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The Book of Kells:  Christ Enthroned.

The Book of Kells, Christ Enthroned, folio 32v

An illuminated manuscript predating the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

The anonymous Book of Kells (c. 800), a Gospel Book, is displayed at Trinity College Library, in Dublin.  It is a richly-ornamented illuminated manuscript, second or third only, in my opinion, to the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416).  Although the Celts preferred abstract designs, such as the eternal knot, to representational art, Ireland was nevertheless a good source of representational enluminuresThe Book of Kells dates back to c. 800.  It is therefore older than the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.  To explore Irish illuminations, click on Irish or the Book of Kells (complete)


Franco-Flemish Miniatures: earlier and later ones 

I should also mentioned that prior to Jean 1er, Duc de Berry, members of the aristocracy often employed a personal illuminator who was also a designer of coats of arms as well as a portraitist.

Enluminures: an Ancient Art

Illuminating manuscripts is an ancient practice that culminated in the Franco-Flemish Middle Ages, the golden age of illuminations or miniatures, in Europe.  The Limbourg brothers are perhaps the most famous of miniaturists, but given that thousands of individuals commissioned Books of Hours and other illuminated manuscripts, it would be impossible to name all of them.  However,  here are a few names:

  • in the fourteenth century, illuminators were Jean Le Noir, his daughter Bourgot, Jean Suzanne, Jean de Jouy, Robin de Fontaines, employed by Isabeau (f.) de Bavière (1371 – September 24 – 435), the wife of Charles VI, and René le Maître de Boucicaut, to whom we owe a portrait of Charles VI;
  • Jean Fouquet, Jean Bourdichon and Barthélemy Guetty lived in the fifteenth century;
  • for the fifteenth century, let us also name: Barthélemy de Clerc, employed by Henri d’Anjou, Angelot de la Dresse and Jacquemart de Hesdin;
  • in the sixteenth century, Robinet Testart was illuminator to François Ier.  Also famous is Macé de Merey;
  • In the seventeenth century, Henri Jullien worked for Henri IV.

Printed illuminated books

I should also mention that after the invention of printing, there were times when wealthy employers asked printers to leave blank spaces on various pages so that printed books could be illuminated and, therefore, more beautiful and unique.  But, in France, the practice of illuminating books ended in the seventeenth century.


However, to explain the inclusion, in the Très Belles Heures du Duc de Berry, of motifs that were not associated with Christianity, such as Zodiacal signs, it is useful to remember that Christianity retained pre-Christian cultural elements.  Illuminating manuscripts is an ageless endeavour that has its own traditions.  For instance, Egyptians illuminated manuscripts, sometimes using gold.

Sources: Mythology, the Crusades and Celtic Art

  • Mythology:  With respect to motifs that are not associated with Christianity, let us mention the presence on the November page of the Très Riches Heures of Greek Mythology‘s Centaur, half horse, half human.
  • The CrusadesOther illuminations made use of the mille-fleurs motif.  During the Crusades, Europeans discovered the beautiful rugs of Persia and other Middle-Eastern countries.  Henceforth, they made rugs and tapestries ornamented with such motifs as the mille-fleurs motif.  However, the mille-fleurs motif was also used in illuminations.
  • The Book of Kells predates the crusades. It features the Celtic knots.


I will conclude by pointing out that the status of illuminators was, more or less, the status of today’s illustrators.  Monks were calligraphers and also illuminated certain books.  As for Nuns, they made lace and fine liturgical garments.

Yet, anonymous artists have defined entire civilizations.

The Book of Kells

Historiated Initial

Historiated Initial

© Micheline Walker
18 November 2011