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Illuminated Manuscripts and the Value of Time

Computers and phones have allowed virtually anyone to become an artist. The near-universal availability of free or low-cost photography, editing software, painting programs, and other digital creative outlets have made it possible for millions to learn, master, and publish visual art on an unimaginable scale. If I were to trace back my own interest in art as a discipline, it would have to have begun with the countless drawing videos I consumed as a child — often played in the background while I sat with my pencil or a mouse, awkwardly attempting to figure out where the eyes and ears really should go on the face. But when I couldn’t get it right, there was always another video or article or diagram to guide me on my way.

But the sheer volume of artistic content available today has begun to blur the lines between syntax and symbolism. Since the Victorian era and especially during the Modernist movement, artists, authors, and poets had started to experiment with the bounds of their respective crafts. Poems like T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or E.E. Cummings’s anyone lived in a pretty how town are so linguistically fragmented as to become a mosaic of sound, a pointillistic array of images and ideas expressed less with logic and meaning than with mood and impression.

Fine art, for all its own fragmentation, has instead become more conversational; Modernist pieces like Marcel Duchamp’s mass-produced bottle rack reflect an increasing motivation among artists not simply to mirror the messages of their patrons but to shape the conversation in their own right. At times, as with the bottle rack, artistic work has drifted so far as to become more meaning than form. Over the last century, and especially with the rise of social media in the last two decades, it has become almost impossible to envision a form of art that is not spoken about.

Compare all this with the life of a medieval illuminator. Crouched all day over a single illustration, wrist hovering just over the little pools of fresh ink, attempting with the slightest flick of the wrist to capture the curve of a bird’s feather or the glint in a saint’s eye. It’s one thing to say that a Bible took years to make. It is another thing entirely to recall that, after those years were over, the final product would be just one Bible. A single book, liable to fire, flood, dust, and decay. A single book, which would more than likely spend the duration of its existence shut up in the walls of a monastery or a palace, only to be seen by a privileged few.

To our ears, it may sound like a futile sort of existence for an artist, utterly devoid of the raison d’être we have come to expect from the arts: fame, legacy, stature, permanence. There is no such thing as a party of one, no reason to transmit meaning if no one is on the receiving end. But to create an illuminated manuscript is a different kind of task altogether.

Every element of an illuminated manuscript would have to be made by hand — the word “manuscript” literally means handwritten. Let’s assume that our manuscript was a book of prayer created by monks in a monastery, to be used as they went about their scheduled Liturgy of the Hours day by day. First, animal hides would have to be sourced to make parchment. They would then be stretched on wide boards, scraped to the appropriate thinness, and cleaned.

One monk might serve as a draughtsman, laying out the text on the pages and indicating spaces for illustrations and other decorations. The next would be a scribe, who was responsible not only for painstakingly copying each letter with precision but also for creating his own tools: homemade ink made of carbon and a binding agent, along with quill pens that required constant, skillful maintenance to remain sharp and functional. The illuminator would simultaneously perform a similar process, adding color to the illustrations surrounding the text. He would source his inks from all kinds of natural materials, including plant matter, rust, patina, chemical reactions, spices, insects, and minerals. One of the most prized pigments was lapis lazuli, a stone with a vibrant blue hue that was so expensive that it was commonly reserved exclusively for the clothing of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

There were many prominent styles of illuminated manuscripts over the centuries — and most cultures had some form or another of illumination; we have extant copies of illuminated manuscripts from Africa, China, India, and the Middle East. Perhaps the most famous in the West is the Celtic style, exemplified in pieces such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels. Erring more on the side of abstraction than representation, Celtic illuminators were known for elaborate knot-work designs that often filled entire pages — a theme that extended even to the figures’ uniquely knot-like eyes and noses. A strong emphasis was placed on composition; the words and designs often interact on the page. Other styles, like the Gothic, tended to focus less on composition and more on the events themselves, a little closer to what we think of as illustration today. Figures would interact with each other in more complex ways, and their bodies seemed grounded in some kind of space.

Regardless of style, only after the ink had dried would an illuminator return to add additional elements: fine details, decorative borders, and the gold and silver leaf from which this style of work derives its name. Once this process was complete, the pages would be inspected a final time, and the book would be hand-bound with a lavish leather cover and closed with metal clasps. Even the smallest and simplest books would take months to produce, making the ownership of one of these texts a prohibitively expensive proposition for all but the wealthiest of patrons.

Lengthy projects. Labor-intensive tools. Delicate detail work. Careful preparation. And, after all that time, only the minimum apparent contribution to the “great conversation”: a single reader, or a group of them at best.

And yet, the same context that makes it tempting for us to consider these efforts valueless, is what forces us, in the end, to admit that they are priceless. Though to the world at large, these labors of love might as well not have existed, there is in their careful craftsmanship a carefree beauty that all the conversation in the world cannot touch. The gratuitous failure of an economic system that would allocate such a ludicrous number of man-hours to so unproductive and superfluous a task is the sign of a culture capable of examining the world through a lens other than utility.

Artistic tools’ increased accessibility has been pivotal in fostering human flourishing, especially in recent decades. Yet our complete alienation from the work and cultural contexts that formed our Western artistic identity should serve as a “canary in the coal mine.” As much as good as technology has done to expand access to art, it has also stifled artistic philosophies that do not revolve around sharing, congratulating, or monetizing. Is it truly so astounding that a man, if he put his mind to it, could create such magnificent folios? Need a love letter be seen by anyone other than the beloved? Can time, skill, and devotion be sold for a price?

Originally published in MutualArt Magazine on April 7, 2023.


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