Illuminated religious manuscripts | State Library of New South Wales

Illuminated religious manuscripts

Illuminated manuscripts are some of the most beautiful written works ever produced. Handwritten manuscript text is adorned with decorative features which might include coloured text, decorated borders, historiated (or illustrated) initials and miniature paintings. These decorations are called illuminations. Most surviving illuminated manuscripts date from the medieval era, before the rise of the printing press in the 16th century.

The most common illuminated manuscripts are religious and devotional texts, including books of hours and antiphonals. The majority were produced in scriptoriums – dedicated workshops within monasteries which specialised in producing handwritten and decorated texts. These works form part of the written history of the Western religious tradition; a tradition which was brought to Australia with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

The pages of illuminated manuscripts are generally made of fine vellum (treated animal hide).  The illuminated initials and miniatures are decorated with coloured mineral pigments and gold leaf. The manuscripts were often commissioned by wealthy individuals for private use, as well as some which were produced for use in the church or monastery itself. Bindings on illuminated manuscripts vary, depending on their use and ownership. The illuminated manuscripts in the State Library’s collections feature a variety of bindings, including oak boards, tooled leather and plain vellum. Some also feature metal clasps to help keep the book’s pages flat when not in use.

The State Library of New South Wales has several beautiful illuminated manuscripts in its collection including:

 > Book of Hours, Bourges, ca. 1480

Book of Hours, Bourges

 > The Rimini Antiphonal, 1328

Rimini antiphonal

Several other illuminated manuscripts have been digitised and are available to view via the Library's catalogues.

 > Go to the catalogue record and digitised images for the 13th century Gradual from the Cistercian provenance for use of the Abbey of Cornu catalogue link


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