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Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated Manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts have existed for centuries, first created in the 6th century AD. By the 13th century, these manuscripts had become commonplace across Europe, used in monasteries, medieval churches, and even in the libraries of wealthy laymen. Oftentimes monasteries would have one large manuscript to share between each person, holding verses for daily prayer. Depending upon the size and owner of each book, different prayers, verses, and texts were contained.


During the 13th through 15th centuries most manuscripts were either liturgical (used in church services) or to support the daily devotions of monks, nuns and laymen. These manuscripts included those used during services, including the Missal, Breviary and Antiphoner, as well as manuscripts designed for personal use, like the Psalter and the Book of Hours.

The early 13th century saw the rise of manuscripts – previously available only to clergy – for personal use by lay people. As literacy increased during the Middle Ages the demand for manuscripts grew and the 14th century saw a burgeoning industry in book commissions for royalty and other aristocrats. By the 15th century the demand for books was substantial and the most popular was the Book of Hours, a standard series of prayers and psalms intended for personal devotional use at home rather than in a church. Most people learned to read from a Book of Hours, and the word “primer” reflects the office of Prime, which was read from the Book of Hours each morning.

The “illumination” comes from the process of gilding and painting each page, decorating the manuscript with gold leaf, silverpoint drawings, and various plant and lead-based paints. Since few were literate during this period, the illumination provided illustrations for the Latin verses, aiding in deciphering their meaning. Monks became so well known for their artistic detail that they sparked an interest in the most powerful members of their communities. Wealthy patrons could commission an illuminated manuscript for their own library, receiving a “donor portrait” with an image of themselves in context with Christ and the apostles.

Park West Gallery’s Illuminated Manuscripts

Park West Gallery is proud to offer a collection of Illuminated Manuscripts. Originally created in the 13th through 15th centuries, these works have been acquired over the course of several years and are now being offered to collectors. Each work is hand-illustrated, and many of the works include rubrics and/or miniatures. Each work is mounted in Plexiglas and framed so that both the recto (front) and verso (back) are visible. A full description is provided for each, as well as historical information about the origination of the source manuscript. This offering allows collectors a unique opportunity to acquire a stunning and historically significant work from an ancient manuscript.

Each Illuminated Manuscript comes with a certificate of authenticity from Park West Gallery. Park West uses only established sources and trained experts in addition to conducting our own thorough research and authentication. This allows us to guarantee the authenticity of every work we sell.

Types of Illuminated Manuscripts

The Book of Hours first evolved during the late 13th century. It was essentially a new type of devotional book designed for personal use and allowed lay people to incorporate devotions into their daily lives. The Book of Hours evolved out of the monastic cycle of prayer which divided the day into eight segments or “hours.”

There are many variations in the contents, but most follow a certain pattern that includes special readings of the Gospels, the “Little Office of the Virgin” (a sequence of prayers devoted to the canonical hours of each day with special veneration given to Mary), the Penitential Psalms, various litanies, the Office of the Dead and a long series of prayers that served as commemorations to special saints (the Suffrages of the Saints). The book also included a calendar of the church year with major feast days and days of venerated saints indicated in colored inks.

The Antiphoner was one of the volumes of music used for the daily services in medieval churches. All medieval churches and monasteries were expected to own one. It contained the musical parts of the Breviary (weekly cycles of psalms, prayers, hymns, antiphons, and readings recited in monasteries and by clergy members) and took its name from short antiphons, verses sung by one choir in response to another at the end of a Psalm. These manuscripts were usually large because an entire choir would have only one to sing from.

A Psalter was one of the earliest versions of Medieval manuscripts created for private devotional use, first appearing as early as the ninth century. Its use predated the Book of Hours which came into widespread use in the thirteenth century. The Psalter contained Psalms and other devotional texts which were recited during the week usually as Matins and Vespers (morning and evening prayers).

A Missal was a liturgical service book used by the priest in conducting Mass, the most sacrosanct of services. The book was modular in fashion, and typically began with a calendar and the Temporal (a section that varied from day to day, depending upon the calendar). The central part of the books contained the Canon of the Mass, which was the unchanging part of the liturgy. The final section of the book contained the Sanctoral, which contained the Mass for saints’ days for the entire year. This section also included the Common—a section of Masses to be used in honor of saints not included by name. The final section of the Missal concludes with special sections of votive Masses (against temptation, for travelers, for rain, good weather, etc.) and a Mass for the Dead.

A Breviary was not used at the altar and is often smaller than the Missal. It contained hymns, readings, Psalms, anthems and other prayers for the offices from Matins to Compline and, in full version, includes the whole book of Psalms. Unlike the Missal, which was used only by the priest, Breviaries were used by priests, monks and laymen. There are slight differences between monastic and secular (used in the church by the priest) Beviaries, most notably in the number of lessons contained in each. By examining the calendar within a monastic Breviary scholars can determine whether it is Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, and so forth.

By the end of the Middle Ages, this style of bookmaking was so popular that many secular works of literature, such as tales of mythology, poetry, and history books, were also illuminated like manuscripts. Even today, classic fairy tale books for children mimic this centuries-old historic style.

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