Home School Life Journal From Preschool to High School

Home School Life Journal ........... Ceramics by Katie Bergenholtz
"Let us strive to make each moment beautiful."
Saint Francis DeSales

Medieval History Hands-On Project: Illumination


History of Illuminated Letters

The first part of this lesson is to show example of medieval illuminated text. 

For younger students, use Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson, which shows the medieval process of making an illuminated page. Angelicsaliwags has done an excellent project using the steps from this book as their guide.

Insular Illumination

For older students, you can go into more detail about the history of Illuminated manuscripts beginning with Insular manuscripts. These are characterized by decorative embellishment rather than narrative illustration. The ornament is composed of spiral patterns, interlace, knotwork and intertwined animals adapted from Anglo-Saxon and Celtic metalwork. An example of this style is found in the eighth-century Book of Kells, which has narrative illustrations in addition to portraits. A great book to show this type of illumination and give a background on the Book of Kells is The sailor who captured the sea: A story of the Book of Kells by Deborah Nourse Lattimore. It is written for a younger age group (so you could show this also to your elementary aged students) but shows clearly the illustrations and gives a little history on the Book of Kells. Worth the read, even for older students.

Carolingian Illumination

Book illumination flourished in northern France and western Germany as part of the cultural renaissance instituted by Charlemagne in the late eighth century and continued in the ninth under successive Carolingian emperors. They tended to be full page illustrations.

Ottonian Illumination

The Presentation in the Temple / Ottonian

Emperors and powerful bishops were the principal patrons of the splendidly decorated manuscripts produced at various monasteries in Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Figures with intense glances and gestures were often set against brilliant gold grounds. Highly burnished gold leaf was also used.

Anglo-Saxon Illumination

Anglo-Saxon book decoration in the tenth and eleventh centuries is often called the Winchester school because Winchester was its first center. The decoration was done in a lively style; figures have animated postures and fluttering draperies. Movement also dominates the leaf ornament of the borders and the animal interlace in the initials derived from Insular art. Two techniques were used -- painting and colored-outline drawing.

Romanesque Illumination


The expansion of monasticism in Europe in the later eleventh and twelfth centuries led to a great increase in the production of manuscripts by and for monastic houses. The Romanesque style was characterized the preference for big books and monumental forms; the two- dimensional rendering of figures with stylized drapery patterns of Byzantine origin; flat backgrounds of gold-leaf or colored panels; and the emphasis on large, decorated initials -- often composed of vine-scrolls inhabited by struggling men and beasts -- many of which contained narrative scenes.

Gothic Illumination

Initial N: A Man Emptying a Money Purse into a Woman's Mantle / Spanish

From the end of the twelfth century when Gothic illumination first appeared, the production of decorated manuscripts increasingly shifted from monastic scriptoria to urban workshops operated by laymen. Royal patronage and its renowned university helped make Paris the leading center of book illumination in Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A trend toward more realistic representation developed in the early fourteenth century with the fully modeled figures and perspective interiors and in the deeper space and landscape backgrounds of the second half of the century. The typical decorative frame, the "bar border" consisting of a stemlike projection from the initial into the margins around the text and illustration, yielded at the end of the fourteenth century to wide borders filled with a lacy pattern of ivy vines and leaves. The most distinctive feature of Northern Gothic decoration are the grotesques and drolleries -- hybrid monsters,real and fantastic animals, and human figures -- that invade the borders and margins of the page.

Fifteenth Century Illumination

Books of hours created for aristocratic patrons were among the most lavishly decorated manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Miniatures, under the influence of Renaissance panel painting, opened out into broad landscape views full of naturalistic details or into deep, architectural spaces. 

Decide the Type of Project

Quentin's (age 11) Beastiary page
Once they have learned a bit about the history of illumination, they can begin their own project. take time to decide what type of project you would like your student to complete according to your student's abilities and interests and according to how much time you want to devote to the project. It can be as simple or as complex as you would like. Getting your student's input on this phase of the project will make him more invested in it.
The simplest project would be a full page illuminated letter.
A more complex project would be one in which the student would have a chosen passage, such as a portion from the Bible, and the would copy that passage like copywork as the monks did. The illuminated letter, however, would include in it symbolic elements from the passage and would require a lot of thought by the student as far as ho w accomplish this.
Another possible project would be a bestiary page in which the student includes a narration of what he has research and learned about what the people of the Medieval period thought of a mythical creature of the student's choice. My Quentin (age 11) chose the dragon.

Setting up the Page

Prepare the paper by drawing in a margin. If you are doing the full-page illuminated letter, then you just need and even border around your page, approximately a half inch to one inch from the edge of the paper. If you are doing a section of a piece of litrrature or a Beastiary page, in addition to the border, you will need to leave a space for the illustration, a space for writing and a block for the illuminated letter that will begin the passage. Have your student plan his page after seeing an ample amount of examples. Depending upon the student's age, you may have to help him execute blocking off the sections with a ruler and pencil. You may also want to lightly pencil in guide lines for writing in the copywork or narration.

Details of the Project

For the full-page illuminated letter, students must pay attention to the designs that surrounds the letter. For the other projects,  your student will need to decide how he will put the pieces together, and what details he wants to add to his sketch.

The Border

The border can include geometric designs in a repeating pattern or be a part of the overall design. The border on Quentin's Beastiary page, for example, featured dragon eyes in the corner and the pattern of a dragon's tail that begins at the tail of the dragon in the main illustration and continues around the border, wrapping around the whole page.

Adding Color

The illustration in this project was done in colored pencil, gold and black marker and the background was done in blue tempera paint.
After the sketch's details are decided, it is time to choose the colors. Complementary pairs of a warm color and a cool color can lend contrast between the background and the foreground. Apply your color thickly and richly. You can use any medium you wish...paint, crayon or pastels are all good choices. Colored pencils or markers can be used but the project may not have as good a result.
Encourage students to embellish the negative space.


When it is time to do the lettering, even if they don't want to write in calligraphy, they can go back and add some serifs, or the lines and shapes at the ends of letters, to their letters. A basic lettering style can begin with straight lines and triangular serifs. For the illuminated letter, dimension can be added by drawing interior triangles at the end of each stem. Connect the center point of the triangles with a center line. Divide crossbars with a center line, then connect to the stem’s center line at a diagonal. Shade the right half and bottom segments. Draw a flower behind the letter. Add a curved crossbar with a center point. Give the illusion of depth by drawing slits in the stem and making the crossbar extend behind the letter. This is just example of how to add illustrative techniques to a single letter. For the most advanced work, you may want to include a lesson on calligraphy.


Next, you will want your student to outline his work with black or another dark color. This can be done with a black Sharpie marker or, especially if you used crayon for the coloring, black tempera paint. The paint will be resisted by the crayon wax and stay in the spaces in between. If using black paint, add a small amount of water to thin it down to a milky consistency. 

Adding Gold

Illuminated letters were not only used bright colors, but they were also decorated with gold or silver, hence the term Illumination. Illuminated letters were traditionally created using real gold in the form of a fine powder. You can add this detail by using a gold marker.

Adding Details

James (age 15) chose the theme of wooded hill for his last name initial, B, because Bergenholtz means wooded hill.
Add interest with cross hatching, parallel line shading, patterns and designs, or details from the chosen theme. Other things can be added. Flourish a tail or intertwine a crossbar. Make an inline border and fill the shape with a pattern, such as harlequin diamonds or filigree. Illustrate with a theme, such as birds and feathers, fruit and flowers, ribbons, vines, or rope, or Biblical motifs.
The square background is often a part of the illustration. You can fill it with a pattern or add a border.

sources and resources:

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure if my last attempt to comment went through or not, and I figured out I mistyped anyways, so just in case.....

    I love the illuminated text your boys did. We forgot to do an illuminated text this time around, but that just means NEXT time around it'll be a brand new project.


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