Illuminating the Natural World in Medieval Manuscripts



Throughout the history of the book, scribes and artists have incorporated nature into their creations.


By Dr. Larisa Grollemond
Assistant Curator, Manuscripts Department
J. Paul Getty Museum

By Dr. Bryan C. Keene
Adjunct Professor of Art History
Pepperdine University


Flowers are blooming in Los Angeles, and although we are spending much more time at home than usual, many of us are finding opportunities to be outside in nature at a safe distance from others.

As manuscript curators, we have long admired the remarkably naturalistic paintings of flowers and insects that fill the pages of books with color and life. To bring some of this color into our own lives, we collected flowers and leaves to make our own living borders.

Throughout the history of the book, scribes and artists have incorporated nature into their creations. Getty Museum has numerous examples that span the Middle Ages and beyond. The acanthus leaf letterforms in a Bible from the 800s were inspired by ancient Roman art (from sculpture to inscriptions to architecture). By the year 1000, artists depicted human figures climbing and trimming the leaves of intricate initials, as in this small religious service book. These seemingly playful elements represented the need to toil and prune one’s behaviors for mental, physical, and spiritual care.

Leaves from a Bible, about 845, Carolingian. Iron gall ink and tempera on parchment. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig I 1 (83.MA.50). Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program
Sacramentary, first quarter of 11th century, Ottonian. Tempera colors, gold, silver, and ink on parchment bound between pasteboard covered with greenish-brown morocco, 9 1/8 × 7 1/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig V 1, 83.MF.76. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Whimsical and fantastical beings of every kind, including angels, demons, dragons are hidden amidst foliage designs on manuscript pages. A great example of a baby dragon can be found in the Stammheim Missal, a masterpiece from the 1100s. These details reminded readers of the spiritual forces in the world and of the wonders of creation.

Inhabited Initial A; Initial D: A Church, probably 1170s, German. Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver leaf, and ink on parchment, 11 1/8 × 7 7/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 64, fol. 163v, 97.MG.21. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

Sometimes, insects were squished into the pages of a book: In a Bible from about 1250, an Italian artist had a sense of humor by transforming a dead bug into a spider in combat with a man, who wields a spear and stands on a vine that grows from an initial letter. In this way, the natural world literally crept into the text and suggested the living quality of the words themselves.

Initial V: Tobit Sleeping, about 1250–1262, Italian. Tempera and gold leaf on parchment, 10 9/16 × 7 3/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 107 (2011.23), fol. 185v. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

By the 1400s, illuminators really made books come to life. This moment is usually known as the Renaissance when artists began developing ways to make paintings and sculptures appear as true to the eye as possible.

Artists have continued to use flowers to express spiritual ideals of quiet meditation or of an appreciation for beauty in everything around them, including the sometimes small or ephemeral elements of nature. Here you can see the vibrancy of the iris in a manuscript from the 1400s, and in Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, painted in 1889. Both artists paid close attention to the tiniest of details. (Though separated by 400 years, the artists coincidentally lived just 50 miles from each other in France.)

The borders of late 15th and early 16th-century French and Flemish manuscripts teem with life: detailed botanical studies, creepy-crawly insects, and vine-ripened fruit frame the images, offering viewers a window onto an evergreen natural world. These kinds of scattered borders, which were widely used by illuminators for luxury devotional books, evolved from the more stylized florals of the early 15th century.

Saint Clara with a Monstrance, about 1510–1520, Workshop of Master of the First Prayer Book of Maximilian. Tempera colors, gold, and ink on parchment, 9 1/8 × 6 9/16 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 18 (83.ML.114), fol. 267v. Digital image courtesy of Getty’s Open Content Program

This (now detached) leaf from one such book shows the great variety of creatures that could populate manuscripts of this type. Stylized white acanthus leaves merge into naturalistic branches surrounded by thistle and colorful blooms that look as if they’ve landed haphazardly on the brilliant gold border. A dragonfly and a tiny goldfinch are also represented, almost as if they’re reading the text along with the human viewer.

In a manuscript known as the Katherine Hours (named for a previous owner), every page-turn reveals a world of flowers and insects. The calendar presents a veritable garden of daisies, violets, roses, forget-me-nots, foxgloves, and bluebells. Scenes from the life of Christ are framed by trellises, withered branches, or potted flowers.

Manuscript owners could also personalize their books by adding philosophical sayings or symbols, and flowers offered beautiful and subtle possibilities. Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy, was an avid patron of scribes and illuminators in the 15th century. In two books from her collection—The Visions of the Knight Tondal and The Vision of the Soul of Guy de Thurno—the illuminator Simon Marmion included a floral reference to her name in the form of bunches of daisies (called marguerites in French). The flowers appear to grow around the initials CM, shown connected by a love-knot and representing her marriage to Duke Charles the Bold. Small plantings of daisies also bloom around golden banners with her personal motto: Bien en Adviegne (“May good come of it”).

The most famous and elaborate example of an illuminator’s attempt to rival nature is the Model Book for Calligraphy. A perennial favorite, late 16th-century artist Joris Hoefnagel produced highly-detailed naturalistic images of fruit, insects, flowers, and even shells and crustaceans to adorn a book of calligraphy samples completed for Emperor Rudolph II. These images relate both to the earlier tradition of rendering natural objects with spellbinding accuracy in manuscript borders and to the developing genre of still life.

We Tried This at Home

Inspired by our time outdoors and by illuminated manuscripts, we created some fun and vibrant collages with our own floral borders and a little bit of Southern California flair. Check out a few of our creations here:

With a bit of help from Photoshop, I reimagined an opening from the Getty’s Crohin-La Fontaine Hours, using some living plants gathered on a recent walk in place of the manuscript’s original golden branches and scattered blooms.

Larisa Grollemond

Our family went on an adventure to collect wildflowers and insects from our yard, neighborhood, and community garden. Inspired by the Getty’s Spinola Hours, the kids took turns practicing writing  their letters, and my husband sketched a portrait of our family based on a recent photo. We used the activity to focus on  language skills in English and Spanish, emphasizing counting and color identification, and talked about size and textures, patterns, smell, and more!

Bryan C. Keene

I was inspired by a recent addition to the manuscripts collection: a small cutting of King David that was removed from its manuscript long ago. Image: David leaf. It probably came from a book of hours, a text intended to guide daily prayer. Based on the style of the illumination, we know that it was probably created in Ghent, Belgium, around 1480–1490, meaning that the border that once surrounded it was likely of the scattered floral style that was so popular for manuscript illumination in this place and time. While the original artist probably didn’t have access to blue glitter paper, I tried to give this cutting a fitting new border using big, exuberant blooms that complement the color palette of the image.

Larisa Grollemond

Sometimes on rare occasions, I have found flowers or insects pressed within the pages of illuminated manuscripts. It is unclear at what point in the past those once-living specimens were placed inside, but the practice certainly continues today. My children really enjoyed gathering all of the flowers for our project and wanted to preserve them, so we pressed them beneath wax paper and a pile of books (in order to protect the pages). After a month, we scattered them around a print of the Crohin-La Fontaine Hours and added gold and silver leaf for embellishment.

Bryan C. Keene

What’s growing in your neighborhood? Where else have you noticed floral patterns in your life (clothing, wallpaper, textiles, etc.)? The projects described above are creative, fun, and allow you to learn more about the natural world around you.

If you’re interested in learning more, explore two previous Getty exhibitions: Gardens of the Renaissance and Sacred Landscapes: Nature in Renaissance Manuscripts.


Originally published by The Iris, 07.08.2020, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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