Book Illumination in Antiquity

Image of Timbuktu manuscripts / Wikimedia Commons

The history of illuminated manuscripts goes back to antiquity. In this article, Cillian O’Hogan describes the surviving fragments of ancient and late antique illuminated Greek books now held in the British Library.

By Dr. Cillian O’Hogan
Assistant Professor of Medieval Latin
Centre for Medieval Studies
University of Toronto

The relationship between art and literature has a long history. Detailed descriptions of works of art, commonly referred to as ekphrasis, can be found throughout classical literature, beginning with the famous description of the Shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad. From an early date, too, art reflected characters and scenes from literature. Many vases from archaic and classical Greece contain paintings that draw on the Homeric poems or tragedies by Aeschylus, Euripides or Sophocles.

The point at which books themselves began to include decoration or illumination, however, is harder to answer. We lack anything more than scraps of illustrated manuscripts from before the 4th century CE. References in classical authors indicate the existence of elaborately-illustrated bookrolls, and it has been argued that some extant artworks in different mediums, such as friezes on Roman sarcophagi, were influenced by illustrations originally provided in books. In the absence of the discovery of a more intact piece of ancient book illustration, however, we must rely on second-hand reports and on late antique and early medieval illuminated manuscripts that may be based on lost ancient books.

One form of decoration we do find early on is the decorative coronis (crown) which often adorns the conclusion of individual books in papyri of the Homeric poems.

The Bankes Homer: his simple decorative colophon, done in pen, marks the conclusion of the final book of the Iliad in this 2nd-century papyrus (Papyrus 114) / British Library

This decoration, usually done by the same scribe copying out the text, and in the same ink, served as a clear visual clue for a reader that a specific book had ended. Since bookrolls could contain multiple books of the Iliad or Odyssey, this was a convenient way for a reader to scroll through and find the beginning or ending of a specific book. Such decorated colophons are found in papyrus rolls and also in parchment books: the colophons in Codex Alexandrinus, for example, are frequently decorated with floral images, or fruit such as pomegranates.


Codex Alexandrinus: The colophon to the Acts of the Apostles is decorated with a vase and a border (Royal MS 1 D V-VIII) / British Library

The technological innovation of moving from papyrus to parchment in the early centuries CE seems to have had some influence on the range of possibilities for illuminating books. Many of the earliest illuminated papyri that survive contain fairly basic line drawings, such as those on the Heracles Papyrus (P. Oxy. 2331). It has been argued in the past that the greater ease of drawing and painting on parchment, rather than on papyrus, enabled writers to experiment more, and to make additional use of colour. Yet two surviving examples of paintings on papyrus survive that demonstrate it was indeed possible to produce fairly sophisticated art on this medium: they are the Antinoë Charioteers papyrus, held by the Egypt Exploration Society, and a papyrus depicting a bear, held by the British Library. (It is a curious coincidence that both fragments appear to depict aspects of Roman spectacle: a chariot race, in the case of the Antinoë papyrus, and an acrobatic show, in the case of the British Library papyrus.)

The Antinoë papyrus appears to have accompanied some text and formed part of a codex created around 500 CE. The papyrus containing a bear is harder to date, as it was found amongst documents dating from the 3rd century but stylistically is perhaps closer to the 5th century. The papyrus is blank on the verso, which may mean it originally formed part of a bookroll, especially if the earlier date is correct.

Fragment of an illuminated papyrus: A bear leaps towards a person, probably an acrobat, whose legs alone are now preserved (Papyrus 3053) / British Library

If parchment provided more opportunity for experimentation, it was perhaps more likely owing to the fact that larger codices could now be created. The earliest lavishly-illuminated manuscripts that survive, or that we have sufficient information about, date from the 4th and 5th centuries CE, and are all codices. These include famous Latin volumes such as the two Virgil manuscripts known as the Vergilius Vaticanus and Vergilius Romanus, as well as the now-lost Codex-Calendar of 354, which is known to us only from later copies. Yet it remains the case that there are so few surviving illuminated codices even from late antiquity that it is inadvisable to draw too many conclusions about the nature of book illumination in that period from them.

The Cotton Genesis: Abraham meets with the angels. Parts of the Greek text of the Cotton Genesis are still legible above and below the image (Cotton MS Otho B VI) / British Library

Perhaps the best-known late antique illuminated Greek manuscript is the Cotton Genesis. Badly damaged in the Ashburnham House fire of 1731, the leaves of the manuscript shrank and were partially burned. Only fragile fragments now survive. Even so, however, we get a sense from its surviving illuminations of its original grandeur. Produced in the 5th or 6th century, the manuscript originally probably measured around 330 x 250mm, around the same size as the Codex Alexandrinus. The manuscript contained the entire Greek text of the Book of Genesis, accompanied by numerous illuminations depicting scenes mentioned in the text.



The Golden Canon Tables were produced with gold leaf for the background and a range of dyes for the decoration (Add MS 5111) /  British Library

In the absence of other evidence, however, it is hard to know how typical an example of late antique illumination the Cotton Genesis was. Both its scale and the clear skill of the illuminator suggest it was made for a wealthy patron. By the 6th century, it does seem to be the case that high-end biblical manuscripts, including decoration as well as text, were becoming more popular, as is indicated by the fragmentary Golden Canon Tables. These two folios, found inside a later Byzantine biblical manuscript, originally formed part of a Gospel book produced in 6th or 7th century Constantinople. The Canon Tables include medallions containing figures characteristic of late antique portraiture.

The appearance of purple parchment in Bible manuscripts of late antiquity is also relevant to the wider topic of book decoration in the period. The so-called Codex Purpureus Petropolitanus, the ‘Purple Book from St Petersburg’, is an excellent example of this. Now dispersed across many institutions in Europe and North America (including the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, from where it takes its name), this manuscript contains silver and gold writing on parchment dyed purple. Probably created in Antioch, it is roughly contemporary with the Golden Canon Tables.


Greek Gospels on purple parchment: The text of John 4:7–10, on a sheet of purple parchment. The silver ink has oxidised over time to appear dark, but the gold ink used to record important words is still visible (Cotton MS Titus C XV) / British Library

Our knowledge of ancient and late antique illuminated manuscripts will always be limited by the amount of evidence that has survived. The high quality of the fragments and volumes that do survive, however, make it clear that skilled illuminators were working in the Greek-speaking East long before the great illuminated codices of the 9th century and beyond.

Originally published by the British Library under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.