Illuminated Printed Books

When printing was developed in Europe in the mid-15th Century, it was its economic advantage that allowed it to out-compete with the hand copying of manuscripts as the means for manufacturing books. Yet if some saw printed books as being somehow cheaper, nastier and inferior products, then others were seeking to turn a mass-produced commodity into a luxury good.

By the 15th Century, privately owned books had become one of the ultimate status symbols amongst a new class of literate merchants and professionals – not to mention the more traditional custodians of bags of cash, such as kings, aristocrats or the church. Given the demand for high-end books in the market, it seems that some enterprising types got into the act of making printed books look like they were manuscripts – with font styles imitating hand writing, and arresting hand-decorated features. These features included colouration of initials, illumination with gold-leaf and the inclusion of painted miniature scenes. These features were exactly the same ones as applied to luxury manuscripts, the only difference was that the text itself was printed rather than hand-written.

Illuminated incunabula, medieval art, Worcester Cathedral Library, Genesis, Venetian Bible

Miniature scene from the Worcester Venetian Bible, depicting the creation story in Genesis. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

New technology cannot do with away with prevailing fashion, and so we see illuminated printed books being produced for around half a century after 1450 – the year traditionally held to be that in which Johannes Guttenberg first turned anything out of his printing press. If scribes found themselves out of work, decorators at least had a skill that would keep them in a living for a while longer.

Illuminated incunabula, medieval art, Worcester Cathedral Library

Coloured and illuminated initials from the Worcester Venetian Bible. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

In Worcester Cathedral Library, we have a particularly fine example of a luxury printed book. A bible printed in Venice in 1478, it contains two delicately executed miniature paintings (one now sadly damaged), and illuminated initials on almost every other page. Like most printed books, the pages are made from paper rather than vellum, since it is far easier to press ink into the former medium.

What is unclear is just where the book was decorated. Many examples of the same edition survive in libraries and special collection across the world, all with a wide variety in decorative styles. Compare Worcester’s example (below) with editions found in Oxford, Cambridge, and Munich: ( , , .

Illuminated incunabula, medieval art, Worcester Cathedral Library, St Jerome

Detail of miniature at the beginning of Worcester’s Venetian Bible, showing St Jerome composing a letter. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK).

While some printers might have worked alongside painters and gilders, it seems that in many cases the decoration was done elsewhere. In the 15th Century, Paris and the Low Countries were the leading centres of luxury manuscript production – whereas most printers were in Germany or Itay. Perhaps some printers sent their wares off to be decorated in these artistic centres, prior to being sold. In some cases, customers may have seen to it themselves – either commissioning their own artists, or, if a religious institution, carrying out their own in-house embellishments.

Evidence for the latter scenario is certainly strong. Next week, we will see how some of Worcester’s printed books have rather less impressive decorative features.

Tom Hopkins


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