An Illuminated Christmas

by Meghan Ferrara

The Nativity of Our Lord has inspired some of the most exquisite art of the Christian ages. Beginning with the early Christians and through the High Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts communicated and preserved the history and high culture of Christendom.

FOR A THOUSAND YEARS, ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS DEPICTED BIBLICAL SCENES OF THE CHRISTMAS NARRATIVE. In this scene, we see the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt above, pursued by King Herod’s troops below. Featured ©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

THE EARLIEST TRACES OF ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS DATE FROM THE FOURTH CENTURY. We see one of Europe’s earliest Christmas depictions in this Madonna and Child from Ireland’s Book of Kells (ca 800 AD).  Until the advent of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in early 15th century Germany, all literature was written by hand. The word ‘manuscript’ derives from the Latin “manus” for ‘hand’ and “scriptum” for ‘writing’. 

ILLUMINATED MANUSCRIPTS ARE HANDWRITTEN TEXTS DECORATED WITH ORNATE PICTURES OR DESIGNS, bright colors and burnished gold leaf. This adornment reflects the origin of illuminate, “illuminare” which in Latin means to light, adorn, and enlighten. Here we see the Three Magi traveling to and adoring Mary and her Child in the Codex Bruchsal from the 1100s in Trier, Germany.

THE PURPOSE OF ILLUMINATION WAS TO EMBELLISH INITIAL LETTERS AND PORTRAY ENTIRE SCENES. The use of gold, especially in religious manuscripts, was meant to give praise to God. The art of illumination peaked during the twelfth century and declined steadily with the rise of the printing industry in the fifteenth century. 

MANUSCRIPTS ARE AMONG THE MOST COMMON ARTIFACTS TO ENDURE FROM THE MIDDLE AGES with many thousands in existence today. They are also the best, and in many instances, only preserved examples of medieval painting. In this Codex Egberti, we see King Herod ordering his army to slaughter the male babies in Bethlehem, the Feast of the Holy Innocents (‘Childermas’) celebrated in the Christian churches in the West on December 28 and in the Eastern churches on December 29 (Matthew 2:16–18).

THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR CREATING THESE TEXTS, KNOWN AS ILLUMINATORS were artists of the highest caliber. Both men and women, such as St. Hildegard of Bingen, were renowned for their artistic achievements. Here, we see Hildegard’s ‘Choirs of Angels’ illumination from the Rupertsberg Codex in Germany.

ILLUMINATION BEGAN AS A GREAT TRADITION OF MEDIEVAL CONVENTS AND MONASTERIES. Monks and nuns labored in a scriptorium, a separate area dedicated to creating manuscripts. The scriptorium was divided into individual cubicles so each illuminator could work without disruption. Here we see St Jerome –the first translator of the Bible from Greek to the Latin Vulgate – depicted in his scriptorium by the Master of Parral in Segovia, Spain.

IN THE EARLY MIDDLE AGES, THE MANUSCRIPTS MAINTAINED A RELIGIOUS NATURE. However, beginning in the thirteenth century, the world outside the Church began to imitate the Church’s art and an increasing number of secular texts were also illuminated. By the fourteenth century, the production of illuminated manuscripts had entered the secular arena with commercial scriptoria in Paris, Italy and the Netherlands. In this 15th century Flemish codex on history, we see Alexander the Great’s third victory over Darius.

THESE WORKS NOT ONLY PRESERVED PRECIOUS MEDIEVAL ART, BUT CULTURE AS WELL. Without these dedicated scribes, much of classical literature would have been lost. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we know what we know about who we are as a culture in the West because these manuscripts preserved this priceless heritage.  Here we see the evangelist St. Matthew depicted in the famous Lindesfarne Gospels.

FROM MANUSCRIPTS, WE LEARN MUCH ABOUT THE CONDITIONS OF DAILY LIFE— faith, politics, war and economics – in the thousand years between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation. Here the Battle of Ménfő is depicted in the Hungarian Chronicon Pictum of 1360.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

TODAY, THE WEST CONTINUES TO LEARN FROM THE MANUSCRIPTS OF OLD CHRISTENDOM about our legacy of literature, medicine, astronomy, scripture and theology. And, of course, about Christmas, as we can see in this delicate illuminated design by the Dutch Limbourg Brothers, active in the early 15th century in France and Belgium.

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