The Art of the Book in the Middle Ages




Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Department of Medieval Art and the Cloisters (Oct. 2001)


Book Cover Plaque with Christ in Majesty: The earliest known textual reference to the famous enamels produced in the city of Limoges during the twelfth through fourteenth centuries concerns a book cover seen in the Abbey of Saint Victor in Paris in the 1160s and intended for an English abbot. Though this book cover seems not to have survived, it might have borne some similarity to the one seen here. Plaques showing Christ in majesty surrounded by symbols of the evangelists, usually paired with a plaque showing the Crucifixion, were produced in large numbers by Limoges enamelers. The variety of textures and patterns created through the masterful engraving and stippling of the five appliqué figures make this a particularly noteworthy example of a product for which Limoges artists were widely recognized and admired. / Made in Limoges, France – c.1185-1210

Before the invention of mechanical printing, books were handmade objects, treasured as works of art and as symbols of enduring knowledge. Indeed, in the Middle Ages, the book becomes an attribute of God.


Book Cover with Byzantine Icon of the Crucifixion:  Byzantine ivories were highly prized in the West, where most survived in church treasuries or were incorporated into deluxe bookbindings. The ivory from this plaque originally formed the center of a Byzantine three-paneled icon, and its inclusion in a setting with filigree, precious stone, and glass simulating precious stone indicates the special homage accorded these Eastern works of art. This plaque is one of a pair that served as book covers. They were likely one of the many gifts to the nunnery of Santa Cruz de los Serós from its reputed founder, Queen Felicia, wife of Sancho V Ramírez (r. 1063–94), king of Aragon and Navarre. Her name, in fact, appears on the other cover. / Made in Constantinople – c.1000-1085

Every stage in the creation of a medieval book required intensive labor, sometimes involving the collaboration of entire workshops. Parchment for the pages had to be made from the dried hides of animals, cut to size and sewn into quires; inks had to be mixed, pens prepared, and the pages ruled for lettering. A scribe copied the text from an established edition, and artists might then embellish it with illustrations, decorated initials, and ornament in the margins. The most lavish medieval books were bound in covers set with enamels, jewels, and ivory carvings.


Manuscript Illumination with Singing Monks in an Initial D, from a Psalter:  The illumination heralds the beginning of Psalm 45: “Our God is our refuge and strength: a helper in troubles . . .”  Girolamo dai Libri – c.1501-1502, Made in Verona, Italy

Many bookmakers in the Middle Ages were monks, and Monasteries kept libraries filled not only with sacred texts but also with literary, scientific, and philosophical works by Greek and Roman authors. Multivolume Bibles and huge liturgical books were housed and used in churches. Princes and emperors commissioned gospel books with many-colored illustrations and lettering in gold and silver ink. Among the most ambitious were the large books that monastic communities used daily for singing.


Bifolium with Decretals of Gratian:  A manual of medieval canon law, the Decretals of Gratian was compiled by a monk who taught at Bologna in the mid-twelfth century. This page from a thirteenth-century Parisian manuscript of the Decretals shows a gloss, or commentary, written by Bartolomeo of Brescia, framing Gratian’s text. The miniature painting signals the beginning of chapter 19, which discusses two clerics’ request from their bishop to transfer to a monastery. The bishop’s prerogative is manifest in the miniature: mitered and enthroned, he holds a crosier and a document with a seal, as he gestures toward the two kneeling clerics, who appear to petition him with raised hands. / Style of Master Honore – c.1290

The emergence of universities throughout Europe created demand for single-volume Bibles, books of law, and other texts copied on pages with wide margins for notes and commentary. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, private persons bought and used books of hours, which contained prayers to be recited throughout the day. Important texts were translated from Latin into French and other vernacular languages. The illustrations of some manuscripts, notable for their quality and originality, were executed by first-rate artists; many others, although small, have the monumental elegance of larger works.

Byzantine Books
Texts were also held in special regard in Byzantium, where people rated literacy as a desirable goal. There are 40,000 preserved Byzantine manuscripts—a great number, considering the expense of their production. Monastic libraries contained the largest collections; for example, Patmos Monastery possessed 330 books, and Lavra Monastery, located on Mount Athos, held 960 manuscripts. Private libraries generally held more than 25 volumes. During the period between 1204 and 1261, when Constantinople was under Latin rule, book production was limited. Financial troubles meant that it was much harder to afford the materials and labor necessary to produce manuscripts.

The return of Greek rule under Michael VIII spurred a period of renewed growth in manuscript production. Scholars searched for classical writings and then copied and annotated them. Maximos Planudes (ca. 1260–ca. 1310), for example, rediscovered Ptolemy’s Geography, edited Plutarch, and rewrote the Greek anthology of epigrams. Contact with the West introduced a range of Latin texts that Greek scholars translated into Greek—from Ovid and Cicero to Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Toward the mid-fourteenth century, the financial patronage available to these great scholars began to dwindle. Increasingly, Byzantine intellectuals, such as Cardinal Bessarion (1403–1472), took their expertise and knowledge of ancient texts to Italy.

While the printing press became a major source of book production in the West, Ottoman rule did not allow its use. Hence, Eastern areas continued producing manuscripts rather than printed books up through 1557, and in some places longer.