in thick layers to give the appearance of enamel, and are here and there as bright and soft and lustrous as when put on fresh more than twelve hundred years ago. Even the best photographic and colour reproductions give but a faint idea of the beauty of the original. Especially worthy of notice is the series of illuminated miniatures, including pictorial representations of the Evangelists and their symbols, the Blessed Virgin and the Divine Child, the temptation of Jesus, and Jesus seized by the Jews. These pictures reach their culminating point in what is, in some respects, the most marvellous example of workmanship that the world has ever produced, namely the full page monogram XPI which occurs in the text of the Gospel of St. Matthew. It is no wonder that it was for a long time believed that the "Book of Kells" could have been written only by angels.

Publication information Written by Joseph Dunn. Transcribed by Paul Knutsen. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

Illuminated Manuscripts

Catholic Information


A large number of manuscripts are covered with painted ornaments which may be presented under several forms:

initials of chapters or paragraphs, ornamented sometimes very simply, sometimes on the other hand with a great profusion of interlacings, foliage, and flowers; these are developed along the whole length of the page and within are sometimes depicted persons or scenes from everyday life; paintings on the margin, in which some scene is carried over several pages; borders around the text (interlacing colonnades, etc.), the most remarkable example is that of the evangelistic canons of the Middle Ages; full-page paintings (or such as cover only a part of the page), but forming real pictures, similar to frescoes or easel pictures; these are chiefly found on very ancient or very recent manuscripts (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries);

finally, there exist rolls of parchment wholly covered with paintings (Roll of Josue in the Vatican; Exultet Roll of S. Italy; see below).

All these ornaments are called "eluminures", illuminations, or miniatures, a world used since the end of the sixteenth century. At first the "miniator" was charged with tracing in red minium the titles and initials. Despite its limitations, the art of illumination is one of the most charming ever invented; it exacts the same qualifications and produced almost as powerful effects as painting; it even calls for a delicacy of touch all its own. And whereas most of the paintings of the Middle Ages have perished, these little works form an almost uninterrupted series which afford us a clear idea of the chief schools of painting of each epoch and each region. Finally, in the history of art the rôle of illuminated manuscripts was considerable; by treating in their works scenes of sacred history the manuscript painters inspired other artists, painters, sculptors, goldsmiths, ivory workers, etc.; it is especially in miniature that the ebb and flow of artistic styles during the Middle Ages may be detected. In the Orient must be sought the origin of this art, as well as that of the manuscripts themselves. The most ancient examples are found on Egyptian papyri, where in the midst of the texts, and not separated from it, portraits are painted, most frequently in profile, according to the Egyptian method. After having drawn the outline in black in the artist filled in the drawing in colours. The art seems to have been also cultivated by the Greek artists of Alexandria. The papyrus containing the poems of Timotheus (fourth century B.C.) found at Abousir, has a long-legged bird in the body of the text as a mark of division. A fragment of a romance on a papyrus (Paris, Bib. Nat., supp. Gr. 1294; first century A.D.) displays a text broken by groups of miniatures: men and women in bluish-gray or pink costumes stand out in relief from the background of the papyrus itself. Latin writers show us that the miniature was introduced into Rome as early as the first century B.C. (Pliny, "Hist. Nat.", XXV, 8). Martial (XIV, 1865) mentions a portrait of Virgil painted on a parchment manuscript, and Varro collected seven hundred such portraits of illustrious men. (The portraits of the Evangelists in medieval manuscripts result from this tradition.) None of these works remains and the only traces of the illuminations of antiquity are found in the following manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries:

the "Virgil" of the Vatican (Lat. 3225), written by a single hand, has fifty miniatures which appear to be the work of at least three different painters. These are small pictures bordered by coloured bands (six of them fill a whole page); some of them, especially in the "Georgics", represent country landscapes the freshness of which is worthy of the text they illustrate. The background of buildings and temples recalls the paintings at Pompeii; the "Iliad" of Milan (similar technic);

the Bible of Quedlinburg (Berlin), containing the most ancient Christian miniatures known;

the "Calendar" of Philocalus, composed in 354, the original of which, acquired by Peiresc, has disappeared, but the copies at Brussels, Vienna and the Barberini Library evidence a work of a purity thoroughly antique; the most curious portion is an illustrated calendar in which each month is symbolized by a scene of country life; this is a species of illustration of ancient origin which recurs very frequently in the miniatures of the Middle Ages.



The tradition of miniatures on papyrus was preserved till the Christian era. On a Berlin papyrus (Emperor Frederick Museum) we find a picture of Christ curing a demoniac. In the Goleniscev collection there are sixteen leaves of a universal Coptic chronicle on papyrus, dated 392 and decorated with miniatures in a very barbarous style, intended as illustrations of the text. In the margin are seen successively the months (women crowned with flowers), the provinces of Asia (fortified gateways), the prophets, the kings of Rome, Lydia, Macedonia, Roman emperors, and perhaps the Patriarch Tehophilus presiding at the destruction of the Serapeum. The author was a native monk and a complete stranger to Hellenic art.

Syria and Mesopotamia

The existence of Persian manuscripts on parchment very rich in miniatures, is proved by allusions of St. Augustine (Adv. Faustum, XIII, 6, 18). As early as the fifth century schools of miniaturists were formed in the Christian convents of Syria and Mesopotamia which drew some of their inspiration from Greek art (draped figures), but relied mainly on the ornamental traditions of the ancient Orient. The masterpiece of this school is the Syriac Evangeliary written in 586 at the Monastery of Zagba (Mesopotamia) by the monk Rabula (since the fifteenth century in the Laurentian Library, Florence). The miniatures are real pictures with a decorative frame formed of zigzags, curves, rainbows, etc. The Gospel canons are set in arcades ornamented with flowers and birds. The scene of the Crucifixion is treated with an abundance of detail which is very rare at this period. The works of the Syro-Mesopotamian School seem to have missed the meaning of the Hellenic figures (figures in flowing draperies) of which they retained the tradition. On a Syriac evangeliary in the Borgian Museum (manuscripts Syr., 14, f, k.) men and animals are painted in unreal colours and are bordered with black lines which give to the illuminations the appearance of cloisonné enamels. The work, which is dated 1546, seems to have been inspired by an older model.


The Armenian School of illuminating also belongs to Syria. It is represented by the evangeliary of Etschmiadzin (tenth century), the miniatures of which are derived from a sixth-century model; the evangeliary of Queen Mlke (Venice, Monastery of the Mechitarists, dated 902), and the evangeliary of Tübingen, dated 1113. In all these works the richness of the framework and the hieratic character of the human face are noteworthy.

Muslim Art

All the above characteristics carried to extremes are found in the Muslim schools of miniatures (Arabic, Turkish, and Persian manuscripts); the oldest date only from the thirteenth century. Together with copies of the Koran, admirably illuminated with purely geometrical figures radiating symmetrically around a central motif like the design of a carpet, there is found especially in Persia, a fruitful school of painters which did not fear to depict the human face. Nothing is more picturesque than the varied scenes intended to illustrate the books of chronicles, legends, etc. Besides fantastic scenes ("Apocalypse of Mohomet", Paris, Bib. Nat., supp. Turk., 190) are found contemporary reproductions of scenes from real life which take us into the streets of Bagdad in the thirteenth century or permit us to follow an army or a caravan on the march ("Maqâmât" of Hariri, Bib. Nat., Paris, supp. Arab., 1618). Eastern artists, whether Christian or Muslim, frequently portray their subjects on backgrounds of gold; in Persian manuscripts, however, are found attempts at landscape backgrounds, several of which betray a Chinese influence.


The history of Byzantine miniatures is yet to be written; it is impossible at present to determine its origin or to study its development. It seems more and more evident that Byzantine art, far from being an original creation, is no more than a prolonged survival of the Hellenic-oriental art of the fourth to the sixth centuries. The Greek monks charged with the illumination of manuscripts never ceased to copy models, following the fashion and the occupation of the time, these models sometimes varies; hence Byzantine art has undergone a development more apparent than real. Under present conditions, without seeking to determine the schools, we must be content to indicate the principal groups of manuscripts.

Fifth and Sixth Centuries

Several of the Biblical manuscripts in gold letters on purple parchment have been rightly compared with one another, viz. the Genesis of the Imperial Library of Vienna, the Evangeliarium of Rossano, and the fragment of the Gospel of St. Matthew discovered at Sinope (since 1900 in the Bib. Nat., Paris). In these three manuscripts the painting has an anecdotic character; it is intended to illustrate the text, and sometimes two periods of a scene are represented in a picture. Both the evangelaries show a bearded face of Christ, majestic and severe, which already suggests the "Pantocrator" of church cupolas. From the same period date two works which appear to be the transcription on parchment of an original on papyrus; one is the Roll of Josue in the Vatican Library, which displays a series of miniatures, eleven yards long, relating to the history of Josue; the other is the manuscript of the voyage of Cosmas Indicopleustes (Vatican), a monk of Sinai; in this, together with symbolic representations of various parts of the world, are many scenes and personages of the Bible, painted opposite the text, with the manuscript itself as background. Very different is the illustration of medical manuscripts such as the "Dioscorides" of Vienna, executed about the year 500, for Juliana, daughter of Placidia. Heron are found real pictures copied from ancient originals (portraits of physicians and of Juliana).

Eighth to Eleventh Century

The Iconoclastic crisis was fatal to illumination and painted manuscripts were either mutilated or destroyed. An attempt was made to substitute for religious representations a purely ornamental art. Probably to this school belongs an evangeliary of Paris (Bib. Nat., Gr. 63), in which the motifs of decoration are borrowed from flora and fauna. The triumph of images in the eleventh century was also the triumph of religious miniature painting, which together with calligraphy underwent great development in the scriptorium of Studion. One of the books illustrated by preference by the monks was the Psalter, of which the paintings comprise two elements: the scenes of the history of David, and the symbolic allusions to the life of Christ contained in the Psalms. There are to be distinguished (1) the aristocratic psalter, represented by the Psalter of Paris (Gr. 139); the miniatures extend over the whole page within a rich border, and appear to be the reproduction from an ancient original of the third-fourth century; some pictures, such as that of David tending his flocks, have a quite Pompeian freshness. Antique influence makes itself felt by a large number of allegories personified and draped in Hellenic costumes; (2) the monastic and theological psalter in which the miniatures placed in the margin follow the text step by step. The Chloudov Psalter of Moscow (ninth cent.), those of Vatopedi (tenth cent.), the Vatican (Barberini Library: dated 1059), etc. are the principal specimens of this class. Some miniatures of the Chloudov Psalter represent episodes of the Iconoclastic conflict. Another manuscript often illustrated at this period was the "Menologion", which contained sometimes besides the liturgical calendar, and abbreviation of the lives of the saints for each day. The most celebrated is that of the Vatican, decorated for Basil II (976-1025) by seven artists who left their names attached to each miniature. A great variety of colours relieved a rather extreme monotony of inspiration; everywhere are found the same architectural backgrounds, the same sufferings in the midst of the same landscapes. The beautiful manuscript of the "Homilies" of Gregory of Nazienzus (Paris, Bib. Nat., Gr. 510: end of ninth century) was composed for Basil II; it is unfortunately damaged but it presents a remarkable series of the most varied pictures (portraits of St. Gregory of Nazienzus and of Basil I; sessions of Councils; Biblical scenes, etc.). This period was decidedly the golden age of Byzantine illumination. The manuscripts, even those which lack pictures, have at least ornamented initial letters, which in the earlier examples are very simple, but in course of time became surrounded with foliage, in the midst of which animals or small figures disported themselves. (These initials, however, never attained the same dimensions as in Western manuscripts.).

Twelfth Century

The lofty traditions of Byzantine miniature painting were upheld until the fall of Constantinople in 1204. A group of the Octateuch (Smyrna, Athos, Vatican and Seraglio libraries) seems to have the same origin. The artists were chiefly concerned with illustrating the text, following it step by step; some of the scenes are spirited and picturesque, but the inspiration seems derived from ancient models (such as the Roll of Josue). The specimen at the Seraglio was composed for Prince Isaac, some of Alexius I Comnenus. A manuscript whose picture exercised great influence on Byzantine art is that of the "Homilies on the Virgin", by James, a monk of Coxynobaphos (Vatical 1162; Paris, 1208). The initials are remarkable for richness, and the paintings develop all the events of the life of the Blessed Virgin until the birth of Christ (cf. the mosaics in the narthex of the Kahrié-Djami at Constantinople).

Thirteenth to Fifteenth Century

The studios of miniature paintings for a long time felt the effects of the catastrophe of 1204, and after the thirteenth century the monks ceased to illuminate luxuriously liturgical manuscripts. One of the manuscripts most characteristic of this period is that of the "Chronicle" of Skylitzes (Madrid, National Library, thirteenth century). The colours are clear in tone and very fresh, but the artist having no ancient model before him and left to his own resources, has executed veritable bons-hommes, which nevertheless charm by the vivacity of their movements and their picturesque attitudes. The imitation of antiquity however was not abandoned, as is shown by the portraits of Dosiades and of Theocritus (Cod. Paris, Gr. 28- 32) composed in the fourteenth century, but probably copied from Alexandrian originals of the third and fourth centuries. lastly attention is called to certain fourteenth-century manuscripts of Western or even Italian inspiration (Cod. Paris, Gr. 135; dated 1362; on this manuscript, written by a scribe of John V Cantacuzenus, there is a Gothic monster, a knight with buckler ornamented with fleur-de-lis, etc.). In the Slavic countries, the illuminated manuscripts of the Bulgarian, Russian or Serbian monasteries belong to the Byzantine school, but have also been directly influenced by the Orient, especially by Syria. Some Russian manuscripts were illuminated in the sixteenth century (e.g. the Book of the Tsars, 1535-53). Scandinavian influences appear in Russian manuscripts (monsters and interlacings of initials); and one of the most remarkable monuments of Slavic miniature painting is the Servian Psalter of Munich, in which the paintings are executed by an impressionistic artist, who uses contrasting colours instead of pen designs.


The evolution of miniature painting in the Occident was quite different; the imitation of ancient models was never as complete as in the Orient, and as in all other arts, the time came when the illuminator of manuscripts abandoned tradition and attempted to copy nature. In the Occident even more than in the Orient, it is possible to follow a real development of illuminated books.

Sixth to Eighth Century

Until the Carolingian epoch the sole original school of illumination is to be sought in the Irish monasteries, or in those founded on the Continent by Irish monks. The works of the Irish school are characterized by wonderful decorative sense, far removed from naturalism. Nothing is more graceful than the large initials formed by ribbons ornamented with interlacings, in the midst of which are sometimes human heads or animals. Some borders decorated with spirals, rose-work, and interlacings recall, by their display of fancy, pages of the illuminated Korans. Indeed there are in Irish art elements which are frankly Oriental, and the geometrical and symmetrical aspect of the human form in Irish manuscripts may be compared to what we find on certain Coptic monuments, buildings, or bas-reliefs. In Ireland as in the Orient, ancient ornamentation finds little place; foliage is entirely absent from this decoration, which consists almost exclusively of geometrical elements. The kinship of these motifs with those found on the barbaric jewels or the stone sculptures of Ireland is evident. Among the most celebrated works of this school may be cited: the "Book of Kells" (Trinity College, Dublin), the transcription of which is ascribed to St. Columba, but which in reality belongs to the seventh century; the "Evangeliarum of Durham", belonging to the Diocese of Lindisfarne (British Museum, Cotton manuscripts, Nero D. IV), copied in honour of St. Cuthbert by Bishop Eadfrith (698-721), bound by Bishop Æthilwald, and ornamented with precious stones by the monk Billfrith, is also of great value. Although copied in an English monastery it possesses all the characteristics of Irish art; large initials decorated with interlacings and without foliage, the predominance of simple colours (violet, green, yellow, red) absence of gold and silver, portraits of the evangelists similar to those on Byzantine manuscripts. Beginning with the sixth century this art of illumination was brought by Irish monks, not only to England but also to the Continent, where the monasteries of Luxeuil, Würzburg, St. Gall, and Bobbio became centres of Irish art. As specimens of this expansion may be cited: the "Evangeliarium of St. Willibrord" (d. 730), Apostle of the Frisians (Cod. Paris, supp. Lat. 693), of which the initials resemble those of the manuscript of Durham; the "Evangeliarum of Maeseyck" (Belgium) eighth century; the manuscript of the Bible called Codex Bigotianus (Cod. Paris; Lat. 281 and 298), the work of the Abbey of Fécamp, eighth century; the so-called St. Cainim manuscript (now with the Franciscans of Dublin, but originating in Italy), in reality of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Several manuscripts of St. Gall contain miniatures of this school, but showing foreign influence.

In the rest of Europe, among the Visigoths, the Franks, and the Burgundians, there were schools of calligraphy similar to those of Ireland, with more marked traces of ancient art (absence of interlacings which were replaced by garlands, sturdy foliage, etc.). As an example may be mentioned the initial of the Burgundian papyri of Geneva, sixth century (Homilies of St. Avitus). A celebrated Bible, the ornamentation of which remains a problem, must be considered apart. This is the famous manuscript of St. Gatien at Tours, stolen by Libri about 1846, and returned to the Paris Bibliothèque Nationale in 1888, after having figured in the Ashburnham collection. This Pentateuch, written in seventh-century uncials, is adorned with large full-page miniatures framed in red bands and presenting a number of scenes arranged on different margins, but without symmetry. What is striking about the manuscript is its aim at picturesqueness and movement, and the wholly Oriental character of the design and especially of the costumes of the personages (the women wear the tall head-dress and veil of the bas- reliefs of Palmyra) and of the architectural backgrounds (bulbous cupolas alternating with pedimented buildings). The arrangement of the scenes recalls certain fourteenth-century Persian manuscripts. In this instance we have to do perhaps with the reproduction of a cycle of miniatures conceived in the East to illustrate the Vulgate of St. Jerome.

Ninth and Tenth Centuries

The Carolingian period was as decisive for the illumination of manuscripts as for other arts. Thanks to the initiative of Charlemagne and his chief assistants, Alcuin, Theodulfus, etc., schools of miniature painting were formed in the principal monasteries of the empire, and our libraries possess a large number of their works. The elements which compose this art were most varied; the influence of Irish and Anglo-Saxon illuminations is unquestionable, and to it was due the partiality for large initials which until the fifteenth century were one of the favourite ornaments of Western manuscripts. Carolingian art was not exclusively Irish, and in the manuscripts of this period are found traces of ancient art and Oriental influences (evangeliary canons, symbolical motifs such as the fountain of life, etc.). With the assistance of these manuscripts a whole iconographical cycle may be formed, encyclopedic in character, in which side by side with religious history occur figures from the profane sciences (liberal arts, calendars, zodiacs, virtues and vices, etc.). Ornamentation is more luxurious, the colours are more vigorous and decided in tone, silver and gold have not been spared and there is even a return to manuscripts in gold letters on a purple ground. Many of these Bibles, Psalters, or Evangeliaries were composed for sovereigns, whose portraits were presented on the first page in all their royal apparel; they are often surrounded by allegorical figures borrowed from antiquity. Beside these full-page paintings we find above all in these manuscripts beautiful initials of extraordinary variety; Irish interlacings alone or combined with antique foliage, purely zoomorphic initials, etc. The principal manuscripts of this period are: the Evangeliary of Godescalc, made for Charlemagne, 781-83 (Paris), text in gold letters on purple ground with a decorative framework which is different on each page; Bibles of Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans (Paris and Le Puy); Evangeliary of Charlemagne (Vienna); Bibles of Alcuin (Zurich, Bamberg, Vallicella, Tours); Bibles of Charles the Bald (Paris); Sacramentary of Drogo (Paris); Sacramentary of Gellone (Paris), has initials uniquely formed with fishes or birds; Evangeliary of Lothaire (Paris); Bible of St. Martial of Limoges (Paris, tenth cent.); Evangeliary of Cividale (Friuli); Codex Egberti (Trier), presented to Egbert, Archbishop of Trier, by two monks of Reichenau in 980. To the same school belong the manuscripts composed in the German monasteries for the Ottos. Moreover, Irish or Anglo-Saxon art also produced remarkable monuments, among which may be mentioned the Psalter of Utrecht (tenth cent.), the Psalters of Winchester (British Museum), and the Benedictionaries of Jumièges (Rouen).

Tenth to Twelfth Century

At the beginning of the eleventh century the fictitious unity in the artistic and intellectual sphere established by Charlemagne gave way to the diversity of the provincial schools, but if the boundaries of these schools may almost be traced when there is question of architecture, the task is more difficult in the study of miniatures; researches in this field have scarcely commenced. The illuminated manuscripts of this period were made in the monastic studios. As a general thing the writers were at once painters and calligraphers, such as Guillaume de St. Evroult, "Scriptor et librorum illuminator" (Ord. Vital., III, 7). Sometimes however the two professions were distinct; the manuscript of Peter Lombard (Valenciennes, 178) bears the inscription "Segharus me scripsit" and on the frontispiece "Sawalo me fecit". Sawalo, a monk of St. Amand, is the illuminator and his name is found elsewhere. This period is marked by the extraordinary development of large initials while the full-page miniatures disappeared. Illustrations on several scales are still found in the margin.

These initials of the Romantic period follow the traditions of Carolingian illumination, but they are even more complex and the human figure assumes an increasingly important place. Some of them are full-length portraits of prophets or apostles; in others complete scenes (battles, besieged cities, etc.) are developed in the midst of pillars. The great difference between this and the Carolingian period lies in the appearance of naturalism and of anachronism (prophets with pointed shoes, etc.). Lastly there are many points of resemblance between the development of miniature painting and that of other arts of design. The short and badly drawn figures were succeeded, at the end of the twelfth century, by more slender portraits which resemble the elongated statues of Chartres. Such is the character of the ornamental school which produced innumerable works in France, Germany, Northern Italy, Spain, and the Two Sicilies. (Here it is difficult to trace the boundary between Western miniature painting and the Byzantine which made its influence felt in the workrooms of Monte Cassino and especially in the beautiful paintings of the rolls containing the text of the "Exultet" of Holy Saturday.) Also worthy of mention is an attempt of the Cistercians to infuse more simplicity into illuminating. A model manuscript had been composed at Cîteaux, in which gold and painting were replaced by a calligraphic decoration in perfect taste. There is an intimate relation between this severe elegance and Cistercian architecture.

Thirteenth Century

In the thirteenth century illumination, like calligraphy, ceased to be the specialty of the monasteries. In France and about the University of Paris appeared the lay illuminators. The taste for illuminated manuscripts spread more and more, and important studios of illuminators arose, the heads of which often furnished sketches of miniatures to be executed. On the other hand the illuminations took a more and more important place at the expense of the text. The artists were no longer satisfied with ornamented initials, but in a series of medallions arranged like those decorating the stained glass windows they developed whole cycles of sacred or profane history. There were then composed "Picture Bibles" made up of a continuous series of miniatures (Bible of Sir Thomas Philipps), or "Sermon Bibles", veritable illustrated theological summaries, giving for each verse of Scripture the literal, symbolical, and moral interpretations. This immense work, which must have contained 5000 figures, has not reached us complete. A manuscript in 3 vols. of a Sermon Bible is divided between the Bodleian Library, the Bibliothèque Nationale of Paris, and the British Museum. The Psalter of Ingeburg (Musée Condé at Chantilly) and that of Sts. Louis and Blanche of Castile (Arsenal Library) belong by their ornamentation to the monastic art of the twelfth century. On the other hand new tendencies appear in the works of the second half of the thirteenth century, e.g. the Evangeliarium of the Sainte-Chapelle (Bib. Nat.), the two Psalters of St. Louis (Paris, Bib. Nat., and collection of H. Y. Thompson), the works of profane literature (chansons de geste, etc.). Gothic ornamentation with its wealth of rose and quatrefoil decoration, gables, pinnacles, and foliage often forms the framework for these vignettes. The gold backgrounds are almost always covered with designs, sometimes in relief. Instead of foliage and fantastic animals the human figure holds the predominant place. In miniature painting as in the sculpture of the thirteenth century may be observed the progress of realism and the exact observation of the living model. These beautiful miniatures of the Books of Hours revive for us with their still admirable colours the costumes of the contemporaries of St. Louis and Philip the Fair. Such is the style which henceforth dominates French miniature painting and which speedily spread throughout Europe, especially England.

Early Fourteenth Century

This period is represented chiefly by the Parisian illuminator Jean Pucelle, whose name has been discovered on several manuscripts.) One of the most beautiful of his works is the Breviary of Belleville (Bib. Nat., Lat. 10483-84), executed in collaboration with Mahiet Ancelet and J. Chevrier. The new school was remarkable for its borders, formed of wonderful garlands of interlaced foliage and flowers, no longer conventional as formerly, but copied from nature. Between the border and the text were represented scenes of everyday life, sometimes of a humorous character, for example a piper playing for dancing peasants, or animals, birds, monkeys, butterflies, dragonflies intermingled, with the foliage, as on the sculptured panels of the cathedrals of the same period. Traces of Italian inspiration appear in the architecture, which is of a mixed Gothic character. Among the works of this school the "Book of the Miracles of Our Lady" (Seminary of Soissons) is one of the most exquisite. During the same period the English miniaturists produced remarkable works such as "Queen Mary's Psalter" (Brit. Mus.), which belonged to Mary Tudor but which dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. It contains first more than two hundred scenes from the Old Testament bordered with a simple framework of foliage. The figures are graceful and elegant. Then come scenes from the life of Christ executed on gold backgrounds with much greater richness in the midst of innumerable scenes of the chase, tourneys, games, grotesque subjects. The East Anglian abbeys (Norfolk, Suffolk) produced magnificent psalters during the same period (Psalter of Peterborough at Brussels; Psalter of Robert of Ormesby at Oxford) which belong to the same school. In Germany the miniaturists had long been imitating Byzantine art; beginning with the fourteenth century they also imitate French models. In Austria at the monastery of St. Florian is found the most ancient example of the Biblia Pauperum, executed about 1300 according to the same method as the Sermon Bibles. The taste for miniatures was so keen at this period that they even went so far as to illuminate some important characters. A copy of the house rules of the kings of Majorca shows each of the officials in the exercise of his functions (reproduced in "Acta SS. Bolland.", June, I; cf. list given by Delaborde in "Centenaire de la Société des Antiquaires de France", 93).

Late Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Century

It was in the second half of the fifteenth century that the art of miniature painting was most profoundly changed. It may even be said that the illuminators of this period were to a certain extent the precursors of modern painting. This new transformation seems to have been largely the work of the powerful "Ghildes" of the Flemish masters, versatile artists, many of them skilled like André Beauneveu in painting, sculpture and architecture, and obliged by stress of competition to leave their own country in order to offer their services to the lovers of beautiful manuscripts. They are found scattered throughout Europe, and some went even to Italy. André Beauneveu became (1393-1397) the chief of the artists in the employ of Jean Duke of Berry. He made a Psalter (Bib. Nat., Paris) in which figures of prophets, and Apostles alternated in quiet tones. It was at this time that manuscripts began to be painted in grisaille. The gold backgrounds were replaced by designs in colours, then by real landscapes. In this respect the "Très Riches Heures" of the Duke of Berry (Chantilly, Musée Condé), which have been attributed to Pol de Limbourg, mark a veritable revolution (beginning of the fifteenth century). In the pictures of the different months are represented all the châteaux of the prince in the midst of surprisingly true landscapes. Long before the Van Eycks, Pol de Limbourg was acquainted with aerial perspective. In his works are found the effects of snow, of starry nights, of dazzling summer lights, the grey tones of autumn, all of which were new in art. Persons were treated with the same love of truth. Physiognomies copied from nature without disguise of any defect, intensity of look (never was religious sentiment expressed with such power), minute truthfulness as to costumes and details of furnishing, such were the characteristics of this art. Having arrived at this perfection miniature painting ceased to be a merely decorative art and was confounded with painting on a large scale. The anachronism of costumes belonging to the fifteenth century, whether they have to do with characters from Terence or scenes from the Gospels, is not one of the least charms of these beautiful works. Similar are the other manuscripts of Jean de Berry, the "Grandes Heures", ascribed to Jacquemart de Hesdin, the "Très Belles Heures" (Brussels) by the same artist, the "Dukes' Terence" (Paris), which first belonged to the Duke Guyenne. The "Heures de Turin" (destroyed by the fire of 1904), made for William IV, Count of Holland, belong to the same school. About 1450 we can distinguish the Flemish-Burgundian school (works executed for the Dukes of Burgundy) from the French school, whose chief representative is Jean Fouquet of Tours (1415-80). Flemish and Italian influences are confused in his works: "Jewish Antiquities" (Paris); "Books of Hours" of Etienne Chevalier (Chantilly); "Grands Chroniques de France" (Paris), etc. After him Jean Bourdichon, who about 1508 decorated the "Hours" of Anne of Brittany (Paris), may be considered the last representative of the great school of miniature painting. The progress of wood-engraving was as fatal to it, as was that of printing to calligraphy. Until modern times Books of Hours, works of heraldry, etc. have continued to be illuminated, but these miniatures do not possess a single personal quality.

Publication information Written by Louis Bréhier. Transcribed by Bryan R. Johnson. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. Published 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


SILVESTRE, Paléographie universelle (Paris, 1839-41), 400; MIDDLETON, Illuminated Manuscripts in Classical and Mediæval Times (Cambridge, 1892); Reproductions from illuminated manuscripts of the British Museum (London, 1899-1908); BRADLEY, A Dictionary of Miniaturists, Illumination, Calligraphers and Copyists (London, 1887); LECOY DE LA MARCHE, Les manuscrits et la miniature (Paris, s. d.); LABITTE, Les manuscrits et l'art de les orner (Paris, 1893); MARTIN, Les peintres de manuscrits et la miniatures en France (Paris, 1910); NIEDLING, Bücher ornamentik (Weimar, 1888); ZORNIUS, Historia Bibliorum pictorum (Leipzig, 1743); BEISSEL, Geschichte der Evangelienbücher in der ersten Hälfte des Mittelalters (Freiburg im Br., 1906); DE NOLHAC, Le Virgile du Vatican et ses peintures (Paris, 1897); MAI, Iliadis fragmenta... cum picturis (Milan, 1819); STRZYGOWSKI, Eine Alexandrinische Weltchronik (Vienna, 1905); IDEM, Das Etschmiadzin Evangeliar (Vienna, 1891); IDEM, Kleinarmenische Miniaturmaleres im Ver=94ffentlichungen der Universitatsbibliothek zu Tübingen, I; MIGEON, Manuel d'art Musulman, II (Paris, 1907), 6-60; BLOCHET, Les écoles de peinture en Perse in Rev. Archéolog. (July, 1905); KONDAKOFF, Histoire de l'art byzantin d'après les miniatures (Fr. tr., Paris, 1886- 91); OMONT, Miniatures des manuscrits dreca de la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris, 1902); MILLET, Histoire de l'art, I, III (Paris, 1906-09); RITTER AND WICKHOFF, Die Wiener Genesis (Vienna, 1895); HASELOFF, Codex purpureus Rossanensis (Leipzig, 1898); OMONT, Peintures de l'Evangile de St. Mathieu (die Sinope): Monuments Pict., VII (1901); EBERSOLT, Miniatures byzantines de Berlin in Revue Archéolog. (July, 1905); Codices e Vaticani Selecti... VIII, Il Menologio di Basilio, II (Turin, 1907); OUSPENSKY, Le manuscrit de l'Octateque du Sérail in Bulletin de l'Institut Archéol. russe de Constantinople, XII (1907); STRZYGOWSKI, Die miniaturen des serbischen Psalters (Vienna, 1906); GILBERT, Fac-similies of national manuscripts of Ireland (London, 1874-1884); WESTWOOD, Fac-similes of the miniatures and ornaments of Anglo-Saxon and Irish manuscripts (London, 1868); UNGER, La miniature irandaise in Rev. Celtique (1870); The Lindisfarne and Rushworth Gospels (SURTEES SOCIETY 48, 1865); DE BASTARD, Peintures et ornaments des manuscrits (Paris, 1868, incomplete); LEITSCHUH, Gesch. der Karolingischen Malerei (Berlin, 1894); MENZEL, Die Trierer Ada-Handschrift (Leipzig, 1889); DE BASTARD, Peintures de la Bible de Charles le Chauve (Paris, 1883); BRÉHIER, La Bible historiée de Clermont in Etudes archéol. (Clermont, 1910); VITZTHUM, Die Pariser Miniaturmalerei (Leipzig, 1907); DELISLE, Fac-similes de livres copiés et enluminés pour le roi Charles V (Paris, 1903); DE LASTEYRIE, Les miniatures d'André Beauneveu et de Jacquemart de Hesdin in Monuments pict., III; DURRIEU, Heures de Turin (Paris, 1902); Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry (Paris, 1904); REINACH, Miniatures des Grandes Chroniques de Philippe le Bon in Monuments pict., XI; DE LABORDE, Les Manuscrits =85 peinture de la Cité de Dieu (Paris, 1910); OMONT, Reproduction réduite des manuscrits et miniatures de la Bibliothèque Nationale (Paris, s.d.), contains Psalter of St. Louis, Book of Hours of Anne of Brittany, Grande Chroniques de France of Jean Fouquet, etc.

Picture Bibles

Catholic Information

In the Middle Ages the Church made use of pictures as a means of instruction, to supplement the knowledge acquired by reading or oral teaching. For books only existed in manuscript form and, being costly, were beyond the means of most people. Besides, had it been possible for the multitude to come into the possession of books, they could not have read them, since in those rude times, education was the privilege of few. In fact, hardly anyone could read, outside the ranks of the clergy and the monks. So frescoes of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, stained-glass windows, an the like were set up in the churches, because, as the Synod of Arras (1025) said, "The illiterate contemplated in the lineaments of painting what they, having never learnt to read, could not discern in writing". Especially did the Church make use of pictures to spread abroad a knowledge of the events recorded in the Bible and of the mutual connection between the leading facts of the Old and New Testaments, whether as type and antitype, or as prophecy and fulfillment. For this purpose the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages were copied and put in circulation. The most important of the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages which have survived is that variously styled the "Bible Moralisée", the "Bible Historiée", the "Bible Allégorisée" and sometimes "Emblémes Bibliques". It is a work of the thirteenth century, and from the copies that still survive there is no doubt that it existed in at least two editions, like to one another in the choice and order of the Biblical texts used, but differing in the allegorical and moral deductions drawn from these passages. The few remarks to be made here about the "Bible Moralisée" will be made in connection with copies of the first and second redactions which have come down to us.

The copy of the first edition, to which reference has been made, is one of the most sumptuous illustrated manuscripts, preserved to us from the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, it no longer exists in the form of a single volume, nor is it kept in one place. It has been split up into three separate parts kept in three distinct libraries. The first part, consisting of 224 leaves, is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. The second part of 222 leaves is in the National Library in Paris; and the third part, made up of 178 leaves, is kept in the library of the British Museum. Six leaves of the third part are missing, so that it ought to contain 184 leaves. When complete and bound together, therefore, the whole volume consisted of 630 leaves, written and illustrated on one side only. This Bible, as indeed all the picture Bibles of the Middle Ages, did not contain the full text of the Bible. Short passages only were cited, and these not so as to give any continuous sense or line of thought. But the object of the writer seems to have been chiefly to make the texts cited the basis of moral and allegorical teaching, in the manner so common in those days. In the Psalter he was content with copying out the first verse of each psalm; whilst when dealing with the Gospels he did not quote from each evangelist separately, but made use of a kind of confused diatessaron of all four combined. An attempt was made to establish a connection between the events recorded in the Old Testament and those recorded in the New, even when there does not seem to be any very obvious connection between them. Thus the sleep of Adam, recorded in the beginning of Genesis, is said to prefigure the death of Christ; and Abraham sending his servant with rich presents to seek a wife for his son is a type of the Eternal Father giving the Gospels to the Apostles to prepare the union of His Son with the Church.

The entire work contains about 5,000 illustrations. The pictures are arranged in two parallel columns on each page, each column having four medallions with pictures. Parallel to the pictures and alternating with them are two other narrower columns, with four legends each, one legend to each picture; the legends consisting alternatively of Biblical texts and moral or allegorical applications; whilst the pictures represent the subjects of the Biblical texts or of the applications of them. In the manuscript copy of the "Bible Moralisée", now under consideration, the illustrations are executed with the greatest skill. The painting is said to be one of the best specimens of thirteenth-century work and the manuscript was in all probability prepared for someone in the highest rank of life. A specimen of the second edition of the "Bible Moralisée" is to be found in the National Library in Paris (manuscript Français No. 167). Whilst it is identical with the copy which has just been examined in the selection and order of the Biblical passages, it differs from it in the greater simplicity and brevity of the moral and allegorical teaching based on them. Another important Bible, intended to instruct by means of pictures, was that which has been called the "Bible Historiée toute figurée". It was a work of the end of the thirteenth or the beginning of the fourteenth century. In general outline and plan it resembles the class of Bible which has gone before, but it differs from it in the selection of Bible passages and in the allegorical explanations derived from them. Coming to the life of Our Lord, the author of the "Bible Historiée toute figurée" dispensed with a written text altogether, and contented himself with writing over the pictures depicting scenes of Our Saviour's life, a brief explanatory legend. Many specimens of this Bible have come down to us, but we select part of one preserved in the National Library in Paris (manuscript Français No. 9561) for a brief description. In this manuscript 129 pages are taken up with the Old Testament. Of these the earlier ones are divided horizontally in the centre, and it is the upper part of the page that contains the picture illustrative of some Old Testament event. The lower part represents a corresponding scene from the New Testament. further on in the volume, three pictures appear in the upper part of the page, and three below. Seventy-six pages at the end of the volume are devoted to depicting the lives of Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin.

It must not be supposed that these were the only Bibles of this class that existed in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, from the great number of copies that have survived to our own day we may guess how wide their circulation must have been. We have a manuscript existing in the British Museum (addit. 1577) entitled "Figures de la Bible" consisting of pictures illustrating events in the Bible with short descriptive text. this is of the end of the thirteenth, or the beginning of the fourteenth, century. Of the same date is the "Historia Bibliæ metrice" which is preserved in the same library and, as the name implies, has a metrical text. But we have specimens of manuscript illustrated Bibles of earlier date. Such is the Bible preserved in the library of St. Paul's, outside the walls of Rome; that of the Amiens Library (manuscript 108), and that of the Royal Library of The Hague (manuscript 69). So numerous are the surviving relics of such Bibles, back even so far as the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that it may be safely said that the Church made a systematic effort to teach the Scriptures in those days by means of illustrated Bibles.


The Bibles that have come under notice so far illustrate the entire Scriptures. But what was done for the Bible in full was also done for its various parts. Numerous beautifully illustrated psalters have come down to us, some of them going as far back as the ninth century, as, for instance, the Psalter of the University of Utrecht. One thing that comes out clearly from a study of the contents and character of these psalters is that a very large proportion of them were executed by artists working in England. So, too, the book of Job and the Apocalypse were copied separately and adorned with numerous illustrations. But, as we should have expected, the Gospels were a specially favourite field for the medieval artists who devoted their time to picture-painting.


A class of illustrated Bibles to which no allusion has been made, but which had a wide circulation especially in the fifteenth century was the "Biblia Pauperum". As it name indicates, it was especially intended for the poor and ignorant, and some say that it was used for purposes of preaching by the mendicant orders. It existed at first in manuscript (indeed a manuscript copy is still in existence in the library of the British Museum); but at a very early period it was reproduced by xylography, then coming into use in Europe. As a consequence the "Biblia Pauperum" was published and sold at a much cheaper rate than the older manuscript picture Bibles. The general characteristics of this Bible are the same as those of the earlier picture Bibles. The pictures are generally placed only on one side of the page, and are framed in a kind of triptych of architectural design. In the centre is a scene from the New Testament, and on either side of it typical events from the Old Testament. Above and below the central picture are busts of four noted prophets or other famous characters of the Old Testament. In the corners of the picture are the legends. The number of these pictures in the "Biblia Pauperum" was usually from forty to fifty.

Picture Bibles of the Middle Ages did not exhaust the resources of Christians in illustration of the Bible. Since the fifteenth century a host of artistic geniuses have contributed to make the events of Scripture live in colour before our eyes. Most noted amongst them were Michelangelo and Raphael; the former chiefly famous for his Pietà and the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel; the latter for seven cartoons illustrating events in the New Testament. Perhaps no sacred picture has been so often copied as "The Last Supper" of Leonardo da Vinci painted in the refectory of the Dominican convent in Milan. Well known, too, are Fra Bartolomeo's "Presentation in the Temple" in Vienna, and Rubens's numerous Bible pictures, to be found in the Louvre, Brussels, Vienna, Munich, and London, but chiefly at Antwerp, where are his "Descent from the Cross", "Crucifixion", and "Adoration of the Magi", the most famous of his works. These are but a few out of a number of illustrious names too numerous to mention here and including Botticelli, Carrucci, Holman, Hunt, Leighton, Murillo, Veronese, Tintoretto, and Watts.

To study the works of the great Bible-illustrators is not so difficult as might be supposed. For of late years a great number of collections of Bible prints have been made, some containing engravings of the most famous paintings. In the first half of the last century Julius Schnorr collected together 180 designs called his "Bible Pictures, or Scripture History"; and another series of 240 pictures was published in 1860 by george Wigand; whilst later in the century appeared Dalziel's "Bible Gallery". Hodder and Stoughton have published excellent volumes reproducing some of the pictures of the greatest masters. Such are "The Old Testament in Art" (2 parts); "The Gospels in Art", "The Apostles in Art", and "Bethlehem to Olivet", this latter being made up of modern pictures. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge has not been behindhand, but has issued amongst other publications a volume on "Art Pictures from the Old Testament" with ninety illustrations, and another on the Gospels with 350 illustrations from the works of the great masters of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries.

Publication information Written by J.A. Howlett. Transcribed by Bryan R. Johnson. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume II. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York


HORNE, Introduction to the Holy Scriptures (London, 1822), II, 3d ed.; HUMPHREY, History of the Art of Printing (London, 1868); LEVESQUE in VIG., Dict. de la Bible (Paris, 1894), s.v. Bible en image; DELISLE, Hist. littéraire de la France (Paris, 1893), XXXI, 213-285; BERJEAU, Biblia Pauperum, reproduced in facsimile from one of the copies in the British Museum, with an historical and bibliographical introduction (London, 1859).

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