A close look at illuminated letters and the art of the illuminated manuscript. Lesson challenges students to design their own illuminated letter after seeing examples and watching the movie "The Book of Kells"
Can anyone take a guess as to what an illuminated letter is?
Here are some examples of illuminated letters, all with very different styles. We’re looking for a high amount of detail in your letters, more along the lines of the letters “C” and “D” shown here.
What does “embellished” mean?
Here’s a little bit of history about the term “illuminated letter”: (read slide)
(Read slide): The word Illuminated also carries a second meaning. During the middle ages, or dark ages, war torn Europe fell into feudalism. Most people lost access to education and literacy. Monks were largely responsible for copying the knowledge of the ancients to paper, effectively preserving our collective history. The term “Dark Ages” was coined because the middle ages were largely associated with a period of mass ignorance; darkness became associated with lack of knowledge. Light (illumination) became associated with the procurement of knowledge.
Perhaps the most famous examples of an illuminated manuscript is called “The Book of Kells”. The book was written and illustrated by Celtic monks at around 800 A.D. during the middle ages. It contains gospels from the New Testament of the Bible, as well as collective histories from the ancient world. Here is one of the pages from the manuscript.
Here is a second page from the manuscript. “The Book of Kells” is now housed at Trinity College in Dublin, where various passages are on display. The book has an colorful history. After it was finished and bound, the Vikings sacked Ireland. Vikings pillaged the country, but the book escaped with a monk, tucked inside a leather satchel. The book was dropped in a bog and preserved because of the high levels of tannic acid. It was discovered hundreds of years later.
The Book of Kells, like many illuminated manuscripts, was originally housed in a gold, jeweled cases. The Book of Kells’ case was probably taken by the Vikings when it was in transport. How does this case represent “illumination”?
The Book of Kells was preserved largely due to the tannic acid found in the bog where it was dropped. Also famously preserved in the bogs are the “Bog Bodies”. This is the best preserved bog body, called the “Tollund Man”. He is thought to be over 2,000 years old. Scientists believe these bodies were the results of pagan ritual sacrifices. The bodies are often found with visible wounds. The Tollund Man, who was found in Denmark, was about 40 years old when he died. He was hanged. His leather cap and stubble is visible in this photograph.
This piece can be viewed at the MIA. I’ve placed a little logo on each photo of the works that are part of the MIA’s own collection. This diptych painting is arranged similarly to many of the illuminated manuscripts. The illustrations are very two dimensional, colorful, and tell a story.
Here is a close up of more Ojibwe beadwork. Again, it’s very common for the work to be symmetrical or almost symmetrical, use colorful elements from nature like flowers, and be somewhat abstracted rather than naturalistic.
Many of you may have seen this type of painting before. If any of you have Norwegian ancestry, its common to see these rose paintings (called Rosemaling) applied to baskets, chests, and other everyday use items.
The next couple artists’ work I’m going to show you worked within the Art Nouveau movement (late 1800’s, early 1900’s), a movement characterized by use of flowing, organic forms often found in nature. Gustav Klimt, who was a painter who worked within the Art Nouveau movement, was especially inspired by illuminated manuscripts. What similarities can you see between illuminated manuscripts and Klimt’s most famous painting, “The Kiss”? (1. Use of gold leaf, 2. Flattened, 2D figures, and 3. Decorative elements)
The Book of Kells The most ornate manuscript in existence: housed in Ireland “Irelands finest national treasure” “The chief relic of the Western World” Page from The Book of Kells, circa 800 A.D.
History ofthe Book of Kells• Created in 800 A.D.• Stolen by Vikings• Thrown into bog in a leather bag• Largely intact because ofpreservatives found in bogsIlluminated letter fromThe Book of Kells, circa 800 A.D..
Grading Criteria• The letter contains at least 3-4 colors.• The letter contains adequate detail, with little to no “white space”.• The letter uses decorative ornamentation that incorporateselements of nature.• The images in the letter help to illustrate the concept you are trying to communicate.• The work is neat and carefully executed; a ruler is used to drawstraight lines.