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The illustrations in medieval manuscripts are referred to as Illumination, thus the term "Illuminated Manuscripts." Historically, the term implies the use of gold on the page, however in common usage illumination can refer to pages that do not have any gold or metal gilding. To Illuminate means "to shed light upon" thus the shine of the gold and also how the pictures add dimension to the story told in the text.

Most commonly in the SCA illumination is used in the production of the award scrolls given in court, though it is also pursued as an art in and of itself along with its sister art forms of painting and drawing. Some consider miniature painting separate from illumination.



The application of gold to a manuscript page or scroll can be achieved in any number of ways, both modern and historically authentic.


Most Illumination produced in the Middle Kingdom is made with opaque watercolors or guache. A pigment is essentially a coloring agent (such as crushed minerals like Malachite) and needs to be suspended in a binder (typically gum arabic or egg glair) to make paint. Some pigments involve dyes applied to an inert substance or chalk to make the pigment, these are called Lakes.

Period pigments are easier to acquire than one might think. There are several pigment sellers available on line and a few good sources within the SCA. Common reasons given for not using authentic pigments are first that they are too expensive and secondly that some of them are poisonous.

Toxic Pigments and Historic non-toxic alternatives

While the toxic pigments tend to be brighter colors and easier to work with, there remain alternatives that are still historically accurate.

  • Lead White - Bone white, Egg shell white, chalk white
  • Minium (Red Lead) - Madder Lake, Red Ochre, Kermes/Cochineal lake
  • Vermillion/Cynabar (contains Mercury) - Madder Lake, Red Ochre, Kermes/Cochineal lake
  • Orpiment yellow(contains Arsenic) - Yellow Ochre, Saffron lake
  • Malachite green (contains copper) - Green earth, sap green

Pigment Binders

  • Gum Arabic - safe and non-toxic (it is used as a food additive modernly), Gum Arabic is used in modern watercolors as the primary binder and is easily obtained from most reputable art supply stores. It was the primary binder used in middle eastern illuminations, though took second billing to Egg Glair in Europe.
  • Egg Glair - made from egg whites it is essentially non-toxic, but I wouldn't eat it just like I wouldn't eat egg salad that had gone off. The egg whites are whipped into a meringue-like fluff, allowed to set for several hours and the clear liquid is poured off.
  • Egg Yolk - This is what is known as "Egg Tempera" used more in panel painting than in manuscripts as it is not terribly flexible, however it was used with some pigments that needed a stronger binder than egg white. The egg yolk is used fresh without any preparation.
  • Linseed oil - gradually began to replace Egg Yolk in panel paintings in the renaissance, never used in manuscripts to my knowledge.

External links


deHamel, Christopher A History of Illuminated Manuscripts 2nd ed. Phaidon Press, Inc. New York, 2001

deHamel, Christopher The British Library Guide to Manuscript Illumination: History and Techniques The British Library, London. 2001

Thompson, Daniel The Materials and Techniques of Medieval Painting Dover 1956

Cennini's el Libro del Arte:

See Calligraphy & Illumination

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