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With the kind permission of the author and publishers, the following glossary has been reproduced (with some revisions) from:

Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms (Malibu: J. Paul Getty Museum in association with The British Library, 1994)

This glossary was first published in electronic form on the British Library's Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (DigCIM) site.

Click on a letter below to go to that section of the glossary.

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Abbreviations were often used to save space and effort when writing. They generally fall into three categories: suspensions, in which the end of a word is abbreviated, signalled by the use of a horizontal bar or another graphic symbol; contractions, in which another part of a word is abbreviated with the use of a graphic symbol; abbreviation symbols, used for whole words and often derived from the tachygraphic (shorthand) systems of ANTIQUITY (that of Tiro, Cicero's secretary, being most influential). All three types of abbreviation could be used in the same manuscript, as variable and invariable forms and as phonetic equivalents.

During Antiquity a few common elements were often abbreviated (notably the Latin word endings -bus and -que and the final m and n). These short forms are known as notae communes, while abbreviations for specialized jargon in legal texts are known as notae iuris. Abbreviations for nomina sacra ('sacred names'), such as the Greek xps form of Christus (see CHI-RHO), occur in EARLY CHRISTIAN works. INSULAR scribes were especially fond of abbreviations, including tironian notae, and Irish scribes used them extensively in order to produce pocket-size GOSPEL BOOKS for study purposes (pocket Gospels). With the growth of universities, from around 1200, the use of abbreviations proliferated. Medieval readers would have been familiar with such devices, although there were probably always some that were particularly obscure, and there is evidence that SCRIBES themselves sometimes puzzled over certain abbreviations.


A foliate motif much used in medieval art and derived from the depiction of the acanthus plant in a decorative context during ANTIQUITY. Medieval renditions of the acanthus are generally not as true to the actual plant as those of Antiquity, reducing it to a cipher consisting of STYLIZED fleshy fronds. Acanthus ornament was particularly favoured by the CAROLINGIANS, for whom it represented a conscious revival of a Mediterranean form.


A symbolic depiction of an idea. For example, the vagaries of fortune are often symbolized visually by a female figure, Fortuna, turning a wheel upon which figures from varied walks of life rise and fall.


Alum tawing is a process for preparing white leather by soaking animal skin in alum (potassium aluminium sulphate).


The Anglo-Saxon period extended from c. 500 to 1066. During this time, England was largely occupied and ruled by GERMANIC peoples, primarily the Angles and the Saxons. Prior to the Viking incursions of the ninth century, the culture of England interacted closely with that of CELTIC Britain and Ireland. The art produced during the four centuries from c. 550 to 900 is often termed INSULAR, reflecting this interaction among the peoples inhabiting the regions that we know as the British Isles and Ireland. With reference to ILLUMINATION, the term Anglo-Saxon is often reserved for the period after 900.

During the tenth century, two major Anglo-Saxon painting styles developed, largely under the influence of Insular and CAROLINGIAN models. The first, or Winchester, style is so named because certain of its key examples, such as the BENEDICTIONAL of Saint Ethelwold, were probably made at Winchester, even though the style was diffused throughout the region. It is characterized by an opulent manner of painting, with rich colours and GILDING (unless executed in a TINTED or OUTLINE DRAWING style), a NATURALISTIC figure style, fluttering, decorative drapery, and a heavy ACANTHUS-like ornament. This style exhibits the influence of Carolingian art, specifically the Court School of Charlemagne, the School of Metz, and the Franco-Saxon School (which employed INTERLACE motifs ultimately of Insular inspiration), and is also indebted to BYZANTINE art. The second major style, the Utrecht style, was inspired by the Utrecht PSALTER, an important Carolingian manuscript that featured an agitated, sketchy, and ILLUSIONISTIC form of outline drawing adopted from classical painting technique. During the first half of the eleventh century, the Winchester and Utrecht styles began to fuse. Scandinavian art also exerted a limited influence during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Anglo-Saxon art continued to exchange influences with art on the Continent and made a significant contribution to the formation of ROMANESQUE art. It also developed a number of sophisticated ICONOGRAPHIES, based on interpretative, exegetical literature (important themes include the Trinity, the Crucifixion, the Virgin, the evangelists, and David).


An INITIAL composed wholly or partly of human figures. Anthropomorphic motifs occur in other decorative contexts as well.


An antiphonal, also called antiphoner or antiphonary, contains the sung portions of the DIVINE OFFICE. Such books are often large in format, so that they could be used by a choir, and include DECORATED and HISTORIATED INITIALS, depicting saints and key events of the liturgical year. Hymns are usually contained in a separate volume.

Originally, the antiphonal may have included chants sung in the MASS, but its use became restricted to the DIVINE OFFICE during the CAROLINGIAN period, and the GRADUAL became the principal CHOIR BOOK for the mass. The contents of the antiphonal are generally arranged in accordance with the TEMPORALE, SANCTORALE, and Common of Saints in liturgical order.


The classical world of Greece and Rome, prior to the decline of the Roman Empire during the fifth century and the occupation of much of its former territory by barbarian peoples. Certain of these peoples, notably the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths, were more inclined than others to promote continuity with the culture of the conquered regions. As a result, the transition from late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages was relatively gradual in some areas - for example, Italy, Spain, and parts of Gaul. The BYZANTINE Empire, which withstood the barbarian onslaught, became the cultural and political heir of much of what had been the eastern part of the Roman Empire.


The biblical book known in the Protestant tradition as the Book of Revelation. During the Middle Ages, Apocalypse manuscripts were produced in Latin and Anglo-Norman versions often accompanied by COMMENTARIES, such as that of Berengaudus, and sometimes with PICTURE CYCLES of varying length, style, and technique. These cycles catered to a wide range of PATRONS.

Although known during the early Middle Ages, Apocalypse manuscripts were particularly popular in tenth- and eleventh-century Spain, where the scriptural text was integrated with the commentary of Beatus of LiƩbana (c. 776) and produced in lavishly illustrated copies in Mozarabic style. They were also popular in England for a brief time (c. 1250-75), with production probably centred in London. Apocalypse manuscripts proliferated during the thirteenth century, possibly due to escalating fears concerning the Antichrist (associated by many with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, 1194-1250), the approach of the Tartar hordes, and the coming of the Last Judgment. Use of the text as an ALLEGORY of personal Christian experience may also have added to its appeal.


An ornament or style of ornamentation consisting of fine, linear foliate designs in curvilinear patterns, derived from Islamic art.


The figures 0-9, introduced into Europe from India, via the Islamic world, around 1100. From the thirteenth century on, the use of Arabic numerals increased, partially supplanting ROMAN NUMERALS and other alphabetic systems of numeric representation. They did not come into general use, however, until the fifteenth century.


Manuscripts on the subject of astronomy or astrology often contain images associated with the constellations (such as Orion the hunter and Aquarius the water bearer) or diagrammatic representations of the universe and its components. Some of the major astronomical texts to appear in illuminated copies include: Cicero's Aratea, written in the first century B.C., a Latin translation of a third-century B.C. Greek verse text by Aratus, in turn based on a prose treatise, the Phoenomena, written by Eudoxus of Cnidos a century earlier; Ptolemy's Almagest (c. 142 A.D.); and later medieval compositions, such as John Foxton's Liber Cosmographiae. See also MEDICAL TEXTS and COMPUTUS TEXTS.

Astronomy (the observation of the stars, or 'natural astrology') was not originally distinguished from astrology (divination by means of the observation of the stars, or 'judicial astrology'). In the fourth century B.C., for example, Aristotle used 'astrology' to embrace both subjects. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians were instrumental in the early development of astronomy and astrology and identified each of the heavenly bodies with specific gods. Their practices were transmitted to the Greek and Roman worlds and subsequently to Islam and the medieval West. The study of both astronomy and astrology declined in the first Christian centuries, the latter because its system of prognostication ran counter to the preordained plan of Christian salvation. In the CAROLINGIAN period, however, with its revival of CLASSICAL TEXTS, both subjects were taken up again. As a result, certain works, such as CALENDARS and horoscopes, were used in conjunction with both astronomical and astrological material.

From the twelfth century, Arabic learning, which had preserved aspects of classical knowledge in astronomy and astrology as well as other subjects, increasingly influenced the West. Western thinkers became interested in the works of Eudoxus, Ptolemy, and Al-Bitruji (fl. c. 1190), and by the thirteenth century a controversy even arose (in which the theologian Albertus Magnus and the philosopher-scientist Roger Bacon played an important part) concerning the respective merits of the ancient and Arabic authors. The rise of new methods of astronomy during the fifteenth century and the 1543 publication of Nicolaus Copernicus' theory that the earth revolved around the sun did much to damage the academic credibility of astrology, but it continued to exert an influence within society. Moreover, there was never a clear-cut division between works in these fields and those dealing with experimental science, alchemy, and magic.



An object that identifies a person, most often used for saints. Saint Catherine, for example, is usually depicted with the wheel, the instrument of her torture.


A MINIATURE or HISTORIATED INITIAL depicting the author of a text. Author portraits were known in ANTIQUITY and appear in manuscripts throughout the Middle Ages in a variety of texts.

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